George A. Russell, former chancellor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City and president of the University of Missouri system, died Tuesday at age 95.
Russell was chancellor of UMKC for 14 years before being named MU president in November 1991. He served in that role until 1996.
Russell’s tenure as chancellor at UMKC was a period of transformation for what had been a commuter school.
“Under George Russell’s leadership, UMKC evolved into the modern, comprehensive, research university it is today,” Chancellor Leo E. Morton said in a statement released Wednesday. “Thanks to him, Kansas City has a great university worthy of a great city. It is a powerful legacy.”
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Supporters saw Russell as a respected educator and an outspoken critic of antiquated ideas about state aid to education in Missouri. They said he worked for improved mechanisms of funding for higher education.
As UMKC chancellor, Russell won public and private funds for the campus, notably a student recreation center and a continuing expansion of the library. He also restructured much of the academic bureaucracy at the university, including the creation of the School of Basic Life Sciences.
Russell’s businesslike approach to education earned him the respect of the city’s civic elite. He sat on the boards of directors of the J.C. Nichols Co., Boatmen’s Bank of Kansas City and Kansas City Power & Light Co. He was also a member of the Agricultural Hall of Fame board of governors and served on the board of trustees for the Truman Library Institute.
Russell, as president, also made his mark on the University of Missouri system.
“Most notably under his tenure the university introduced a robust financial plan to realign its resources on a scale unmatched in the country,” interim president Michael Middleton said in a statement Wednesday. “His efforts allowed the UM system to answer critical needs including competitive faculty recruitment, infrastructure maintenance and repair and enhancement of student financial aid, among many others.”
Russell’s tenure as president, however, was not without controversy.
One of his first actions was to announce cuts in at least 600 jobs at the university’s four campuses and in its administration. The cuts were needed, he said, to deal with shrinking state funding and the failure of Proposition B, a tax increase earmarked for education. A few months later, Haskell Monroe announced that he would resign as chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia, saying he could not preside over endless cuts in university operations.
In 1992, dozens of students from the University of Missouri-Columbia were threatened with arrest and suspension from school when they blocked a hallway in the University of Missouri system administration building. The students were protesting the lack of student representation on a committee searching for Monroe’s replacement. Russell had denied their request.
Russell was born July 12, 1921, in the Missouri Bootheel town of Bertrand. One of his childhood buddies was future Gov. Warren Hearnes.
During World War II, Russell fired a .50-caliber gun from the tail of a Navy dive bomber and later flew in a test-flight crew experimenting with solid-fuel rockets.
After the war, Russell stayed in the Navy, where he worked in research and development. He married Ruth Ann Ashby of Charleston, Mo., on Nov. 11, 1944. The couple had four children.
Russell earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1947 and a master’s degree and doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois in 1952 and 1955. He became an associate professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1962 and rose to vice chancellor. He left in 1977 for Kansas City.
Visitation will be 1-2 p.m. Friday followed by a service at Langsford Funeral Home, 115 S.W. Third St., Lee’s Summit.