Economic development in Wichita will get a new actor with a southern accent starting in 2014.
Royce Bowden, an engineer and university leader from Mississippi State University, in January will become the new dean of the College of Engineering at Wichita State University.
Given the intense and longtime relationship between WSU engineering and local industry, it’s a crucial job. The dean is pivotal in job creation and economic development in Wichita, in spite of budget cuts, recessions and legislators’ criticisms. His boss at WSU, Tony Vizzini, joked about telling Bowden, “I want him to walk on water.”
Vizzini, who is vice president for academic affairs and holds a doctorate in engineering, said the aerospace companies that Wichita depends on are polite but blunt about what they want from WSU engineers. And they don’t joke about it: They’ve laid off thousands of workers in recent years, have struggled with increased competition and work in a market that has been depressed since 2008.
“Wichita State is an important partner in providing valuable career-ready employees as well as supplementing our own research,” said Debbie Gann, vice president of corporate communications and administration at Spirit AeroSystems. She said Spirit looks forward to working with Bowden.
Wichita’s companies, as Bowden himself said in an interview last week, are not required to hire from WSU if they find better graduates elsewhere. Thirty percent of engineers in Wichita are WSU graduates, the university says. But as Gann pointed out: “We have a great relationship with all of our state’s colleges and universities.”
Vizzini said the companies have told him WSU does well in producing graduates with the kind of hands-on training Wichita companies prefer.
“But they also tell me they want even better graduates with even more hands-on training,” he said.
Vizzini said he and Bowden worked together for several years when both were at Mississippi State. He said he saw Bowden make college departments stronger.
“He’s a builder,” Vizzini said. “He’s good at pulling people with diverse opinions together, good at research and good at working with donors.”
He’s also good at boosting enrollment and building partnerships with businesses and alumni, he said. Those are all WSU priorities.
Vizzini and WSU president John Bardo set high expectations, Vizzini said. He thinks Bowden can handle it but says it won’t be easy.
“We’re already in the second year of a significant 10-year plan to grow,” Vizzini said. “The first five years of a 10-year plan are where you either get your resources in line and make it work or not. So with the urgency of what we’re trying to do, there’s little time for him. He’s got three years to make a difference.”
Bowden said he knows what he’s getting into. He knows WSU engineering work has a national reputation but that much of that reputation comes not necessarily from the College of Engineering but from the work of the National Institute for Aviation Research, a WSU organization with 15 advanced testing laboratories that works with the college Bowden now runs.
He knows there is a nationwide shortage of engineers and that the shortage slows down American companies considerably. He knows WSU has raised the college’s stature and enrollment, though not as much as either WSU or the state wants. There were 961 undergraduates in engineering in the fall of 2005; there are 1,886 now. There were 236 freshmen majoring in engineering in 2005; there are 429 now.
He knows WSU has worked hard in recent years to persuade middle and high school students to take up engineering at WSU, and he thinks he can help increase enrollment and graduation rates. He says he has done all that before and knows what it takes.
He knows many people will demand much of him. When the engineering college performs well, when the research done in labs produces results, it helps create jobs and prosperity in a city struggling to achieve both since 2008.
Some higher-education insiders have criticized legislators for cutting university budgets, he said. “But I know that they have a difficult, complex job to do. And I know it will be important for us to get our story out about what we are doing.”
Engineering is so crucial that the Kansas Legislature, though recently critical of WSU spending, is still giving $3.5 million a year to WSU solely to help recruit more young people to come to the engineering college. Support and initiative for that spending came from Gov. Sam Brownback and other conservatives who otherwise have cut more general spending at WSU and other universities by millions in recent years.
Bowden, who at one time worked for Martin Marietta when it was designing the external tanks on NASA’s space shuttles, said some of his research led to software developments that are still being used in companies today.
“I’ve seen that cycle of how innovation and technology can lead to products that are game changers,” Bowden said. He hopes to help create some of that here. His first move will be to meet with bosses at the companies in Wichita that want better things from WSU, he said.
Both Bowden and Vizzini say their first priority, after educating students, is to help industry and grow jobs. It’s not all about airplanes, they said.
“Engineers are a critical part of the circle that creates innovations and technology that leads to high-paying jobs,” Bowden said. “What they do at WSU is vital to Wichita, to the state of Kansas, to the region and to the nation.”