UMKC Home

Public Relations

External Affairs

 

The business executive, career volunteer and now leader
of Kansas City’s urban university, Leo Morton shares insight
into his new role, his life and his values

 

1.   Why UMKC, given the fact that you could give your time to any other organization?
If you would ask me which organization in the city could have the most impact on the future of this city, I would say UMKC. Think about the issues we see in the media – issues with the school district, the issues of crime, an aging workforce and any number of things. Every company in this town is looking for more support long term. Look at the issues of infrastructure, deferred maintenance. Where do you go for solutions to those problems, except to a university? If you are thinking about a place to have impact and a place to help, I can’t think of a better place than this university.

 

2.   What do you see as your role while here?
This is an interim role. In the meantime, we want to get the search committee organized this month, and we can get its work started by September. We would like to find a chancellor as early as January. From my perspective, I am most interested in making sure we do everything we can to make this University as attractive as it can be to a top-flight candidate.

There are a number of things (former chancellor) Guy Bailey started that we need to finish – like the Miller Nichols Library campaign and raising money for the Conservatory renovation, Institute for Urban Education and Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. We need to focus on getting them completed as quickly as possible. A new chancellor walking in will see that there is a supportive community willing to do what it needs to do to support this university.

People have asked me about the two or three things I’d like to accomplish while here. One would be to get the foundation going for UMKC. That was one of the items in the “Time to Get It Right” report. I will continue to work to bring that to fruition. 

Have you ever seen curling where the guy rolls that stone across the ice – he’s called the sweeper?  That’s me, the sweeper in front of the stone. Once we’re all clear about direction and what we’re trying to accomplish, I get out in front. You tell me what you need, and I’m the supporter. In order to be effective in any leadership capacity, we need to be able to clear away those things that get in the way of effective execution or productivity. Understanding purpose is very important. If we don’t know what it’s all about or how we fit, these get in the way of truly being productive. Once we understand the purpose – and our goals and direction ahead are clear – the obstacles become obvious. That’s where I get called in so I can get my job done.

The direction is getting clear, and people are understanding more how they fit and their role in helping us get there. As such, they can identify for me how I can be the most helpful, in getting those issues resolved. Being a supporter to people in this organization is what I’m about.

 

      I’m also here to support Provost Gail Hackett, doing what I can to support her, the faculty, students, staff and community.

 

3.   Who is your mentor? Who influenced you the most in your life?
That’s easy – my father. My father is a retired businessman and is in his 80s. We’re from Birmingham, Alabama, and I started working with him when I was about 12. I learned almost everything I know about business and about working hard from him.

Since then, I have had many mentors in every company for which I’ve worked. They have been very helpful to me. There’s no way – being born in 1945 in Birmingham, Alabama – I could ever have dreamed about being here or accomplishing half of what I’ve been invited to do without these mentors. I’ve been blessed.

 

4.   How much involvement will you have with the faculty as Interim Chancellor?
I am here to support Provost Gail Hackett. The thing that I will do is set priorities. The priorities come from alignment with the vision we have for the University and the vision of the System that Gary Forsee espouses. As long as I can see the alignment between helping with something and moving us toward our ultimate goals, then it’s the right thing with which to help. I will have a set of priorities that has been passed on to me by Chancellor Bailey, President Forsee and others around the University, and I will do my best to focus on those priorities.

5.   What will be your involvement with the chancellor search?
I don’t expect to be on the committee, but I will support them in any way. We are in a position to attract another great candidate.

A candidate with aspirations to do something important will see this as a great place to be because we have all the ingredients. UMKC is ripe with opportunity, considering the number of professional schools here; the fact that we sit in one of the most generous cities in the country based on per capita giving; and knowing how this philanthropic strength can support a great university. Anyone interested in getting something done and making a difference ought to see this as a place to do it. I’m optimistic about this search.

 

6.   You participate in one of UMKC’s accreditation committees – Criterion Five: Engagement and Service. Why is this process important to UMKC?
That particular criterion talks about the value of the role the University plays in serving the community. I was asked to serve as Chair of the Board of Trustees. And the Trustees are representatives of the community. One of the things we want to be certain about is that the people we’re trying to serve value the service we provide. If we are going to convince the Accreditation Committee that we are doing things that are of value to the community, then we must demonstrate that we understand the issues in the community and – in executing our vision and mission for the University – we are aligned in part with those issues and that the people to whom we are providing services believe we are providing those services in an effective way. I saw that as something that really needed to be done.

 

7.   Are you involved in other committees – UMKC or others?
I chair two boards – just stepped aside from chairing the UMKC Board of Trustees to serve as interim Chancellor. I chair the board of PREP-KC, an initiative funded by the Civic Council and Gates Foundation to help both the inner-city schools in Kansas City, Missouri and the Kansas City, Kansas. PREP-KC has a relationship with UMKC and is working with us on the Southwest Early College Campus. Other commitments include a member of the Advisory Board of Menorah Hospital, a LINC commissioner, a trustee at MRI, and the Board of Swope Community Enterprises, Second Vice Chairman.

 

8.   What skills and experience from your business background transfer to an academic environment?
I am an engineer by training, have a master’s in management and have worked at many different jobs. I started off designing gas turbines for jet engines at General Motors, designed piping systems for pulp and paper mills and supervised in manufacturing. I came to Kansas City 20 years ago as plant manager for the Western Electric factory in Lee’s Summit. I was with AT&T for 20 years before I joined what was Utilicorp as they changed to Aquila for 14½ years. Before that, I worked with Corning Glass and had other work experience.

I’ve been working for a long time and through it all, there are some things that hold true no matter what: Leadership is more about service than about giving orders and being the boss. There are great people no matter where you are. If you get aligned with people and your heart is in the right place, they will see that and give you an opportunity to be of service. If you come through, they will ask you to do more. The reward for doing good work, is receiving more good work to do. Leadership principles are generic. For me, it’s about service.

 

9. UMKC currently employs 3,483, making it the 24th largest employer in KC; received $1,724,042 in continued research; and $671,233 in new research dollars.  Are there additional ways you see UMKC contributing?
I would like to see all of those dollars be larger and believe we can get there as we do more to position ourselves as the place where this city and this region will come for solutions. There’s a way to do that and to be positioned to help this community, this city, this region and this country, to address issues no matter what those issues are. The expertise of the faculty and the staff here can be partnered with the expertise that exists in our community to address the issues we need to address.

One of our board members at Aquila was Dr. Michael Crow, who is president of Arizona State University. A group went to visit him to learn more about the university, which has approximately 55,000 students and is one of the largest and most aggressive and progressive universities in the country. Dr. Crow is a leader in positioning the university as a key element in the community; they are at the heart of finding solutions for the area. If the city has a problem, it will go to ASU to find a solution. And, that’s what UMKC can be to Kansas City.

 

10. How does your family feel about this appointment?
I had other plans, and they were expecting to get more of my time, but they fully understand. I have been giving time to this University, and they understood why. My wife, Yvette, is behind me 100%. We have been here 20 years – half of our married life – and we consider this home. When it’s home, you need to do whatever you can to help where you can. When you’re asked to do something like this, you have to step up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Leadership is more about service than about giving orders and being the boss."