Wichita State president John Bardo remembered for transforming university

John Bardo, who transformed Wichita State as the 13th president of the university, died Tuesday.

Dr. Bardo, 70, had been hospitalized since November for treatment of a chronic lung condition that required surgeries in November and December.

“President Bardo permanently changed Wichita for the better with his vision of what the university could be for its students and the city,” David Murfin, a member of the Kansas Board of Regents, said in a prepared statement. “He put a very capable team in place. His legacy is secure.”

In early January, Provost Richard Muma began serving as acting president at Dr. Bardo’s request. He remained keenly interested in the work of the university even during his illness, Muma said in a written statement.

Dr. Bardo’s vision for the university “will continue to guide us as we move forward, together,” Muma said.

Dr. Bardo had been president of Wichita State since 2012.

“We came home in 2012 to try to reposition this university as a key driver of the future of Wichita,” Dr. Bardo said recently in reflecting on his tenure as president. “It’s been surprising to me how well it has worked.”

He arrived at the university with clear priorities that came to be known as The Bardo Five: improve overall quality of education, increase enrollment, enhance basic research, pursue technology discovery in partnership with industry and improve the quality of student life.

Steve Clark, who chaired the presidential search committee in 2012, called Dr. Bardo “an anomaly in the academic world.”

“He was the only one in the talent pool we interviewed … that exhibited a unique mix of academic experience, social conscience and business acumen,” Clark said. “He had a vision to move the university forward, and was decisive in executing it. What amazed me is he seemed to have a unique ability to navigate the complicated culture in education without breaking too many eggs.”

The changes and fast pace at which they occurred were at times controversial.

During his tenure, there were multiple staff resignations, and in the spring of 2017, the Student Government Association cast a vote of no confidence in Dr. Bardo’s leadership, citing a lack of transparency and concerns over student fees used for the Innovation Campus.

Last week, students narrowly rejected a plan to raise fees to pay for a new business building on the Innovation Campus and building repairs.

WSU Innovation Campus

The most visible evidence of Dr. Bardo’s success was the creation of the Innovation Campus, said Lou Heldman, vice president for strategic communications at the university.

What began as a concept to erect a building or two to house a combination of university research programs and partners from private industry has grown to involve 120 acres of land east of the traditional campus, on what was once the Braeburn Golf Course.

The campus now includes three engineering buildings, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Law Enforcement Training Center, two residence halls and three buildings containing restaurants and retail stores. A YMCA/Student Wellness Center, hotel and aviation crash lab are being built or will begin construction later this year.

A new business school building is planned. With one of the partnership buildings fully occupied, another is under construction.

“What’s going on up there now is really big for our community and it’s attracting a lot of attention around the country,” attorney Harvey Sorensen said. “That’s all good for us.”

The collaboration, applied learning and research that are hallmarks of Innovation Campus aren’t limited to the 120 acres it now calls home, Dr. Bardo wrote in a letter to faculty last spring.

“It is our goal that the spirit of Innovation Campus comes to permeate every aspect of WSU, transforming the entire enterprise into a student-centered and innovation-driven university,” he wrote.

While community leaders had talked for decades about broadening Wichita’s economic base so the city wouldn’t be so vulnerable to the boom-bust cycles of aviation manufacturing, it was Dr. Bardo who was the catalyst behind the Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth, said Wichita City Manager Robert Layton.

“He was the driving force,” Layton said. “Pushing us to look seriously … at how do we truly diversify in a way that will give us meaningful reform in our economic development?”

Changing lives

Dr. Bardo consistently delivered the message that the university existed to change lives for the better, Heldman said.

The changes that occurred under Dr. Bardo’s watch included Wichita State’s move from its longtime home in the Missouri Valley Conference to the American Athletic Conference in 2017.

“This is an event of great importance in defining the future of Wichita State,” Dr. Bardo said when the change was announced.

The move to the American Athletic Conference capped a two-year process “to determine the best way athletics could help position the university for enrollment growth and enhance WSU’s reputation as an academic and research institution,” he said.

