A $25 million gift to NU will expand ‘The Barn’ into a rural student center and boost programs at urban UNO

June 8, 2023, 9:43 a.m. ·

Rendering of NCTA.png
Rendering of the exterior of a planned $12 million expanded student and community center at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis, Nebraska. (Courtesy of CG ID Architecture)

OMAHA — A $25 million gift from a local philanthropist couple is to transform “The Barn” at the University of Nebraska’s rural agricultural campus and also spur more innovative projects at NU’s urban Omaha campus.

Announced Wednesday, the pledge by Barbara and Wally Weitz of Omaha will direct $19 million to UNO and $6 million to the College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis, Nebraska.

The gift is part of “Only in Nebraska: A Campaign for Our University’s Future” — an effort to encourage benefactors to give a total of $3 billion to support NU students, faculty, research and programs addressing needs of Nebraska. The Weitzes are campaign chairs.

‘Well-kept secret’

At the Curtis campus, the funds are to contribute to the renovation and expansion of a building students call “The Barn” into the Student Success and Activity Center. Originally built in 1917, the structure was the original gymnasium for the campus and now serves as a café and meeting place. 

The $6 million from the Weitzes, said to be the largest donation to that rural arm of NU, is to match other private donations. Work on the $12 million project, intended to double the size and create more community event space, is to launch after fundraising is complete. 

Barbara Weitz, a member of the NU Board of Regents, said she was “charmed” by the Curtis campus and called it a “too well-kept secret south of North Platte.”

“It is a seemingly small but remarkably important part of our commitment to bring resources, faculty and students to improving our agricultural knowledge and workforce in Nebraska,” she said.

The funds were inspired by the couple’s desire to promote workforce development in the agricultural sector and improve educational opportunities in rural Nebraska, said a statement by the University of Nebraska Foundation. 

NCTA, a two-year school, seeks to grow from under 300 students to 500 in the next 10 years.

“We are teaching agriculture ‘in the field’ at the collegiate level, with the latest technology and practices in our academic programs,” said Larry Gossen, dean of NCTA. Programs include agronomy, animal science, equine industry management, ag mechanics, irrigation technology and agribusiness and veterinary technology.

Gossen foresees the student center project as a gathering place students will be proud of, where they can study, socialize and dine.

“It will draw in students living off-campus and generate the energy and excitement our students need to feel a sense of belonging,” he said.

On to national prominence

At UNO, the Weitzes directed $14 million to create the Weitz Innovation and Excellence Fund, which is designed to elevate good programs to nationally recognized ones.

“UNO will have discretion in how to use these funds,” Wally Weitz said. “We have trust in the people doing the work to come up with the best ideas for our students and the community.”

UNO Chancellor Joanne Li is to request proposals annually that will be reviewed by a committee of senior faculty. She said projects are to be selected with an eye toward how they strengthen the community and state as a whole.

The fund, Li said, “will support our faculty to dream big and realize opportunities to make the future of Nebraska’s teaching, working and learning a reality.”

The remaining $5 million is to support the Barbara and Wally Weitz Endowed Chair in Higher Education Leadership. Awarded to the UNO chancellor, it is to aid in recruitment and retention of top leadership. The investment is to provide an estimated $200,000 in annual distributions to support the chancellor’s strategic priorities.

Barbara Weitz is also a retired faculty member of UNO’s Grace Abbott School of Social Work. Wally is founder and co-chair of the Omaha-based Weitz Investment Management.

UNO and the NU system are important to the state’s economy, Barbara Weitz said.

“We must have well-educated citizens for Nebraska,” she said.