Departing Beggs helped transform Wichita State

WSU President Donald Beggs and his wife Shirley give coach Gregg Marshall a thumbs up during Shocker Madness at Koch Arena Thursday. (Oct. 27, 2011)
WSU President Donald Beggs and his wife Shirley give coach Gregg Marshall a thumbs up during Shocker Madness at Koch Arena Thursday. (Oct. 27, 2011) The Wichita Eagle

Privately, when the state forced deep cuts in Wichita State University’s operating budget three years ago, president Don Beggs worried over what this would mean for students at his university.

It would mean they’d take on more student loan and credit card debt.

It would mean more would have to work their way through college. Only 17 percent of WSU students complete a bachelor’s degree in four years.

But publicly, Beggs never complained, as many other university presidents complained. It would be wrong, Beggs said, to complain when so many neighbors were losing jobs, retirement savings and their sense of well-being.

What he did, his colleagues said, was lead them to redefine WSU’s purpose. When Beggs came here 12 years ago, WSU, like Kansas State and the University of Kansas, was in the business of providing an overall liberal-arts education. Beggs, his friends say, kept that going while making WSU sharply different, more directed toward getting people jobs and helping local industry create jobs.

“He did such a good job of defining who we are and who we need to be in the future that he pretty much defined what kind of president we’ll need to replace him,” said David McDonald, an associate vice president overseeing academic affairs and research at WSU. “That’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.”

‘Urban serving’

In 2006, two years before the economy went south, Beggs hired an expert on spiders, Gary Miller, as his new vice president of academic affairs. Miller, an accomplished biologist and administrator, began to advocate for a more sharply defined role for WSU. Miller left in May to become chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, but in his five years here, with support from Beggs, Miller and other university leaders began urging Beggs and the rest of WSU to join more than 40 other universities that define themselves as “urban serving” institutions. The idea, said current acting WSU provost Keith Pickus, was to stay the course in giving a broad education but also “leverage the expertise at WSU to do a lot more to help industry.”

“Urban serving” can sound a bit like a sleepy academic term. But it demanded that WSU’s scientists, researchers and engineers, among others, get more involved with industry. WSU, for example with its National Institute for Aviation Research, became heavily involved in research and ideas that produced things rather than studies. The new dean of engineering, Zulma Toro-Ramos, hired by Beggs in 2005, began looking for ways to get her engineers involved in the community too.

“This is now what makes us distinct in the state,” McDonald said. “KU and Kansas State do a lot more pure research than we do now, and it’s good that they do that. But we work much more directly with industry, and about a third of what we do in research is done by working directly with industry.”

The results, said acting provost Keith Pickus, are worth noting.

There is a severe shortage of engineers in Kansas. Toro-Ramos created a new effort getting WSU more involved in growing engineers at the grassroots, in local middle and high schools. Toro-Ramos coordinated an effort to expand Project Lead the Way, a program in Wichita public schools offer pre-engineering courses. She is working with Mueller Elementary, an aerospace and engineering magnet, to teach engineering to its students.

WSU, with McDonald as one of the leaders and a key idea person, pushed to create a new industry in Wichita, putting medical people together with composite engineers and manufacturers to create a new medical devices manufacturing industry, which is still under development.

WSU created a degree program in bioengineering, an effort Beggs says is attracting some of the sharpest students at WSU, and pointedly looking to the drastic changes coming in that field’s future. As the late Steve Jobs once pointed out, there used to be phones, and there used to be music players, and there used to be computers … until Apple introduced the iPhone. Vast changes and new combinations are now possible in bioengineering, combining medicine with engineering with pharmacology with aviation composite manufacturing.

“What we are witnessing in the future is a breaking down of some of the old disciplines,” Pickus said. “Complex problems in the future can’t be solved by a system that leaves all these things in silos. There are huge ranges of possibilities in the future in bioengineering.”

A tough job

Beggs’ replacement, expected to be in place by mid-2012, will inherit a tough job.

In 2002, the state of Kansas provided 40.7 percent of WSU’s operating budget, and tuition made up only 20 percent, Pickus said.

By 2007, the state had reduced its share to 36 percent, and tuition accounted for 22.2 percent.

Now, only 24.86 percent comes from the state, and tuition and fees imposed on students account for 24.47 of the budget. WSU for the first time may soon see tuition account for more of the budget than state support. The rest comes from grants and other sources.

If there’s one thing that numbers like that do for you, it’s challenge your thinking and your assumptions, Beggs said.

Beggs, who turned 70 in September, will be able to pass along these ideas to whomever replaces him next year.

He knew he wasn’t the person to come up with all the solutions, he said. The idea to create a new medical industry out of composites started with a conversation between McDonald and John Tomblin, the head of NIAR. The idea to create a new center that would put engineers off campus and directly on the work floors of more than 40 local businesses and the shops of entrepreneurs was Toro-Ramos’ idea. “Urban Serving,” as a way of doing things, was proposed and pushed by Miller and other people working for Beggs.

“It wasn’t my role to come up with the ideas,” Beggs said in his office the other day. “But … I do have experience in one thing. I know what can happen when I get together with bright people and ask them what can be done.”

An effective leader

Toro-Ramos told a story that she said illustrates why Beggs is not only popular but effective, a person who got things done in spite of cuts and problems.

Six years ago, when Beggs went looking for a new dean of engineering, he considered several candidates, and began to settle on a person who at least by appearances was nothing like the usual dean of engineering at any American university, especially a university in Wichita, which is loaded with engineers working for five major aircraft companies and many other companies.

Most engineering students and most deans of engineering schools are white men; Zulma Toro-Ramos is a Puerto Rican woman. She had confidence in herself, but as she said later, she had spent her career toiling to prove that a person of her gender and background could be as effective as anybody. So when she interviewed for the job at WSU in 2005, she wondered, she said, what these people would think of her, until the day Beggs took her to breakfast, and told her she was his choice.

And then he told her what kind of boss he would be.

“He said there were many things he couldn’t do, but there were several things he could do for me,” she said. “He said he would trust me. He said he would support me. And he said he would stay out of my way.”

“There are many universities that operate as the traditional ivory tower,” Toro-Ramos said. “Not WSU. Whatever I’ve done since then has happened because of the freedom I was given here.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle