Chancellor Agrawal stresses need for expansion, funding at UMKC

Sam Bellefy

“My main priority is student success,” Mauli Agrawal said. 

Coming from the UMKC chancellor, these words were not a surprise. In a press conference with U-News last week, Agrawal gave updates on several of his projects and plans for the university, all in the hopes of improving the student experience at UMKC. However, while his priority is student success, his greatest need is money. For projects ranging from the highly anticipated new conservatory building to increased student mental health resources, Agrawal outlined how progress has been hindered by a lack of sufficient funding. Despite these difficulties, Agrawal had news to share on several of these topics: 

A new addition to administration  The school is now interviewing for a new position: senior vice provost for student success. According to Agrawal, this newest member of the provost’s office will deal with the “wraparound services” that surround student success. This includes tutoring, supplemental instruction, ease of enrollment and financial aid. The position will establish “clear lines of responsibility and accountability” when overseeing these services. UMKC is currently nearing the end of interviews for the position, and the chancellor expects the new seat to be filled sometime during the spring semester or shortly afterward. 

Student housing  “15-20% of the student population in an urban university should be on campus or very close to campus,” Agrawal said. “Right now, our number is closer to 9 or 10%.” 

As he expects enrollment to grow, Agrawal discussed the need to anticipate the increased demand for on-campus housing and bring UMKC “up to par” with other urban universities. In the past, he has expressed his desire to make UMKC less of a commuter campus, where students drive to school and leave campus after their classes. 

“We would most likely be looking for a lot of partnerships with external folks who may come and help us build,” he said. 

Agrawal suggested that student living areas could be built along Troost or in other nearby locations. 

“But what is most important to me is the housing that’s built needs to be affordable student housing,” Agrawal said.

With an increase in development around the UMKC area, such as the likely addition of a streetcar line running from the Country Club Plaza to the River Market, Agrawal anticipates that the cost of living could go up. 

“I want to make sure that whatever housing we build for the future stays affordable for UMKC students,” he said. “If it’s not affordable, we will go the opposite direction because the students will get pushed out because of financial reasons, which will make us more of a commuter school than less.” 

Right now, nothing is set in stone. According to Agrawal, the university is actively considering all of its available options, and nothing is off the table. This also means that, while enrollment increases, the university will have to find quick ways to accommodate them while it goes through the long process of constructing new housing infrastructure. 

Oak Place Apartments  Agrawal hopes the university’s settlement with the insurance companies will reach a point where the school can refurbish Oak Place Apartments.

The building, which was vacated a year-and-a-half ago due to mold and severe water damage, stands at the center of a legal dispute between the university and contractors. According to the chancellor, “Everybody got lawyers.” 

Due to the ongoing legal issues surrounding the apartments, their fate remains unclear. If the university is unable to obtain a sufficient amount of money from the insurance company, Agrawal anticipates that the building could be leveled. 

“It’s unfortunate, but it happened,” he said. 

New Research Center and repairs to facilities  “It’s “It’s not expansion just because we want to get bigger; it’s just trying to give students the best facilities they deserve,” Agrawal said, referring to the need to build, repair and refurbish structures around UMKC. However, the chancellor said such efforts are limited by the amount of money the university has available. Money for the construction of the Robert W. Plaster Free Enterprise and Research Center, the $32 million newest addition to the UMKC campus, came largely from donors. Some students have questioned the need to construct the engineering center, which Agrawal has called a necessity, when there are many other facilities in need of repair. Agrawal pointed out that donor money could not be redirected for other uses. 

“Donors do not give you money to clear mold or do maintenance; that usually comes from the state,” Agrawal said.

As reported by U-News, the state of Missouri has continued to slash funding for higher education over the past several years. 

With a diminishing budget, it has become difficult for UMKC to fund necessary repairs. 

“The talent of the students here is very high, all across the board, and there is a certain level of facilities that we need to provide them,” Agrawal said. “It is a constant struggle.” 

New Conservatory building  “Everything fell apart,” Agrawal said about progress on a new conservatory building. 

UMKC expected to fund the $100 million structure, planned to be built in downtown Kansas City, with money from donors and the state government. Though the state legislator approved the funding, then governor Eric Greitens vetoed the measure. With state support gone, the donors quickly pulled out their resources, leaving the project a ship out of water. 

“When I walked in, I had to start from scratch,” Agrawal said. 

Based on the advice of faculty, the construction site was moved from downtown to campus, near the Olsen Performing Arts Center. 

“That was step one; step two is finding the money again,” Agrawal said. The chancellor will now have to search for alternative funding sources and coax the previous donors back into the fold. Until that point, development of the new building, in high demand by music, theater and dance students, is halted. 

“These students are exceptional,” Agrawal said. “They deserve better.” 

Mental health resources  “The demand on our counseling services over the past five years has almost doubled,” Agrawal said. “Our students haven’t grown, but the demand has.” 

With no additional revenue from new students, finding the means to increase mental health resources is difficult. Professionally trained counselors are expensive, and the chancellor has established a mental health task force and is looking for funding to provide better mental health help to UMKC students. 

Working with the local community  “The university should be woven into the very fabric of this community, “Agrawal said. 

He emphasized the need for public universities like UMKC to be an integral part of the area around them. In what he called a “Metromester,” Agrawal revealed the tentative idea of creating a semester for each student where they take service learning courses. While they would still take some classes on campus during the semester, the lion’s share of their time would be spent working in the local community through volunteering with a non-profit, working with the local government or interning for a business. Agrawal suggested that a pilot study will be conducted before bringing it to students at large in order to work out the kinks in the plan. Eventually, Agrawal hopes it will be like a “study abroad concept, but studying in the metro area.” 

Food for Roos  UMKC’s dining contract is up for renewal. This may come as exciting news for students who are unsatisfied with the options provided by Sodexo, the university’s current food provider. Agrawal is largely seeking the input of students when it comes to the decision of keeping Sodexo. 

The chancellor welcomed the suggestions of students who have a strong opinion on the matter. 

“This is the time to provide that input,” he said. 

School of Pharmacy controversy  “It just so happens that there’s a concentration [of bad professors] in one corner,” Agrawal said, referring to the recent incidents that have plagued the School Of Pharmacy. This includes misconduct by two professors and a recently-settled lawsuit with another. 

“There is a lot of faculty in pharmacy, too, that are doing great work,” the chancellor added. 

To show that the School of Pharmacy remained a good place for students, Agrawal highlighted the work of faculty, such as Dr. Kun Cheng, a cancer researcher who has received several prominent grants from the federal government. 

“There are a lot of faculty like that,” Agrawal said. “There were a couple that were doing things we don’t approve of, and when we find those things out, we take strong action. It sends a message.” 

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