State of the University

Leo MortonGovernor Nixon, Mayor James, County Executive Sanders, President Wolfe, former chancellors, Benefactors, Friends, Alumni, Faculty, Staff, Students, Honored Guests, People of Greater Kansas City, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Good morning – I am pleased to report that the state of UMKC is one we can all be proud of.

You see, eighty years ago, in the depths of the Great Depression, Kansas City leaders set out on a great mission.  I guess some may have called it “a crazy mission,” given the tough times.

But, those leaders believed with all their hearts in a powerful, yet simple idea. If Kansas City was to overcome the tough times; if Kansas City was to become the great city its leaders knew it could be; it must have a great university. So, on that momentous day, 80 years ago, those visionary leaders founded the University of Kansas City.

Eighty years ago, 265 students made history when they started their first day of classes on the fledgling campus.

Back then, this campus was considered the suburbs – 40 acres of land donated by KC businessman and philanthropist William Volker – on what was basically the front lawn of the William Rockhill Nelson estate, or, what we know today as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The students attended lectures in the first classroom building, the former Dickey estate, which later became known as Scofield Hall.

From that start, perhaps only a few could foresee the great force this university would become in the life of Kansas City.

Yet here we are today. Stronger than ever.  Living proof that a great university can help make a city great. Living proof that we have fulfilled the founders’ vision. A great university. Kansas City’s university.

The impact of UMKC on this community today is undeniable. I have seen it and felt it many times since I moved here 25 years ago, and even more as chancellor for the past 5 years. That first bold idea from our founders grew into a powerful beacon of light that still shines into almost every corner of Kansas City.

From that first day 80 years ago, this university has become the unifying force for higher education in the city. In those early years, independent schools of law, dentistry, pharmacy and a conservatory of music joined together with our College of Arts and Sciences. They are among our proud cornerstones today, even as we’ve added schools for education, nursing, biological sciences, computing and engineering, medicine and management.

We’ve added real value. Our faculty and alumni helped found a long list of the city’s cultural institutions: The Kansas City Symphony. The Lyric Opera. Kansas City Repertory Theatre. The Kansas City Ballet. Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. The Coterie Theatre. And many, many more.

Our student body has grown from 265 students using a single building, into today’s exceptional learning community of almost 16,000 students using more than 60 buildings on two campuses – Volker and Hospital Hill – and a possible third campus when we fulfill this city’s vision of a UMKC Downtown Campus for the Arts.

As a proud member of one of the finest public university systems in the country, the University of Missouri, we are providing almost 4,000 jobs and adding more than $600 million annually to the local economy.

So, here we are today, 80 years down a road that has not been easy. We have made some mistakes along the way and, change has been necessary.

For example, when that first class started, I could not have been chancellor of this university. And, you would not have seen students or faculty of color. Such were the times – and some thought UMKC was slower to change than it should have been. But, change we have. We are an amazingly diverse and vibrant campus. We have been noted for being a gay-friendly campus and for helping our military veterans re-engage. Our mentoring program for Latino students has helped them succeed and, made us more attractive to that important segment of our community.

We are no longer a private university in the suburbs. We are in the heart of this city, and we are a true urban research university. We don’t just study our community’s problems. We come up with solutions.

For example, two of our top urban issues are crime and education.  So we play a key role with the KC No Violence Alliance, where faculty from our criminal justice department are working with Kansas City police to break down some of our most persistent crime networks. And, our School of Education is nationally regarded for its work in training teachers to be successful in urban education.

Furthermore, healthcare is an issue for the entire country.  So, we are one of four partners in another great endeavor that would transform our community. If the voters agree on November 5th, the Jackson County Translational Medicine Institute will become another foundational asset for our community. One that will find cures, make the residents of our community and the nation healthier and, create jobs for our region for generations to come.

Our community’s commitment has not wavered. So here we are.

I am overwhelmed by the generosity of our donors, without whom our growth could not have been achieved.

