Wichita State official plans to work with legislators

Tony Vizzini knows that Kansas legislators who cut Wichita State University’s budget won’t necessarily be impressed by his academic credentials.

WSU’s new vice president for academic affairs hopes to talk to lawmakers soon – and to listen so that “Oh, they will be my best friends.”

But he has heard enough about their frustrations about why and how universities spend tens of millions of tax dollars to know that his four degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including his 1986 doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics, might not inspire as much conversation as whether he can find ways to save money, he said.

So he hopes they might be interested in another credential he’s proud of:

His father-in-law is Frank Taube Jr., a Michigan entrepreneur who sometimes offers Vizzini a barbed suggestion or two: That university people are overpaid. That universities don’t operate efficiently, like successful businesses.

“My father-in-law is a great businessman, and he keeps on looking at the rules that apply in the education environment,” Vizzini said. “Our corporate actions are very different than in corporate America. People from the outside world will just shake their head and say ‘I can’t understand how this and this just happens.’“

Taube, with no college degree, creates jobs, value and profit, Vizzini said. All of this is key to his own understanding. He’s noticed that in states where he has worked (Michigan, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Maryland and Kansas), legislators are often businesspeople. They don’t always understand the spending or decisions of academic folk.

Business legislators

He’s right about that, said Mark Hutton, a Wichita construction businessman who serves on the Kansas House Appropriations Committee.

But it isn’t just that they can’t figure out why universities do what they do, Hutton said. In the session this year, it was more about legislators asking questions and not getting much in the way of answers. When told Vizzini’s comment, Hutton said, “Good. His frame of reference will help him communicate better with us.”

Steve Brunk, another Wichita area businessman serving in the Kansas House, agreed. He said he’d welcome talks with university people.

“For a long time, universities enjoyed year after year of expanding budgets,” Brunk said. “But we finally reached a point where we said, ‘Time out, we want to examine how this money is spent.’ The discussion hadn’t really taken place in a meaningful way so far.”

Brunk said he and other legislators care deeply about Kansas institutions, including universities, and are trying not only to pay state bills but to help the state grow. For many, including himself, these feelings are personal. They want to create “Kansas taxpayer jobs, so that young people can stay in Kansas, and don’t have to go to work in Arkansas, where my daughter now lives, or Colorado, where my son now lives.”

If Vizzini and other leaders approach legislators from an attitude of understanding, that might create progress, he said.

Settling in

Vizzini said he hopes to do that. “My experience is that people who get elected to state legislatures almost always do that to help their state rather than hurt it,” he said.

Some concerns can’t be solved with practices common in business, he said. “I can’t go up to a faculty member and say, ‘You’re under-performing, two weeks and you’re out of here.’ Lots of reasons that person is still teaching a class, and I can’t just put out an ad and put somebody else in that place.”

Part of his job is to find efficiencies. There are ways the university might save money in academics, he said. The university has been creating online education for years, and new technology enables some change.

But online courses can’t do what research laboratories do, he said. “Chalk and talk” lectures are disappearing. Research professors put students in laboratories, where they work with scientists and industry people. They learn more that way, he said. He’s not as fond of online courses as he is of courses with books anyway. “I like the smell of books.”

He’s going to help address concerns legislators have, he said. He hopes he and WSU President John Bardo can ask lawmakers for help addressing theirs.

In the meantime, he is settling into his $270,000-a-year job at WSU. He’s been walking through buildings, talking with campus staff. They say he’s got a big laugh, that he’s curious, approachable – and more.

He served the last four years as dean of the college of engineering and applied sciences at Western Michigan University. In his office there, he had photos of all the past deans removed. He and staff replaced them with baby pictures of dean’s office employees.

Asked about this, Vizzini grinned. “Those dean photos all looked like a bunch of angry old men,” he said. Universities are fun places to work and should stay that way, he said.

Regarding his father-in-law’s barbed opinions about university people: He made one exception, Vizzini said.

“He said, “Oh, no, Tony. You are underpaid.”

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