Gustaf resigns as WATC head

Wichita Area Technical College president Peter Gustaf announced his resignation Friday after spending nearly a decade reshaping technical education in Wichita.

Gustaf is the man most responsible for transforming the city's technical education from an extension of high school vocational classes housed in old buildings around the city to high-tech industry-backed programs that will inhabit the modern $54 million campus going up at Jabara Airport.

Ray Frederick, a member of the WATC board and owner of Frederick Plumbing and Heating, will serve as interim president until a new president can be found.

"It's a great day," Gustaf said. "I've done a lot and it's time to move on."

Gustaf, whose last day will be Jan. 15, said he is considering a range of opportunities in private industry.

The next president's role is to carry out the plan Gustaf set up, said Jim Walters, board chairman for the Sedgwick County Technical Education and Training Authority, which oversees the college.

The political force for the transformation came from the city's aircraft magnates and, later, the local political establishment. But Gustaf brought the drive and intellectual backing.

"Year after year, Pete has been the strategist and vision creator," Walters said. "We wouldn't be here without Pete."

However, change meant existing institutions and people were pushed aside.

Former WATC president Camille Kluge resigned in 2006 after years of tension with the aircraft industry and Gustaf over how she ran the college.

In one instance, the industry refused to send students to WATC's aircraft mechanic program. Instead it asked Cowley Community College to start a program at a Cessna facility near Pawnee and Rock Road. That program has since become part of WATC.

Gustaf was an entrepreneur and chairman of the South Dakota Board of Education when he was recruited by Wichita's top aircraft executives in 2002.

Gustaf is known nationally as an advocate and innovator of technical education. The executives wanted him to rethink local public technical education to make it work better for them.

They were worried. Not only was aviation in an upswing and gobbling up all the workers it could find, but, more importantly, executives foresaw problems because their work force was already largely middle-aged.

Industry needed workers trained on the latest technology, and the college needed to train students in areas that led to real, high-paying jobs.

WATC, owned and operated by the Wichita school district, wasn't doing that when he arrived, Gustaf said.

"The system was kind of broken and nobody was really focusing on technical education," Gustaf said.

Today, the new training center is rising behind Gustaf's office at Jabara Airport.

People have questioned who will fill the center with all of the recent aviation layoffs, but both Gustaf and Walters say that there is plenty of growth to come.

The college was the second-fastest-growing in the nation this school year for colleges under 2,500 students, according to WATC.

Frederick said one of Gustaf's greatest contributions was redefining technical education in Wichita.

People used to think of it as vocational training, basic job skills for people who can't make it in school, Frederick said. In reality, these are the people who do highly technical jobs such as rebuilding avionics or running CAT scanners.

"He broke the old model of vocational training and remade it as technical education," Frederick said. "He kept raising the bar."