I could stand here and name names until nightfall, and still not list the thousands who have generously given. Theirs is a roll call extending from William Volker and his first gift of land, to Miller Nichols and his leadership of the Trustees, to Henry W. Bloch, who has given so much to this university, not just in dollars, but in time and talent and energy. Their commitment has allowed us to build buildings, endow faculty chairs, create scholarships to keep the best and brightest close to home, and to provide opportunity to those who society has shortchanged.

Like many universities, UMKC is supported by generous alumni, and our appreciation for them is immense. But one thing that sets UMKC apart is the generosity of people whose only tie to this institution is their love of Kansas City. They make this community special and unique because they recognize how vital a great university is to the community.

Our donors have given. So here we are.

I am so proud of the achievements of our faculty. Ninety-five percent of our faculty hold the highest academic degree available in their field. Their scholarship is the essence of UMKC. Their achievements have earned accolades ranging from Guggenheim Fellowships to the Pulitzer Prize. Their published research has advanced the human condition in countless ways. They have brought tens of millions of dollars in national-level public and private grants into this community. And most importantly, they have taught our young people. The people our community depend on – our medical professionals, our engineers, our scientists, our attorneys, our writers, artists, musicians and dancers. These faculty lit the fire of knowledge deep within them.

Whether it’s those who win big awards – like Michael Song, the No. 1 in the world innovation management scholar, or Dr. Zhou Long, our Pulitzer prize-winning composer. Or whether it’s a professor who has profoundly changed a student’s life, by inspiring them to achieve, teaching them new ways to think about the world or helping them find meaningful careers.

Our faculty has excelled. So here we are.

I am amazed by the achievements of our alumni. More than 100,000 students have graduated from this university in 80 years, with more than 40,000 living and working in Greater Kansas City today.

Our alumni have gone out into the world and made a difference. Their contributions are simply amazing and far too numerous to even start mentioning.

Our university is a beacon to those who hunger for knowledge and opportunity. And our alumni bear evidence of that light. So here we are.

But where are we going?  Just as our founders had a vision for the future, so do I. So do we – all of us who love UMKC and believe in the power of this university to change lives and to change our community for the better.

So, here are my promises to you.

First: We will do everything in our power to help students succeed.

We know that far too many people reach adulthood without ever realizing their full potential. So we are doing something about it.

In the past five years, we have made student success a fundamental goal:

  • With the help of the Curators and the UM System, we have created the Student Success Center – an amazing facility that gives students easy access to every campus service they say they most need.
  •  We have started the University College, to help students select a major where they can be successful and instituted a personalized and intrusive approach to advising to ensure that students stay on track and graduate on time. Graduating on time saves money, and affordability is critical to many of our students.
  •  We created the new UMKC General Education Core curriculum to uniquely challenge students and, perhaps most importantly, arm them with the skills and experiences employers say they most want in college graduates.

These strategies are working. Our enrollment of continuing students is steadily increasing – up more than 3 percent in just the past year alone – meaning that more students are staying at UMKC to complete their degrees.

That’s where we are going.

My second promise is that we will build the university of the future today.

In the age of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, flipped classes and rapid technological change, we can’t wait for the future to come to us. We must go after it.

And that’s exactly what we’re doing. So let me give you a couple examples.

As you saw in today’s video, with our amazing gift from Henry Bloch for the Henry W. Bloch Executive Hall for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, we are delivering today on the expectations of tomorrow’s students. Flexible, high-tech learning spaces where students and faculty can collaborate, debate, create hands-on projects and innovate.

Here’s another: In the next few years, you will see us expand our online and distance offerings to ensure that we educate our students in the most forward-thinking ways possible. In this age, that’s not only desirable – it’s absolutely essential. With the hire of our new Vice Provost for Online and Distance Learning, you can expect to see UMKC become a leader in this area in the next several years.

That’s where we are going.

