Wichita State University President John Bardo told state lawmakers Wednesday that budget cuts are hindering his plans to turn the university into a center for technology and innovation for south-central Kansas.
“I had put together a $1.8 million innovation fund,” Bardo said. “Because the university is so underfunded compared to other schools … I gave up my $1.8 million” to backfill cuts in state funding.
It was that or make deep cuts in the budgets for existing departments or steep hikes in tuition, he said.
“I couldn’t see how I could cut the academic departments and ask them for any more, given the level of funding that they have right now compared to our peers,” he said. “I also raised tuition to try to make up some of the rest of it, but part of that tuition increase was that we were so underfunded compared to our peers that we simply had to have some money to be able to be at market, even close to it.
“Did I like it? Absolutely not,” he added. “Would I do it again if you were to cut it again? Absolutely.”
Bardo made his remarks to members of the House and Senate budget committees, who are on a bus tour of state colleges, universities and technical schools. They were joined at the WSU stop by several local legislators.
In June, lawmakers chopped $33 million for higher education from this year’s budget and $32.8 million from next year’s.
Bardo said he understands that lawmakers have to deal with a lot of priorities and make difficult decisions.
“The one thing I would ask is please deal with what you’re dealing with rather than telling us we’re bad, because honestly, we’re trying very hard to be good,” he said.
Throughout the day-long tour, presentations focused on the university’s cooperation with and research support for local industry, especially aircraft.
In a lunchtime discussion at WSU’s new National Institute for Aviation Research facility at the former Kansas Coliseum, a panel of four aircraft engineering executives praised the university, for shouldering a substantial load of contract research work and for turning out students who are workforce ready.
While Beechcraft largely makes the same class of small aircraft it has for decades, the planes aren’t made the same way as in the past because of innovations in materials and manufacturing techniques, said Sherry Skinner, the company’s director of engineering.
“We rely heavily on the NIAR associates not only for staffing, but also for testing, for development of technologies, and we work with them as a partner,” she said. “We see this as a big value not only to the company but to the industry. … This isn’t just to benefit Beechcraft or to benefit Bombardier; we share the technologies across the industries as well.”
Tom Bisges, vice president of engineering for Bombardier-Learjet, said the real-world experience that students gain working on projects for NIAR and its industry partners gives them a leg up on other universities’ graduates.
“At Learjet by itself we have about 40 co-op students,” he said. “Most of those are engineers. That’s my pipeline” for hiring.
“I could go anywhere in the country,” he added. “I go there because of their knowledge and their hands-on experience in their practical applications that they gain through the activities of WSU and NIAR.”
Standing in front of a bank of giant-screen monitors, John Tomblin, director of the university’s aircraft research and technology transfer programs, told lawmakers that WSU ranks No. 3 in the nation for spending on aviation research and No. 1 for nongovernmental aviation.
Bardo told the lawmakers that Wichita is fortunate to be part of a high-potential economic super-region anchored by Dallas-Fort Worth, that runs along I-35 from south-central Texas to Kansas City.
He outlined to the lawmakers his plans to position the university and community to take advantage of that.
“The future is in entrepreneurship and innovation,” he said.
Bardo appealed to the lawmakers for funding to help turn a significant portion of the campus into a technology park where the university can expand its ongoing program of transferring WSU-developed research to the private sector.
The idea is to nurture “gazelles,” a term for high-tech startup companies that grow rapidly, he said.
That, he said, will help break a local cycle in which jobs are available but don’t pay very well and are not very stable.
“Our intent is to move private enterprises onto this campus as fast as we can to promote innovation and technology,” Bardo said. “This golf course you’re seeing out here, if we’re successful, will disappear entirely.”
While praising the presentation and Bardo’s plans, the leaders of both the House and Senate budget committees said they’re not sure whether the tour will result in more funding for higher education.
“I know that’s what they’re hoping for,” said Marc Rhoades, R-Newton and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
But he said he hasn’t polled his fellow Republicans, who hold just about all the decision-making power in the House.
When lawmakers return to the Capitol in January, “We’ll see what the mood of the body is on it,” he said.
However, he said touring the universities and seeing what they’re doing is “a whole lot better than making a dollar decision without having the context.”
WSU especially made a strong case for funding, said Ty Masterson, R-Andover and chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
He said he was especially impressed with the school’s efforts to “move students from the classroom to actual employment.”
Masterson said he’s not hearing much sentiment among his peers for additional cuts or a major increase in funding in the coming year.
Lawmakers he’s talked to are leaning toward keeping this year’s overall funding cuts, but dropping salary limitations and giving universities more room to maneuver in their spending, he said.