Retiring Chancellor Tom George reflects on 16 years at UMSL

Chancellor Tom George

During his 16 years at UMSL, Chancellor Tom George has overseen a physical transformation of the campus while also helping the university deepen its roots as an anchor institution in the St. Louis region. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Standing inside his longtime Woods Hall office, Tom George systematically scans a towering bookcase. From top left to bottom right, he studies 21 shelves packed with 16 years of memories.

He first calls attention to a pointed stone plaque commemorating his distinguished service to higher education. George then moves down the row to a gold Rawlings football in a glass case. It’s just one of the numerous accolades he’s received from the Boy Scouts of America.

His brief review of the memorabilia collected during his years as chancellor of the University of Missouri–St. Louis continues from there until he reaches a photo of himself taped against a wall – a moment captured from a campus fundraiser for cancer research.

George’s approach to outlining the contents of his bookcase is intentional with close attention to detail – similar to his leadership style.

Since 2003, he has led UMSL through a period of pronounced physical change and growth in almost every avenue. George has guided the university with a collaborative spirit and a passion for UMSL’s mission of transforming lives.

His clear mark on the 56-year-old institution will remain well beyond his retirement on Sept. 1.

“When I think about leadership, personally and professionally, I think about the sense of integrity, trustworthiness and a concern for other people. These are the attributes about Chancellor George that resonate with me,” Chief Diversity Officer Deborah Burris says. “It is through that leadership style of collaboration, of having the freedom to express oneself and banter different thoughts and ideas that has helped UMSL to be all that we are.”

Under George’s leadership, the university enrolled 311,810 students, set record numbers in research grants and philanthropic support, awarded 44,820 degrees and grew its local and global partnerships.

Highlights from his 16 years include celebrating UMSL’s 50th anniversary, opening six new facilities and breaking ground on the Express Scripts headquarters on North Campus.

“I would call my time here productive. But I’m not talking about myself. I’m talking about the productivity of the campus and the university,” says George, who is the longest-serving chancellor in UMSL’s history. “We’ve grown. We’ve matured. We’ve seized opportunities. I think that speaks to who we are. We’re not staying complacent but rather always looking for opportunities.”

Behind his actions to enhance the university is George’s desire to create clear pathways for student success. Moments such as witnessing Marco Pipoly, UMSL’s 100,000th graduate, cross the commencement stage or grasping a Paralympic gold medal won by 2015 alumnus Steve Cash make the laborious hours invested over the last 16 years worthwhile.

“You hear a lot about Dr. George being a chemist, writing books, authoring papers and being a jazz musician, but let me tell you what his greatest quality is: his passion for the students and propelling this school forward and making sure that this is a world-class organization developing the leaders for tomorrow,” retired Express Scripts CEO and Chairman George Paz says. “A lot of employees over at Express Scripts are UMSL graduates, and it is what makes our company great.”

In George’s remaining months as chancellor, he will maintain a full schedule as a national search begins for his successor.

“We can’t replace Chancellor George,” University of Missouri System President Mun Choi says. “But what we are going to do is identify an individual who will carry on the outstanding tradition of caring deeply about our students, caring deeply about the research of our faculty that make a difference and extending the engagement opportunities to not only St. Louis but Missouri and the rest of the world.”

Barbara Harbach, George’s wife, is also retiring from her position as Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Music, chair of the Department of Music and director of the School of Fine and Performing Arts. The couple has no firm plans for retirement, but George notes “UMSL and St. Louis will always be part of our past and future.”

“I have nothing but the fondest memories of the University of Missouri–St. Louis,” George says. “You tend to remember the good times, and there were tons of good times. I’m certainly going to remember those, whether it’s the basketball game that we won at the buzzer, celebrating state and national awards that people received or opening new buildings. There are many, many good times that I’ll think back on. But the people are what really make UMSL work. It’s about the people.”

This story was originally published in the spring 2019 issue of UMSL Magazine. If you have a story idea for UMSL Magazine, email magazine@umsl.edu.

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