Dr. Bardo also established an affiliation with Wichita Area Technical College, now known as WSU Tech. He doubled the university’s funded research and created new degree programs.

He grew the number of online courses and enrollment and modernized on-campus housing. He wasn’t afraid to take risks, including sacrificing more than 600 precious parking spaces in the heart of campus to make room for Shocker Hall, a dormitory for freshmen that opened in 2014.

The Flats, a dorm for upperclassmen, opened in 2017. The Suites, a dorm for freshmen and upper classes, is being built next to The Flats and is slated to open this fall.

“Dr. Bardo is responsible for a lot of that, figuring out a way to get it done,” Sorensen said.

The new dorms, Sorensen said, are helping Wichita State transition from its history as a commuter school to a more traditional university experience. That’s valuable for a number of reasons, Sorensen said. Studies have shown that students who stay on campus during their freshmen years are more likely to connect with the school, build friendships and become more likely to return the following year, he said.

U.S. Senator Jerry Moran said that Dr. Bardo’s impact on Wichita State “will be felt for generations to come.”

Rep. Ron Estes said Shockers are better off because of Dr. Bardo’s leadership, passion and vision.

“His devotion to education and Wichita State was evident, as he led the University in a bold direction that benefited students and the entire Wichita-area community,” Estes said.

Always a professor

Even after decades in university administration, Dr. Bardo still thought of himself first as the sociology professor he once was, Heldman said.

He still dressed like a sociology professor. He seldom wore suits and ties and was more comfortable in rumpled khakis, no belt and a short-sleeved golf shirt, worn under a blazer. He was perfectly happy with a Jimmy John’s turkey sandwich and a diet root beer for lunch and a home-cooked meal for dinner.

Those roots in social work help explain why one of Dr. Bardo’s last major projects — the revitalization of the geographic area that sits between the university and downtown Wichita —was particularly close to his heart, Layton said.

Dr. Bardo was troubled by the lack of development and economic opportunity in what has historically been on of the city’s poorest areas, Layton said.

As the university has evolved to help students prepare for a new economy that increasingly revolves around technology and innovation, Dr. Bardo stressed that those opportunities be available to students all across the economic spectrum, said Andy Schlapp, his chief of staff.

Koch Industries pledged $3 million in scholarships for students from economically disadvantaged areas so they can enroll in the university and have access to GoCreate, the university’s makerspace facing 17th Street.

“Everyone has good ideas on what they want to do, but not everyone can afford the materials or use the space they need to get it done,” Schlapp said.

If the city and the university don’t make a concerted effort to include Fairmount and the 67214 neighborhoods in creating opportunities, Dr. Bardo told city leaders, it would limit Wichita’s potential.

“He was a great thinker and he was a great catalyst for the right kind of change we needed in the community,” Layton said.

Celebration of Life

Dr. Bardo was born in Cincinnati in 1948 and received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Cincinnati. After earning a master’s degree in sociology from Ohio University and a Ph.D. in sociology from Ohio State University, Dr. Bardo was hired as an assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State.

He also worked and taught in the Hugo Wall Center for Urban Studies. Dr. Bardo first met his wife, Deborah, in Neff Hall on the campus of Wichita State and they married in 1975.

During his time at WSU, he also obtained a Fulbright to Australia where he and Deborah studied Americans as migrants and had a sabbatical appointment at the University of Wales at Swansea in social policy.

Dr. Bardo held a variety of positions at Southwest Texas State University, the University of North Florida, Bridgewater State College and Western Carolina University. He served as chancellor at Western Carolina from 1995 to 2011, prior to returning to Wichita.

Dr. Bardo is survived by his wife and their son, Christopher, who lives in Wichita and is a graduate of Wichita State.

Funeral services will be private, but a public Celebration of Life will be held later this spring on campus. The university is inviting people who have thoughts or recollections to share about Dr. Bardo to send them to president@wichita.edu or to bring cards or signed notes to the President’s Office, Room 203 of Morrison Hall between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.