For all of the capital construction at the widely expanding University of Nebraska Medical Center, what has mattered most is the investment in human capital.
Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes was born and raised in Egypt and had spent more than 20 years in Washington, D.C., before he was contacted about the job of dean of UNMC's College of Public Health. He knew nothing about Omaha.
Soon he sat across from Chancellor Hal Maurer — who also had known nothing about Omaha before arriving from the East Coast two decades ago. Like a persuasive football coach, Maurer told the potential recruit that the opportunities in Nebraska were limitless.
The chancellor has made that pitch to many others. El-Mohandes says he appreciated Maurer's clear vision, tenacity and commitment — and so he accepted the job three years ago.
“The medical center has opened Nebraska to the world, and it has opened the world to Nebraska,” El-Mohandes said Wednesday. “UNMC is a place of innovative thinking and service and draws the highest quality people into the community here.”
The university announced Tuesday that Maurer will step down as chancellor in June and become a full-time fundraiser for a $370 million cancer center and nonemergency center. Over the years, he has helped bring in more than $400 million for campus expansion.
“You can build all the buildings you want,” Maurer said, “but it's the people who are attracted to those facilities that bring a culture of excellence.”
It could be called multicultural excellence, as well as multinational.
As of June, UNMC listed 671 visa-holding international students, researchers, faculty members and other staffers — representing 55 countries.
China and India each were the country of origin for one-third of those folks. Others came from all over: from Japan to Jordan, from Uganda to Ukraine and from Albania to Zambia.
Dr. Dele Davis, a native of Nigeria, this year became a vice chancellor. Last month in Shanghai, UNMC struck a partnership with Tongji University.
When Maurer and El-Mohandes met in 2009, one topic that did not come up — and both say was never a factor — was religion. Maurer is Jewish, and El-Mohandes is Muslim.
If that is worthy of mention here, it is only because religious frictions and hatreds persist in the world. The U.S. ambassador to Libya and others were killed there Wednesday amid outrage over a film made in America that ridicules Islam.
Omaha, meanwhile, is moving forward on a bold plan — building a synagogue, a mosque and a church on the same plot south of 132nd and Pacific Streets.
Maurer, El-Mohandes and many others bring people together in pursuit of excellence, regardless of their backgrounds or appearances. That helps not only the medical center, but also our community and region.
El-Mohandes, who said he might be the only Arab-American who has taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he is all for “creating bridges, not building barriers.”
Two other news items Wednesday reflect well on our area — and perhaps partly on the economic engine that is UNMC.
» The Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area, with the lowest unemployment rate among 102 U.S. metropolitan areas, ranked third in the nation in an overall economic index.
» Census data showed that Nebraska posted its highest annual median household income last year at a time when that number dropped nationally.
Maurer said that Omaha is fortunate to have an “outstanding” medical community and very good hospitals and that the area is home to many generous donors. With the planned UNMC cancer center, federal, state and local taxpayers are chipping in, too, in hopes of long-term economic and health benefits.
Health care, of course, is a top issue in America today — trying to uphold quality and hold down costs. Achieving both will take a diverse array of smart people.
It used to be difficult, Maurer said, to get people to visit Omaha to look at job possibilities — but he said that's no longer the case. As the campus continues to expand, he said, more well-paying jobs will need to be filled by highly talented people.
When El-Mohandes told colleagues at George Washington University in the nation's capital that he was leaving for Omaha, he heard an echo of sorts: Omaha? You're going to Omaha?
Their impression, he said, was of cold weather, cornhusking and cowboy hats. (He received one as a farewell gift.)
“They had never even been to Omaha,” he said. “What did they know? I have lived in many parts of the world. In a way, that protected me against the prevailing stereotyping in America.”
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