Yellow and blue balloons and a giant kangaroo mascot welcomed University of Missouri System President-designate Mun Choi Friday morning for his first visit to Kansas City.
Choi, a provost at the University of Connecticut who was named UM System president last month, addressed an audience of University of Missouri-Kansas City faculty, students, and civic leaders in a packed conference room on the Kansas City campus.
Choi praised UMKC, drawing roaring applause and cheers when he described the school as “a world class university, in a world class city.”
He challenged the university community and its civic and business partners to “pursue excellence each and every day.” He reminded them too that “it is very difficult to achieve,” and even more difficult to sustain.
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Choi pledged to work with all factions within the university system to promote economic development and innovation; support student access, diversity and inclusion; improve retention and graduation rates, and expand research at all four campuses in the system.
“The campus does not serve the system,” Choi said. “The system serves the campus.”
At the center of it all are the students, he said.
“We can’t lose sight of that,” Choi said. “The success of students is our success.”
UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton said that in meeting this week with Choi his takeaway was that Choi “is a great listener and he has a mind toward helping.”
Morton said he believes Choi will make “fact-based decisions. He will give us a chance to put the facts on the table and that will lead to a great way to make decisions about how to get more funding for the system,” Morton said.
Choi later said he intends to make getting state funding to support construction of the proposed UMKC Downtown Arts Campus a priority. UMKC already has raised $48 million in private dollars for the campus. It now is waiting for the state to equally match those raised funds as part its 50-50 matching program for public-private partnerships to pay for capital projects at public colleges and universities in Missouri.
Pamela Henrickson, chair of the University of Missouri board of curators, said Choi, “is known for his ability to set the direction for change and innovation.”
UMKC alumni, students and faculty showered Choi with gifts baskets full of mementos, including everything from a Bobby Watson jazz CD and books by UMKC faculty, to samplings of Kansas City barbecue sauces and a UMKC Roo Jersey.
Choi held longest to a framed photo of President Harry S. Truman speaking from the steps of Scofield Hall on the UMKC campus in 1945. Embalzoned across the photo are the words Truman spoke on that day.
“This American nation of ours is great because of its diversity. Because it is of the people drawn from many lands and many cultures bound together by the ideals of human brotherhood.”
Choi, the first system president of Asian-American heritage, was selected after a nine-month national search. He officially begins his duties on March 1, 2017.
He has served as UConn provost, overseeing academic affairs, since December 2012. He started there as dean of engineering and a professor of mechanical engineering in 2008. Choi is known for having more than 20 years of experience in developing nationally competitive innovative research programs.
In the last four years at UConn, Choi has overseen a budget of $700 million while working with 1,500 full-time faculty, 31,000 students and 2,000 staff across 12 schools and colleges, including schools of medicine, dental medicine and law. Under his leadership, UConn developed several innovative new programs that have resulted in enrollment growth.
At the UM System Choi replaces Tim Wolfe, who resigned last November under a national spotlight following student protests, a student hunger strike and claims that he had failed to take action against multiple displays of racism at MU, the system’s flagship campus in Columbia.
Creating inclusive, collegial and respectful environments on each of the system campuses, Choi said, is among the core values he believes in.
Rakeem Golden, a former UMKC student, now a senior at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, was on the search committee that helped find Choi.
After hearing the new president speak Friday, Golden said, “He is a strong visionary. Now he has to start working. Now it’s time for our administration to stand beside him and let’s see what he can do.”