What makes America great? Upward mobility. Diversity. Inclusion.

Tom George
Chancellor, University of Missouri–St. Louis
President, CUMU

This is my first column as president of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities, and therefore I want to offer something meaningful. This is an organization whose membership and mission are far reaching, but for today I am limiting my focus to access and success.

Community engagement. Economic development. Innovative research. These and other topics are all important areas for further discussion. But I decided to start with something that connects us all at the core – educating people who leave our institutions prepared for different and better lives.

I had come to this theme after reading a New York Times column by David Leonhardt, which had been forwarded to me by an alumnus.

“Read this, Tom,” the email said. “He’s talking about UMSL.”

Entitled “America’s Great Working-Class Colleges,” the column did not mention the University of Missouri–St. Louis by name. But the premise of the column did resonate with this alumnus and with me.

The author lamented how too many universities and colleges were increasingly catering to upper-class students to the detriment of poor and working-class students. Chasing dollars or national rankings, the column revealed a surprising number of campuses nationally with high concentrations of wealthy students. Few seats were left for the poor and working class, he said.

This brought to mind our situation in St. Louis, where UMSL students tend to be older, more diverse and poorer than national averages. Yet, we have multiple thousands of success stories – among them George Paz, an alumnus who spoke at an event capping off a successful capital fundraising campaign.

Paz talked about the importance of UMSL in his life. Growing up poor (his own description), Paz said that his father, who moved with his family here from Mexico, pushed him toward education as a way forward and up. Paz worked at a fast food restaurant to see himself through college. Looking back, he said the fast food experience had served him well, but it was the college education that allowed him to make that forward progress and rise to the top.

Paz received a bachelor’s degree in accounting, joined a national accounting firm and moved to Express Scripts, which is the largest company by revenue in Missouri and the largest pharmacy benefit management organization in the U.S. It consistently sits among the Top 25 Fortune firms. He started at Express Scripts as its CFO, rising to become its Chairman and CEO.

Paz and Express Scripts are tremendous supporters of UMSL – in large part because of our role in producing quality graduates from diverse backgrounds.

I had intended to follow this upward mobility theme further, when President Donald Trump issued his federal travel ban affecting individuals from seven predominately Muslim countries. Like you, I had to adjust my activities to address the confusion and angst it caused.

Messages were sent. Meetings and panels were organized. News stories were produced. Everyone was seeking some form of comfort or support or understanding. To some degree, I am sure that was accomplished. But this conversation must continue. I am hopeful that CUMU institutions will lead that effort locally and nationally.

Collectively, CUMU institutions enroll 1.5 million students – hailing from all walks of life and places near and far. We must speak for – fight for – this rich mosaic of people who seek different and better lives.

We must detail how budget cuts and federal policies can limit the talent pool and rob this country of energy and innovation and hope. America cannot be great if we do not invest in the potential of all of our citizens and those individuals who are drawn here to realize their American Dream.

Thank you for your support of CUMU and the students and communities we serve and must continue to serve.