State of the University

Historic re-signing of charter follows address

A great city needs a great university to call its own. And a significant milestone needs a gala celebration to mark it.

Kansas City and its university – the University of Missouri-Kansas City – celebrated 80 years of partnership, progress and growth Oct. 1, and did so with style.

As any proper observance of a milestone should, the event offered ceremony and style, gifts and surprises, eminent guests and a reunion of old friends; a salute to the past, and an embrace of the future.

Chancellor Leo E. Morton delivered a landmark State of the University address – the first of his five-year tenure. He described the founding of the original University of Kansas City in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, as an event born of “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.

“Here we are today,” he continued. “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.”

An image of the audacious act of creating a university in a depression – a photograph of the signing of the original university charter – was displayed on a huge screen above the stage at the Swinney Recreation Center. To mark the start of UMKC’s next 80 years, that black-and-white image gave way to a live ceremony featuring a diverse group of Kansas City men and women – civic, business and political leaders; alumni, faculty, staff and student representatives – pledging their support for Kansas City’s university with a ceremonial re-signing of the charter. The university’s 80th anniversary co-chairs – Leawood Mayor Peggy Dunn, and two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative reporter James B. Steele – were among the signers, along with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Kansas City Mayor Sylvester “Sly” James.

Nixon addressed the audience, saying that UMKC’s mission of educating the next generation has never been more important because of the challenges of the global economy. He cited the university’s leadership in forming educational partnerships with businesses, organizations and other educational institutions to ensure that the mission is fulfilled – including new partnerships in China, France and Brazil.

“People understand the excellence that comes from UMKC and seek to partner with it,” the governor said.

“Isn’t it amazing to see what has grown here over the past 80 years? Just stunning,” Nixon said.

The Commemoration Day event also referenced another milestone for campus and community, one also centered on a speech: the one delivered by President Harry S. Truman outside Scofield Hall in 1945, when he stopped to accept an honorary doctorate while making his way from the signing of the original United Nations charter in San Francisco to the Potsdam Conference with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin in Germany.

Truman, a former UKC student, accepted the university’s first-ever honorary doctorate that day. He cited the value of diversity in his remarks that day.

“This American nation of ours is great because of its diversity – because it is a people drawn from many lands and many cultures, bound together by the ideals of human brotherhood,” Truman said.

That presidential quote was reproduced on the screen at Swinney, while Curt Crespino, vice chancellor for university advancement, revealed the day’s first surprise: two original White House foundation stones were purchased by the university’s board of trustees in 1945 in honor of the presidential visit. The plan was to place them along with a bronze bust of Truman on the campus. The plan never came to fruition, however, and the stones were put away and forgotten until recently.

Crespino announced that the two stones will be placed in places of honor on the university’s two campuses, Volker and Hospital Hill. “They will not only represent our past, but also our university of tomorrow.”

That wasn’t the day’s only surprise. At a luncheon following the ceremony, representatives of the UMKC Trustees and UMKC Alumni Association announced that one of the university’s prized Trustee Scholarships – a full four-year, all-expenses paid scholarship for outstanding high school seniors from the Midwest – would be known as the Leo E. Morton Alumni Association Trustee Scholarship.

During his address, Morton noted the exceptional growth the university has enjoyed – and driven – over the past eight decades.

“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.”

He also was frank about ways in which the university had fallen short of its ideals.

“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,” he said. “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,” Morton added. “We don’t just study our community’s problems. We come up with solutions.”

One important solution is an emphasis on student success.

“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 programs such as the new Atterbury Student Success Center; University College, a special academic unit helping undecided students make a well-informed choice of major; personalized advising; and a new UMKC General Education Core Curriculum designed to arm students with the skills and experiences employers say they most want in college graduates.

Going forward, Morton promised that UMKC would pursue leadership in educational technology, while staying true to the founders’ vision of community service – in fact, he promised to deepen the university’s engagement in the community.

“The futures of UMKC and Kansas City are inextricably linked, and we wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said.

At the same time, UMKC will serve students anywhere, anytime, by becoming a regional leader in distance and online learning, Morton said.

Festivities also included non-speaking “atmospheric actors” in 1930s period costume strolling the campus as guests arrived, a video “virtual tour” using a Point-of-View camera to take the audience through the campus, viewing old and new buildings and stopping periodically to hear from a student, alumnus or civic leader; and a virtual ribbon-cutting for the two newest campus buildings: The Miller Nichols Learning Center and the Henry W. Bloch Executive Hall for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

The University of Kansas City was chartered in 1929, and one year later, Kansas City businessman and philanthropist William Volker donated 40.8 acres to the university. In 1931, Volker acquired and donated the Dickey mansion (now Scofield Hall), which would house the first library, classrooms, cafeteria and administrative offices. UKC’s first classes began Oct. 1, 1933 with 17 instructors and 265 students enrolled. In 1936, 80 students became UKC’s first graduating class. UKC joined the University of Missouri System and became UMKC in 1963.

Photo Credit: Janet Rogers, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications.

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