Fall classes to return to normal, Agrawal discusses plans for UMKC’s future

UMKC plans on in-person classes for the fall semester.

Sam Bellefy

UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal told UNews that, barring a drastic shift in the course of the pandemic, classes will be held in person this fall, without social distancing. Agrawal also said the university would not require vaccinations for students to attend classes.

These statements come from a press conference held by Agrawal with UNews on Thursday. Along with repeated announcements of a soon-arriving return to the normalcy of campus past, Agrawal laid out plans for the future of the university post-COVID.

“A little caveat, if there’s no second pandemic,” Agrawal said about reopening. He reiterated that the university would remain in close touch with medical and public health officials, such as UMKC School of Medicine Dean Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, about next steps.

In addition to plans for in-person learning come fall, Agrawal discussed campus housing, reinstituting sports, the recently unveiled kangaroo statue, enrollment goals, campus finances and the university’s UMKC Forward initiative.

Opening Campus

In the tentative plan Agrawal outlined for the fall, classes would return to a face-to-face format without social distancing. It is unclear whether masks will be required. 

The start of the fall semester in August remains many months away, and Agrawal emphasized that many variables in the pandemic could change during that time.

While the plan is in place for a return to campus, Agrawal stated that the university was still holding on to a “back of your pocket” plan in case infection and vaccination rates did not meet expectations. 

“We will be really vigilant,” Agrawal said. “We are not going to force this.”

The chancellor stated that vaccinations are not mandatory for students to return to campus, but he strongly encouraged all who were able to get their shots. He did note, however, that the university may consider making vaccinations mandatory for students who live in on-campus housing. 

With a campus-wide vaccination drive and clinics held by the School of Pharmacy, Agrawal pointed to these efforts as proof that UMKC has made institutional efforts to vaccinate students.

While drastic change is expected for the fall semester, the current spring and summer sessions will continue with precautions and limitations as usual.

“For the rest of the semester, we are not going to change anything,” Agrawal said.

Limited resources and fundraising

With the pandemic severely impacting finances, UMKC does not have the funding to implement many of its more ambitious plans. 

“The costs for us went up,” Agrawal said.

Contrary to the nationwide student sentiments that tuition should decrease to compensate for online-only education, Agrawal said that the cost of education only went up with the rise of Zoom classes. 

Construction of campus housing and the refurbishment of some existing campus buildings has stopped due to a funding gap.

“It’s not like we have all these reserves that we can dip into and do anything [with],” Agrawal said.

In order to recover financially, the chancellor outlined a plan to raise funds for future efforts. In a capital campaign that would take place over the course of five to seven years, the university is hoping to raise funds in the hundreds of millions. 

These millions would come from donations by people and institutions throughout Kansas City. The UMKC Foundation, the school’s independent fundraising arm, would oversee the campaign.

Campus Housing

The chancellor stated that the university is considering plans to turn the empty lot of the demolished Oak Place Apartments into new student housing. 

“Oak Place is an opportunity to build again,” Agrawal said.

He indicated that an outside firm was evaluating housing needs as part of the new UMKC Master Plan. The firm will examine not only how much student housing was needed, but also what types of housing and room styles were preferred by students.

The university may also seek to partner with private companies to fund the construction of the potential dormitories. If that is the case, Agrawal stated that he would also look to include a retail area on the building’s first floor in order to create an environment where students could socialize.

Agrawal also stated that the university still owed a significant mortgage on the vacant land, despite having to tear down the apartments due to construction defects and health-related concerns. While he did not have an exact number on the debt the university owed, he said the number was in the millions of dollars.

Agrawal expressed excitement at the extension of the streetcar to UMKC’s campus, which would stop at the site of the new student housing.

“All of the sudden, our campus is connected,” Agrawal said.

Enrollment and UMKC Forward

The pandemic brought a 3-4% reduction in enrollment at UMKC. While positive when compared to more dire national projections, the numbers still stand in the way of UMKC’s goal of a 50% enrollment increase by 2028.

The chancellor said that while the school still looks to increase enrollment by that amount, the timeline has changed. 

“It has set us back on the target,” Agrawal said.

As part of its pandemic recovery effort, the university is implementing its UMKC Forward initiative. Along with a reorganization of the school’s academic units, UMKC Forward is intended to help students achieve their career goals rather than simply to obtain degrees.

The chancellor expressed his hope that this career focus would help differentiate UMKC from other colleges and increase enrollment.

“Come here,” Agrawal said. “We are the only ones going to connect you to professional jobs.”

Return of sports

While the university has announced the return of some sports that were cut during the pandemic, the future of other sports, like track and field, remains uncertain.

The athletic department first announced cross country, track and field, and men’s golf would be cut due to lack of funding last fall. 

“The cuts were there, and they were unfortunate,” Agrawal said.

The chancellor clarified that the decision was independent of funding from the university, as the majority of funds for the athletic department comes from outside fundraising.

New kangaroo statue

On April 26, UMKC unveiled a bronze kangaroo statue created by a local artist in front of the Miller-Nichols library. 

According to Agrawal, the funding for the statue, which is unknown but may number in the thousands of dollars, came from money provided by the Student Government Association.

Comparing the statue to the iconic columns of the University of Missouri in Columbia, Agrawal called the new edifice a “central point of excitement, the focal point of our campus.”

He highlighted that the kangaroo could act as a symbol of identity for the school, a rallying point for students, and a place to take pictures.

“It’s kind of by the students, for the students,” Agrawal said.

Epperson House

The Epperson house, a nearly century-old campus building with a storied history, has stood unused for years. 

Despite previous hopes for a partnership to revive the home, Agrawal said that the school is “looking to lease it out or even sell it.”

Citing costs of $12-15 million for proper renovations, Agrawal stated that the school is seeking permission from the Missouri state legislature to sell the building.

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