Wichita State selects John Bardo as university president

08/12/2012 2:05 PM

08/05/2014 8:27 PM

Running a university sometimes means getting the dead bear off campus, and then gritting your teeth as dead bear stories about your university appear in prominent headlines all over the world.

Sometimes, running a university means merely growing enrollment in the face of harsh budget cuts.

John Bardo has done those things successfully, along with a considerable number of other things, and he thinks that as good as Donald Beggs has been in running Wichita State University, he can bring a fresh approach and get even more good things done here, for students, local industries, the local economy and the community.

The Kansas Board of Regents on Friday announced that Bardo, 63, retired chancellor of Western Carolina University, will succeed Beggs as president starting July 1.

Bardo knows Wichita nearly as well as anybody living here. So does his wife, Deborah, who graduated from West High School in 1971 and still has family in the area. Bardo met her in Neff Hall, during those years, 1973 to 1983, when he taught sociology at WSU. They lived here then; they have visited Wichita frequently since then.

He will succeed the popular President Beggs, who along with his wife, Shirley, got a sustained standing ovation on Friday from the hundreds who showed up to hear the announcement. Minutes before, the university provost, Keith Pickus, had joked (with Beggs listening in) that Beggs was probably the happiest person in the building on this morning, but Beggs just nodded, and also acknowledged that the statement would probably have been true on all the other mornings of the past 13 years.

Bardo, in an afternoon interview with The Eagle, praised Beggs for the way he steered WSU’s purposes toward a much stronger relationship with local industry and business, and said there’s going to be more of that coming soon.

Besides even stronger links with local industry, he said he hopes to use his scholar’s knowledge (he’s a sociologist who has researched globalization, technology, and the relationships between higher education and the economy) to foster more innovation and creativity in the community. One thing that shaped him as a young scholar here was how local entrepreneur and former WSU professor Fran Jabara became one of the first leaders anywhere to found a center for entrepreneurship at a university. Four decades ago, nobody in universities was thinking like that. Bardo did not know Jabara well (Deborah, his wife, took Jabara’s WSU accounting class years ago and said it was “really hard”), but Bardo remembers the creativity and the sense of excitement Jabara created for business and entrepreneurship with the founding of that center.

Among other things, Bardo said, he wants to explore ideas, with the faculty, with the community, with businesspeople. Would it be possible, for example, for WSU to assist all sorts of smaller businesses take off, helping them innovate and use new high technology? Would it be possible to help faculty create new methods and models of teaching, giving teachers more freedom and flexibility while inspiring new learning for students? Could they learn anything from the way the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have been creating new and often free educational opportunities, online and elsewhere. Could WSU researchers and educators put together a “skunk works” for ideas – skunk works being a slang term for people within an organization being given some autonomy and less bureaucracy to innovate and invent.

“But at first there’s going to be a lot of listening and learning,” he said. “I didn’t learn I was going to be the president until 5 o’clock last night.”

He knows he’s got a tough job here. Beggs, who dealt deftly and effectively with severe budget cuts imposed on state support for universities, has long warned that this has put a strain on students, who have taken on increasingly heavy debts to get an education.

“Funding for education is a tough issue now, and I see my role as trying to help the Legislature see how funding education will help them meet their own goals,” Bardo said. “I find wherever I go that people of whatever political persuasion all want to do what is right for the state; none of them go to the Legislature to do bad things to the state.”

Ed Mckechnie, Board of Regents president, said the board interviewed five strong finalists for the job, and that Bardo’s strategic thinking and ideas for how to steer WSU were the strongest they heard; the depth and scope of some of those ideas were so good that McKechnie said they might borrow some of them for use at the state’s other universities. He also said that with Bardo’s near-lifetime ties to WSU, and his long service already as a university president, there won’t have to be a two-year learning period for Bardo like there might be for someone new to running a campus.

Bardo, former chancellor of Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Cincinnati, a master’s degree in sociology from Ohio University, and a doctorate in sociology from Ohio State. During his career he has been a department chair, dean, university vice president, and provost.

He retired last year from Western Carolina, and people there praised him for increasing enrollment and creating many new and innovative programs for the students and the faculty.

But Bardo, on Friday afternoon, said he has had a long practice of being open and honest, so he volunteered that one reason he retired from Western Carolina was, though successful there over 16 years, he thought he was no longer getting the job done the way he thought it ought to be done. “All leaders need to understand that there comes a time when you need to go, and if you don’t know that, you shouldn’t be running a university,” Bardo said.

Bardo said he never thought about applying for positions at other schools until the WSU job came open. When it did, he got excited; “I thought I could be useful here,” he said.

By the time he left last year, he was no longer gritting his teeth over the dead bear; but the dead bear remains “just about the worst thing” he ever had to manage as an educator.

In 2008, at the height of the national election campaign in which a senator named Barack Obama was running for president, three Western Carolina students “who had probably been partying a little more than they should have” found a road-killed bear, Bardo recalled, “and thought it would be a really good idea to bring it on campus. And because it was bleeding into their truck bed, they put political posters all over its head.” Barack Obama posters.

The result, after the dead bear got dumped on campus, was a rumpus of international proportions; Bardo as president ended up having to deal with, among other entities, the Secret Service, the FBI, and journalists calling from all over the world, wanting to know specifics about the dead bear. And what the dumping of that bear said about evil among the students of Western Carolina University.

Bardo thought that was unfair — if not to the bear, certainly to the students.

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