John Bardo sacrificed parking for new student housing at Wichita State University, and he’s prepared to say goodbye to the campus’ 18-hole golf course as well.
“If we’re lucky, I’ll get yelled at for doing that,” Bardo said. “If not, it will be my successor who gets the joy of doing that.”
That would mean his plan for a new business and technology park is working, and he needs more space to build.
Bardo is one year into his presidency, and so far the golf course isn’t in imminent danger.
“Please tell people the golf course isn’t going away anytime soon,” Bardo said. “But if I have to, it’s because we have lots of people who need to be here and lots of jobs that we’re creating.”
As soon as Bardo arrived in Wichita last summer, he took to a local speaking circuit in which he articulated his plans for working with businesses to create visible results on campus and in the community.
“I was blown away,” said Tom Dondlinger of Dondlinger & Sons, the contractor building the new student housing at WSU. “John’s vision for the future of Wichita State University and how it affects our community is just – I think he’s right on,” Dondlinger said. “That seems to be a big priority.”
He points to how little time Bardo has been here and how the new housing is already under way.
“John has the leadership ability to make things happen, and he’s already done it.”
The $65 million housing development includes a 784-bed residence hall in 300,000 square feet and a dining center for about 450 in 25,000 square feet.
Bardo said he was able to move quickly on housing because it was something under his control – unlike the business market.
“We’re players in the market. We don’t control the market.”
What Bardo wants is to see companies have a presence on WSU’s campus.
“We really haven’t tried to house the businesses on our campus,” Bardo said.
He wants a thriving technology park for companies to create and test new products.
“They would have a research building with their name on it,” he said. “Every time you do something like that, you’ve added hundreds of jobs. It has huge implications.”
He said WSU already has a head start in some ways, such as with the National Institute for Aviation Research at the school.
“I don’t have to reproduce the wheel,” Bardo said. “This is such a strong base to build from compared to most universities.”
A park won’t happen overnight, though.
“That’s a 30-year development,” Bardo said.
Not that he’s willing to wait long for concrete results.
“Visions are daydreams if they don’t happen, and I don’t really find that interesting.”
You might expect someone who is so focused on building business relationships to be out and about for lunch. Bardo has so much on his plate at the university, though, you’re more likely to find him munching peanuts and sipping diet root beer at his desk than hobnobbing over lunch.
“That’s pretty much the excitement of the day,” Bardo said of his meager meal.
“He’s a very focused guy,” said Steve Clark, the developer who led the search committee to find a new president after previous president Don Beggs announced his retirement.
“The impressive thing about John was he had so much experience,” Clark said.
He said WSU previously hasn’t optimized business relationships.
“It has a great deal more potential to collaborate with local business and offer a lot more benefits than it has in the past, and I think John brings that to the table,” Clark said. “There’s a great opportunity there.”
From his vantage point as chancellor at Western Carolina University from 1995 to 2011, Bardo had a front row seat to North Carolina’s research triangle, the high-tech home of one of the nation’s best known corporate and collegiate research collaborations.
“I had nothing to do with them,” he said. “I just watched them.”
Bardo liked what he saw so much at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he took a group of WSU administrators there last summer to show what schools and businesses are capable of doing together.
For instance, Bardo was impressed with NCSU’s work with textiles.
“I thought, textiles? That’s a dying area,” he said. “Well, it’s anything but.” The school did experiments with fabrics that never need washed or that can treat blood infections.
“I just got awestruck by the kind of work they were doing,” Bardo said.
He said translational research is taking the intellectual capacity of the university and seeing how it can translate to the community to improve lives, such as with new products. Bardo said he doesn’t simply want the research, though. He wants patents.
“What we’re looking at is, can we help?” he said. “And so we’re looking at the skill sets that we have. Where can we have impact?”
Bardo said NIAR already “has given us a credibility in a lot of markets.”
He said he’s looking globally for partnership opportunities, and he said there’s an international company that is considering WSU.
“We are one of five sites. If they choose to pull the trigger, they would build a building.”
Bardo said he expects to have some naysayers for his business plans.
“That’s just kind of a given.”
Many business leaders, though, seem to be behind him.
“In just about every one of those (talks), he has completely wowed the audience with his message – his vision – primarily on how the university can and should be an economic driver, not only for this community but for the entire state,” said Gary Plummer, president and CEO at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. “It was delivered in a very bold fashion that I think has gotten a lot of people very excited in this past year.”
Plummer said Bardo “really drove home the point that we were really just scratching the surface here in Wichita.”
“He’s not overboard on the philosophical side. He’s very much action oriented. Let’s get to it. Let’s work together. Let’s solve a problem.”
Plummer said that resonates with business leaders. He said he wants to point out that business leaders were appreciative of Beggs as well.
“Just because Dr. Bardo has come up with some new ideas and is really stretching people’s thinking, I hope you don’t interpret (that) as a criticism of Dr. Beggs.”
Other leaders also say that Beggs brought his own skills and ideas to the school while Bardo brings his own.
“What Don Beggs did was fabulous for our university,” said Dondlinger, the contractor. “Now, it’s time for a new direction.”
Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton said Bardo seems to have an “entrepreneurial spirit.”
“He’s got a grand vision for where he wants to take the university and how it is applicable to some of the key issues in our community, like growing jobs and taking research and technology to the marketplace, which eventually creates jobs.”
Norton said that through Visioneering Wichita trips, area leaders have already been studying innovations and incubator programs at other schools.
“As I understand Dr. Bardo’s thoughts, it’s taking it to the next level and helping put business plans behind it,” Norton said. “Actually start creating products and jobs.”
Bardo said it’s easy to underestimate how ties between business and academia can generate activity on and off campus.
“You can look at this as altruistic, or you can look at this as selfish, and I’m OK with looking at it either way,” he said. “The bottom line is in the end, everyone benefits if we’re successful, and no one benefits if we’re not.”