UMKC signs off on its 80th Year

Roze Brooks

An honorary charter was signed by UMKC administrators, student leaders and community members at the Commemoration Day Ceremony Oct. 1 in Swinney Recreation Center.  Alumni, retirees, faculty, staff and current students were invited to help UMKC celebrate its 80th anniversary.

“Here we are today, stronger than ever,” Chancellor Leo Morton said,” living proof that a great university can help make a city great, living proof that we have fulfilled the founders’ vision. ”

Though UMKC is celebrating eight decades of existence, conversations about creating a university in Kansas City started long before the first charter was signed.

In 1925, negotiations were being made with a woman named Kate Hewitt, widow to the president of a reputable dental college. Hewitt wanted to provide a gratuitous stretch of land to the Methodist Episcopal Church.  However, with that extensive generosity came a laundry list of stipulations that inhibited the group’s ability to act quickly.

Seeing an opportunity for expansion, Methodist Church invited the Chamber of Commerce to “have substantial representation on the [University’s] Board of Trustees.”  This prompted a merger that combined church representatives with representatives from Commerce, creating an Organizational Committee.

A charter was granted in 1926, forged between the merged groups, declaring the intended name of the university to be Lincoln and Lee University of Kansas City.  It wasn’t until December 1930 that a larger entity, the Board of Trustees, was commissioned to further carry out plans for a university.
The Board pulls out of a Depression

When the Board of Trustees met for the first time, E.E Howard was nominated as a temporary chairman.  An extensive set of by-laws was presented, stating the official charge of the Board.  Nominations for permanent seat-holders were also executed.  The Board met a month later and agreed that an Executive Committee should be formed.  A tentative timeline would have an educational plan and campus buildings ready for use by fall of 1932.

“Eighty years ago in the depths of the Great Depression, Kansas City leaders set out on a great mission. I guess some would call it a crazy mission given the touch times,” Morton said, “but those leaders believed with all their hearts the powerful, yet simple idea, if Kansas City were to overcome the touch times, if Kansas City were to become the great city its leaders knew it could be, it must have a great university.”

Ernest Newcomb was designated the first executive secretary, having primary authority of the Executive Committee.  This group met promptly after the second Board meeting and created several subcommittees to examine different facets of creating a university, including a committee solely charged with conferring with Hewitt.

Later concluding that the land Hewitt was offering wouldn’t suit the university based on its location at 75th and State Line, William Volker and John W. Jenkins negotiated with Hewitt to donate funds made from selling the property instead.

Before the Executive Committee actually gathered to have its first meeting, the Board was having intensive conversations about the name of the university.  In January 1931, the Board proposed to drop the Lincoln and Lee prefix from the title.

“That Board of Trustees, by this resolution, makes record favoring the name: THE UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS CITY for the corporate name of the university,” read the motion made by Walter McLucas.

This approved amendment was then implemented into the language of the by-laws at the third Board meeting. Volker was also a frequent consultant to the Board, having donated a 40.8-acre stretch of land to the University Movement the year prior.

Meetings of both the Board and the Executive Committee became more rapid as the vision of creating Kansas City’s university became more tangible.  Money was scarce, which was one of the roadblocks to this expensive effort during the onslaught of the Great Depression.  Using a newsletter-style publication called the University Bulletin, the founders attempted to lure in potential donors.

Things were starting to look up in the summer of ’31. The Executive Committee was able to report more than $731,000 in pledged funds.  However, this meant the monetary needs to create an operating budget were still not in hand.

In December 1931, the Committee negotiated in its favor, receiving the Dickey House, which would become the first lecture hall on the UKC campus. Today, that hall is known as Scofield Hall.

“When classes began in 1933, over 2,000 civic leaders gathered on the lawn of Scofield Hall to celebrate the opening of the university,” said Chamber of Commerce Chairman Russell Welsch.

Nearing the predetermined deadline of fall 1932, the Committee realized in April of that year it wasn’t anywhere near its monetary goal of $500,000.  Many people who had pledged donations to the movement were sending in letters spouting off numerous reasons as to why they couldn’t pay at that time.  Several times throughout the initial planning stages, the groups tried re-directing their efforts to bring in the appropriate funds.

Discussion then turned to the logistics of this new university.  For the sake of keeping with popular opinion, the Board opted into starting off with a four-year liberal arts college.  Fall of 1932 quickly approached and the Executive Committee quickly concluded they would not be ready to launch the university.  It chose to postpone until the following year.  Conversations with architects followed and the Committee utilized the renderings to prove to potential donors that progress was still being made.

The planning groups finally overcame the biggest hurdle of acquiring funds and saw the piece  fall together. The next steps would include hiring a dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, several starting faculty members and setting salaries for each. The university finally found itself ready to accommodate classes and on Oct. 1, 1933, signed the official charter of the University of Kansas City.

“Eighty years ago, 265 students made history when they started their first day of classes on the fledgling campus,” Morton said.


Bringing everything and everyone to the table

Journalist Jim Steele and Leawood, Kan., Mayor Peggy Dunn co-chaired the Commemoration Day Ceremony event.  Creating a line-up of prominent voices to speak on the accomplishments of the university, pride and progress were a common theme in the many speeches delivered at the ceremony.

“In 1963, 30 years later, after many ups and downs, the University of Kansas City officially became part of the University of Missouri system and took on the name University of Missouri- Kansas City,” said UM System President Tim Wolfe. “Since that opening, UMKC has become known as the urban research university with signature graduates and professional programs, each a true asset of the UM system.”

Wolfe also recognized several former UMKC chancellors in attendance including Eleanor Schwartz, Martha Gilliland and Guy Bailey.

Attendees were given a virtual tour of both campuses, accentuating the literal growth of the university.  Many familiar Kansas City and UMKC faces were featured in the video, including Mayor Sly James.

“Our city’s success story would be incomplete if we didn’t mention the critical role of the University of Missouri-Kansas City,” James said.  “I’m proud to stand with UMKC and will continue our tradition of working together to make our community a desirable place to live, to work and to raise a healthy family.”

Watershed partnerships and bold collaborations were a hot topic among all speakers at the ceremony.  Missouri Governor Jay Nixon commended UMKC on its deliberate attention to the global economy.

“People understand the excellence that comes with UMKC and strive to be its partner in this modern economy,” Nixon said. “It’s clear that this university not only understands the need for relationships in this modern economy– you have strengthened it.”