Story: John Martellaro

What is the best measure of an individual’s impact on a university and a community?

Is it in dollars and cents raised? Square footage of new buildings? Increases in enrollment? Honors and accolades for yourself, the team you have built and the institution you have led?

What about examples set, and lives changed?

In all these ways and many more, the impact of now-Chancellor Emeritus Leo E. Morton has been singular and dramatic since he was named chancellor in 2008.

Morton retires from his nine-year stint as chancellor this October. He has taken the position of chief operating officer at DeBruce Companies, a Kansas City company with strong philanthropic roots.

At UMKC, many will remember him as one of the longest-serving and most successful chancellors in university history.

Building success from the ground up

During his tenure as chancellor, UMKC opened two new residence halls, a major learning center with more than 1,000 classroom seats, a 1,500-space parking structure, a new Student Union and a new state-of-the-art home for the Henry W. Bloch School of Management. The university also launched a $21.5 million renovation and modernization project for the university’s primary biology and chemistry teaching laboratories.

Brookside 51, a major on-campus development featuring a Whole Foods Market, a new UMKC Student Health and Counseling Center, 170 market-rate apartments and a six-story parking garage with 445 spaces, is nearing completion.

One of Morton’s most public campaigns was for a new downtown home for the Conservatory of Music and Dance. With new support from the University of Missouri Board of Curators and System, that fundraising project is moving forward — a vital piece of Kansas City’s future and a fitting capstone for Morton’s legacy.

In terms of bricks and mortar alone, Morton’s legacy is immense, but there is far more to his impact than physical structures.

Raising the bar in programming, fundraising

The Morton years will also be known for the launch of programs vital to UMKC’s urban mission and strategic plan: the Atterbury Student Success Center, the Honors College, the Latinx Studies program, the Urban Education Research Center, the UMKC Health Sciences District, University College, the Center for Neighborhoods and a new Strategic Plan for Diversity.

During his tenure as chancellor of Kansas City’s premier urban-serving research university, Morton presided over a period of significant growth in enrollment and the university’s most successful capital campaign in its history. The Campaign for UMKC, a seven-year effort to raise $250 million in capital funding for the university, concluded in September 2016 with a total of $302,534,370 raised, more than 20 percent above its original goal of $250 million. More than $60 million of that total has been dedicated to scholarships, and another $20 million to endowed chairs and other forms of faculty support.

Connecting the campus to the community

UMKC support for entrepreneurship in Kansas City flourished under Morton, through support of both the Bloch School and the UMKC Innovation Center. In 2013, the Innovation Center launched Digital Sandbox KC, a highly successful proof-of-concept program providing guidance and support for entrepreneurs and early-stage companies in the tech sector. Digital Sandbox has performed so well, then-U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker called it “the single best investment the federal Economic Development Administration has ever made.”

Community engagement has been a hallmark of the Morton years. UMKC established an Entrepreneur Hall of Fame through the Bloch School, as well as the Starr Women’s Hall of Fame, which honors extraordinary women who have made their mark on the greater Kansas City community. In 2015, UMKC was selected by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for the foundation’s coveted Community Engagement Classification. The program recognizes campuses that are improving teaching and learning, producing research that makes a difference in communities and revitalizing their civic and academic missions.

Morton’s immense contributions have not gone unnoticed by Greater Kansas City. In 2014, Morton was named “Kansas Citian of the Year” by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. The honor, presented annually since 1960, recognizes “those persons whose civic contributions and achievements have reflected the insight, creativity and consciousness necessary to build and maintain a quality urban community.”

Provost Barbara A. Bichelmeyer will serve as interim chancellor until a permanent chancellor is named. Though Morton will be deeply missed, she says, his impact will be felt on the UMKC campus — and throughout Kansas City — for decades to come.

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