Government & Politics

UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton announces his retirement after nearly a decade on the job

UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton announced Tuesday in a memo that he plans to retire.
UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton announced Tuesday in a memo that he plans to retire. Special to the Star

Praised by many as a champion for Kansas City, University of Missouri-Kansas City Chancellor Leo Morton on Tuesdayannounced in a memo to the campus that he will retire next year.

“I plan to remain through the upcoming academic year,” Morton wrote in his letter. “I still have several major projects that I want to complete before I retire.”

Morton, who had been a Kansas City business executive, was serving as president of the UMKC board of trustees when Gary Forsee, at the time University of Missouri System president, tapped him to step in as interim chancellor.

Four months later, in December 2008, Morton was named chancellor of UMKC. And much of the city cheered at the announcement.

“I think what Leo Morton has done for our city is remarkable,” said Greg Graves, retired chairman and CEO for the Burns & McDonnell engineering firm. “I’m not sure I can think of anyone who has done more for Kansas City in the last decade.”

When he was asked to stand in as interim chancellor, one day after retiring from corporate life, Morton told The Star that he hadn’t intended to take the position on a permanent basis. He said later that once at the helm, he fell in love with the job.

“I had spent 40 years in engineering and management roles,” Morton said in his letter Tuesday. “I never imagined I’d end up leading a great institution like UMKC. However, it has been one of the great blessings and privileges of my life to serve Kansas City’s university.”

Morton, 71, was the university’s seventh chancellor in a decade and has been the longest serving in the last 20 years. He took the reins when the university was facing a difficult financial picture.

Tuesday’s announcement comes just days after the university announced the elimination of roughly 30 jobs and other budget cuts because of reduced state funding.

“There hasn’t been a year that we haven’t faced some challenges,” Morton said. “These are indeed challenging times. But it will take several years to bring all of these challenges to solution. ... The people who will do that have to be people who develop the plans and own them and who will be here to see them through.”

Morton said he believes the university is well positioned with a staff of “smart and resilient” people “who know how to get things done.”

During his tenure at UMKC, Morton presided over a time of significant growth in enrollment and the physical campus, including construction of the Henry W. Bloch School of Management and the adjacent UMKC Student Union.

Morton said Tuesday he’s not done yet, which is why he’s staying on through the next academic year. In his letter, Morton cited a few things left to do, including a new laboratory building to expand the School of Computing and Engineering, an urban youth development initiative, and launching a new Career Development Institute to place UMKC students in high-impact internships throughout the Kansas City community.

And a big deal for Morton is to shepherd to fruition UMKC’s Downtown Arts Campus, one of the city’s Big 5 initiatives.

The arts campus has been a pet project for Morton, who worked help raise the money the university’s share — $48 million — of a 50-50 state match program to build the $96 million campus. Last month, the Missouri Senate passed a bill authorizing the state to borrow a matching amount through a bond issue to help fund the arts campus.

“During Leo’s tenure, there has been tremendous improvement in the university,” said Thomas Bloch, former CEO of H&R Block and co-founder of University Academy charter school in Kansas City.

“Under Leo’s leadership, the university is a more vital part of the Kansas City community, and there is a real sense of momentum on campus. Kansas City and UMKC have been very fortunate.”

But Morton said Bloch has it backward, that rather the fortune has been his.

When he prays at night, Morton said, “I always ask God to bless me to be able to serve others. If your intent is to do service, then being invited to do that is a real blessing. If I have any regret, it is that I could do more.”

Morton said that when he steps away from the university, he won’t be going far. Although he is a native of Alabama and before coming to Kansas City lived in New Jersey with his wife, Yvette Morton, he said Kansas City is home. He and his wife will stay in Kansas. The couple live in Leawood.

“I have always tried to serve with the best interests of UMKC and Kansas City close to my heart, and I’ll be working in partnership with our campus and community to ensure that UMKC continues on the path to be the great university this city needs,” Morton said.

John Phillips, vice chairman of the University System board of curators, said Tuesday he believes Morton has been “the most important factor in taking UMKC to its next level, academically, civically and in diversity. He is loved and admired by Kansas City. He will be sorely missed.”

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc

Morton timeline

▪ Received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tuskegee University and in 1987 a master’s in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

▪ Spent 26 years in engineering and manufacturing management positions with AT&T, Bell Laboratories, General Motors, Rust Engineering Company and Corning Glass.

▪ Joined Aquila Inc. in 1994 as vice president of performance management. Became a senior vice president in 1996. Named senior vice president and chief administrative officer in 2000.

▪ Became a UMKC trustee in 2000 and chairman of the board in 2006.

▪ Tapped as chancellor at UMKC in December 2008.