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Pianist, scientist, chancellor -- Tom George runs UMSL by building relationships

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2010 - At 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Tom George played Van Morrison's "Moondance" and "In a Sentimental Mood" by Duke Ellington before 1,200 "screaming kids" at the Touhill Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus.

Two hours later -- with a 40-minute interview in between -- Chancellor Thomas F. George gave his state of the university address before a different kind of audience, touting the school's accomplishments over the past year and giving his view of what is coming up.

The two events give a pretty good idea of the range of responsibilities that the head of a university campus must discharge -- not to mention raising $25 million a year and helping forge community connections all over the region.

"You have to develop relationships," George said during the interview in his top floor office at Woods Hall. "Just because you go and ask them for money doesn't mean you're going to get it. They have to get to know you."

Since he took over as chancellor in 2003, members of the St. Louis community appear to have gotten to know George pretty well.

When he arrived, UMSL was raising about $7 million a year in private donations. Two years later, when the campus began planning a fund-raising campaign, the recommendation was for a goal of $100 million. George thought that $70 million would be more realistic, given the track record to that point. Still, he agreed.

"I said OK, make it 100," he recalled, "but I don't think we'll ever do it."

Not only did UMSL reach the $100 million goal, it did so early. In response, the campus has extended its Gateway for Greatness campaign to 2012 -- with a new goal of $150 million.

One of its partners in the fund-raising efforts will be Emerson, which announced this week it would give $1.65 million for the Opportunity Scholars Program -- a four-year, full scholarship to students who have excelled in high school and want to study so-called STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering and math.

The awards will be directed toward students who are in groups underrepresented on college campuses and are the first in their families to go to college. The goal, George said, is to keep them in St. Louis for higher education -- and ideally to keep them in town after they graduate as well. Stemming the local brain drain is a big project, he said.

"The better students can go anywhere," he said. "They get offers to go to Ivy League schools on the East Coast, and that's fine. But then we've lost them.

"With this program, we have people who will be involved with these students, almost like mentoring, and I hope that will help with the retention of bright people."

Partnering with north St. Louis County companies like Emerson and Express Scripts, which has a major presence on the UMSL campus, is part of the relationship-building process, George said.

He noted that a group of about 15 Express Scripts employees recently graduated with UMSL MBA degrees as part of a special program this summer.

With 77,000 alumni -- about 57,000 of them still living in the St. Louis area -- UMSL has a strong presence in the area. George notes that the student body tends to be older -- an average age of 27 -- and also tends to start their higher education somewhere else before coming to UMSL, with about 75 percent of the first-time undergraduates transferring from other schools.

He hopes to be able to keep tuition at the school affordable, though he knows that help from Jefferson City isn't likely to be as much as he would like.

Federal funds will run out at the end of the fiscal year, and though the state of Missouri has kept cuts for higher education relatively small, compared with reductions in funds for other departments, he holds out little hope that tuition, which has been flat for the past two years, will stay level for another year.

Instead, George expects tuition increases of up to 8 percent -- not a small amount for a campus where three-quarters of the students are on some sort of financial aid and the average debt for students who graduate with outstanding loans is $20,000.

Still, enrollment at UMSL is booming -- 16,550 this fall, including 13,000 students seeking degrees. He noted that students are also taking more credit hours than before, so they can get their degrees more quickly.

What's in the future?

George mentioned a range of possibilities -- maybe adding land to the campus' current 350 acres, maybe getting involved with East-West Gateway's plan to spruce up Natural Bridge, perhaps establishing housing for senior citizens, a trend popping up on many campuses that allows older residents to get involved in campus life.

He also wants to remain attuned to developments that may not be part of any long-range plan but that UMSL should be nimble enough to move on if a good idea presents itself.

"In 2003," George said, "I never would have predicted having Express Scripts here. You run with opportunities. You've got to be flexible."

A researcher in chemistry and physics by academic training, George says he has been able to continue research while serving as chancellor; one recent paper he co-authored was titled "Electronic and optical properties of CdZnO quantum well structures with electric field and polarization effects."

He also is active as a jazz pianist. You can hear his rendition of the standard "Close Your Eyes" here.

And while he likes being able to live in a house right off the edge of campus, letting him walk to work, George said it often seems like he doesn't get to take advantage of the proximity all that much.

"I'm out and about all the time," he said. "I have a house right next to campus, but all I do is drive around all day. A lot of it is relationship building. You have to develop relationships."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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