With a standing ovation and a new victory chant, the University of Missouri Kansas-City community on Friday welcomed new chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal to campus.
Agrawal, now vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas at San Antonio, was named UMKC Chancellor by University of Missouri System President Mun Choi on Tuesday.
Friday morning, with his wife of 30 years, Sue, looking on, he addressed students, faculty, administrators, and members of Kansas City government, business community and civic leadership for the first time.
Agrawal, who said he came from humble beginnings in his native India, where his parents made immense personal sacrifice to assure that he got the best education, talked about arriving in the United States as a student with only $100 in his pocket, a suitcase full of clothes and “living the American dream.”
He pledged to be a bridge that would bring the university and the best of Kansas City together to “make something spectacular” happen during his tenure.
When he researched the city, “I nearly fell off my chair,” Agrawal said. “It is on so many top-10 lists, high paying jobs, entrepreneurship, city’s to watch, music scene and yes, barbeque.”
Agrawal called Kansas City “a hidden gem,” and said UMKC “has all the elements that it needs to make a great university... The combination of UMKC and Kansas City if put together in a very dynamic, symbiotic partnership can make extraordinary things happen here.”
He promised that UMKC’s more than 16,000 students would be the focus of everything he does at the university.
“The most important reason for working at a university is to inspire and prepare students,” said Agrawal, who for the first time in his career this year is not teaching an academic course.
“You will have a friend in me,” he told UMKC faculty. And the staff, he said, “is the glue that holds the university together.”
Following Agrawal’s speech, journalism student Dallas Johnson, a senior from Kansas City, said he was impressed.
“I thought he made it seem like he is very passionate about Kansas City, calling it a city on the rise and a city on the move,” Johnson said. “I agree with him. He seems like a person who will make UMKC a bigger part of the city.”
Agrawal replaces UMKC’s last chancellor, Leo Morton, who stepped away from the post ahead of his planned retirement to take a job with DeBruce Companies, a grain firm in Kansas City.
Agrawal said he learned that UMKC was looking for a new chancellor just 48 hours before the deadline to apply for the post was to expire.
Former UMKC Chancellor Guy Bailey, now president of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, told Agrawal about the opening when the two men ran into one another at a professional meeting in Austin, Texas.
A search team of UM System administrators recommended Agrawal to Choi along with two other finalists.
He ultimately was picked for the job over interim chancellor Barbara Bichelmeyer, who also was vying for the position. Bichelmeyer will return to her post as UMKC provost when Agrawal is in place June 20.
At Friday’s welcome, Bichelmeyer said she looked forward to working with Agrawal. He praised her saying, “I am so thrilled that she will be on the team.”
Agrawal proposed working closely with city leaders to build a 10- to 20-year master plan for economic development. And later during a press conference, he expressed passion for raising the money to build UMKC’s proposed downtown campus for the arts.
He talked also about having a commitment to increasing minority representation on the faculty and the need for budget tightening to manage shrinking state financial support.
Agrawal will be paid $430,000 including $15,000 a year auto allowance and another $15,000 a year housing allowance.
Agrawal had his entire audience cheering with him Friday as he led a call and response chant — “UM,” he said. The audience responded “KC.” Three times they repeated the call ending it with, “Go Roos.”
University of Missouri-System Curator Phillip Snowden said he’s spent several days meeting with Agrawal and thinks he can pull off his pledge to make something spectacular happen between UMKC and the city.
“He is a very measured person, but you can tell he intends to stay with it until he accomplishes his goal,” Snowden said. “I think he’s here for the long term. He indicated that, but I look at what a person has done not what they say. His track record — he was in San Antonio a long time — indicates that. He’s not going to run from the tough issues.”
Agrawal arrived on the San Antonio campus in 2003 as a professor and associate dean for research in the College of Engineering. He advanced to dean in 2006. In May 2013 he was named interim vice president for research, a position he held until being named vice president the following year. In 2016, he was appointed interim provost.
Agrawal earned a doctorate from Duke University in 1989, a master’s degree from Clemson University in 1985 and a bachelor’s degree from IIT-Kanpur in India.
USTA officials boasted that Agrawal’s work was well regarded in San Antonio, where the College of Engineering’s enrollment increased 40 percent and funding increased by 400 percent. In 2010 he worked with San Antonio city leaders to launch the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at USTA.
Agrawal and his wife have two children: Ethan, 24, who graduated from Rice University with a degree in chemical engineering, and Serena 21, a junior studying mechanical engineering at Rice.