My third promise is to stay true to our founders’ mission – I promise to continue to deepen our engagement in the community. The futures of UMKC and Kansas City are inextricably linked – and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

We are engaged with many partners in our community, including our local high schools, where thousands of young people earn college credit while still in high school. This gives them a head start towards graduating sooner, with less debt. Our close relationships with our community colleges helps transfer students make a smoother transition to our four-year program. That’s a win-win for the students and the community.  Our close relationship with our next door neighbor, Rockhurst, has allowed them to offer engineering degrees.  Now in their second year they have over 40 students enrolled in 4 engineering disciplines.  By the way, enrollment in our school of Computing and Engineering is up more than 19 percent this year.

To address the state-wide shortage of medical professionals, we created our School of Medicine 40 years ago, with a unique six-year M.D. program. It’s based on the concept of clinical partnerships and joint faculty appointments with the community’s leading hospitals. As a result, our students have not just one teaching hospital, but six, creating an outstanding clinical base for teaching and research for the 3,000 doctors we’ve graduated.

Our Henry W. Bloch School of Management works closely with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to make this community a global leader in the science of entrepreneurship. And UMKC’s Innovation Center includes KC SourceLink, which has built a network of resources to support businesses.  The center has extended its collaborations to develop unique projects like Whiteboard to Boardroom – connecting university researchers and serial entrepreneurs; and KC Digital Sandbox that will start up new digital technology companies. These partnerships are the foundation of our efforts to make this America’s Most Entrepreneurial City.

Then there’s the beautiful collaboration among our Conservatory of Music and Dance, our UMKC Theatre program, the Kansas City Rep, our art and art history program and so many more who make Kansas City a unique place to perform or create. And our campus is committed to developing the next generation of art lovers.  Thanks to the $20 million challenge grant from the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation, we are on our way towards making Kansas City a mecca for the arts in the middle of our great nation.

In closing, I am encouraged by the world-class leadership of our community, and their commitment to this university.  Their commitment is expressed through their active membership in our Board of Trustees, the Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, our Alumni Governing Board and our many vital constituent organizations.

They practice servant leadership with honor and distinction, so here we are.

I am humbled by the honor and privilege granted to me, as chancellor, to lead this great institution for the past five years. I am humbled by the responsibility entrusted to me to stay the course our Founders set as we build version 2.0 of a great university – for a great city.

We have accomplished much together. But there’s more to do, and I – we – need your help to do it.

Each of us has the power to help UMKC impact our region.  So, I urge you to get involved and stay involved.  Reach out and engage with our University in every way you can.  Defy Gravity!

There’s a handy brochure at your seat that sums up the many ways UMKC is making a difference in this community. Please use it! Become an ambassador for UMKC. Tell a neighbor, a co-worker or a group of high school students about the great things going on here.

Please attend at least one new event on campus and get to know us. In so doing — you will make a student’s day. Come watch our men’s basketball team or women’s volleyball team. Attend a student recital. Volunteer at the annual Regnier Venture Challenge. Become a mentor. Come hear one of the great speakers we bring to campus for Pride Week or our annual Social Justice lecture. We put a list of possibilities on our home page every Thursday, under the heading College Town, City Life.

Get involved with our students and faculty – I assure you that it’s one of the most rewarding deals in the world. Sponsor an internship at your business. Better yet, hire one of our students.  That will be great for you, our school and our Kansas City community.

So here we are.  And Here.  We.  Go.

Eighty years ago, our leadership was represented by the people you see in the photograph behind me.  They were our earliest stakeholders in this great university and we will be forever grateful for the start they gave us.

Today, we have a unique opportunity to celebrate where we are going through a ceremonial re-signing of our 80th anniversary commemorative charter.  It is an opportunity to proudly acknowledge where we are headed and with whom you we will walk.  The faces who represent UMKC are numerous and diverse.  They are civic, philanthropic, governmental, student body and faculty leadership that shine with distinction.  We are privileged so many are joining us today to lend not only their signature, but their support, through the re-signing of the charter – first written 80 years ago.

Ladies and gentlemen: tomorrow begins today. October 1, 2013.

Thank you.

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