In the past two years, while companies laid off thousands of people all over Wichita, hundreds of breadwinners did what they often do in down times: They enrolled at the local community college to retrain.
Full- and part-time students taking courses at Butler Community College jumped from 8,476 in the 2008-09 school year to 9,555 in the current year, an increase of nearly 13 percent. At the same time the state was cutting its support to Butler by 13 percent and college president Jackie Vietti was forced to cut its budget by $1.3 million.
She had to do it even with the drag on the budget of all the new students who come in needing remedial help in math and English skills; 65 percent of Butler students coming within two years after leaving high school need remedial work because they never learned enough in high school.
Business leaders say she's not only handled this well, but since taking over Butler in 1995 has done an impressive job of positioning Butler to teach the students of the 21st century.
In the past year she's studied how to rip up all the classrooms, turning them into technology-rich wired studios with flexible wall space. When she realized that gas price increases and the economy would hurt students' chances to get to Butler, she vastly increased the number of online courses.
Butler now offers 133 different online classes and 37 "blended" classes (online and in-class learning). Together, those course have grown 32 percent since the spring of 2009.
She's created new programs including the recently added 3-D interactive graphics degree program, helped launch a women in technology group, and launched outreach programs for everyone from Hispanic students to middle schoolers interested in technology.
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Business people like Vietti, and have for years, said Suzie Ahlstrand, a Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce official and vice president of Visioneering Wichita. They've come to know her, Ahlstrand said, "for her nimbleness, her willingness to listen, and her forward thinking."
Brian Black, the corporate public affairs manager for Spirit Aerosystems, said Vietti is so respected at his company that she's one of the few people for whom Spirit CEO Jeff Turner will rearrange his heavily booked schedule on short notice to take her call or speak to a group she's brought there.
"Butler is very important to us, and she is amazing," Black said.
"She's very well respected, by everybody from our CEO to our talent management organization."
One of her biggest fans for years has been Fran Jabara, the Wichita guru to entrepreneurs and business leaders all over the world. About seven years ago he began telling anybody who would listen that they needed to take a look at what Vietti was doing at Butler.
What first caught his attention, he said, was that she was stocking the place with new classes and new technology. He also liked that she was doing this at a community college, a type of school, he said, that never gets the support it needs, and that she never complained about that lack of support. She just finds a way around all problems, he said.
Jabara, before he quit teaching accounting and entrepreneurship 1989, spent 40 years teaching at Wichita State University, including serving for several years as the business school dean. What Vietti was doing in Andover and El Dorado was something special. It was about leadership.
"She doesn't seem to have any restrictions on her thoughts," Jabara said, explaining that restricted thought can be a problem among some academic leaders. "She seems to work all the time, and is always trying something new. They are awfully fortunate to have her."
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Vietti was a mother of three in 1979 when she answered a newspaper advertisement and became a coordinator of instructional programs at Labette Community College in Parsons. Right away, she said, she saw what a small school could do for young students that bigger places could not. "I saw kids getting opportunities they never would have had otherwise," she said.
After that, she threw herself into educational instruction and into study, all while having two more children; she got a master's degree from Pittsburg State University, then got a doctorate in adult and occupational education at Kansas State University.
Part of the reason she created the online courses at Butler is that while getting her Ph.D. and trying to be a good mother, she commuted from Parsons to Kansas State, driving 800 miles a week for a year and a half.
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What makes her unusually respected with employers throughout the region, said Spirit Aerosystem's Black, is that she figured out how to surmount the challenge facing all community colleges of being secondary to other higher education institutions. She realized she could be more flexible than other institutions, be more creative.
"She's often said to me that Butler does not need to be out in front on everything, but that it does need to do all that it can do," he said. "She's amazing, in that she learned long ago how to check her ego at the door. If you're around her any time at all, you see that she refuses to be called Dr. Vietti even though she's got that Ph.D.
"Go to Butler and you see students hugging her all the time. Talk to business people, and they say she's good at forming partnerships that are valuable to employers and good for Butler. "
She's doing this even in hard economic times, he said.
Those are the times when innovation in education can really take off, Vietti said. "The most dangerous thing any institution can do during a trying time is to stop planning for the future," she said.