‘Build it, they will come’: Betty Van Uum makes UMSL campus her legacy

by | Nov 25, 2021

In her 38 years at UMSL, Betty Van Umm has helped facilitate every expansion on or off campus.

Betty Van Umm has been at UMSL 38 years and served under seven permanent or interim chancellors. In that time, she’s helped facilitate every expansion on or off campus. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Betty Van Uum was unsure exactly what her role would be when she started at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. 

It was 1983, and then-Chancellor Arnold Grobman had invited her to join his staff as assistant to the chancellor for public affairs and economic development after a storied career in politics fighting for civil rights and women’s equality. 

Van Uum found her footing quickly. She recalls discovering that UMSL was poised to lose out on allocations from a $600 million Missouri bond issue Grobman hoped would fund a new science building. 

“We leaped into action,” Van Uum says. “We put together some lobbying effort, and we got the building moved up the priority list. The legislature agreed to give us $26 million, which built the research wing of the science complex and library extension, which became the Mercantile Library. Back in those days, we thought if we build it, they will come. And they did.” 

Van Uum’s impact on the university has only grown in the 38 years since while serving under seven permanent or interim chancellors. 

In that time, she’s helped facilitate every expansion on or off campus, leading impactful initiatives such as the negotiation to bring the UMSL North, UMSL South and N. Hanley MetroLink stations to the area and the funding of the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. She led the reconstructions of I-70 – which helped UMSL attract Express Scripts’ headquarters to campus – and then Natural Bridge, through the East-West Gateway Council of Governments Great Streets Initiative. 

“People say, ‘How long does it take?’” Van Uum says. “It takes 10 years. That’s what it takes. You’ve got to think of it. You’ve got to plan it. You’ve got to fund it. You’ve got to build it.” 

It’s safe to say that UMSL would, quite literally, not be the same place without Van Uum. 

“I have enjoyed my work,” she says. “I felt useful and meaningful. It is a blessing. Very few people have the opportunity to have a meaningful career in one place. It’s like watching your children grow up.” 

This story was originally published in the fall 2021 issue of UMSL Magazine. If you have a story idea for UMSL Magazine, email magazine@umsl.edu.

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen