What will WSU look for in its next president? Community has academic, business priorities

Wichita State University’s next leader will inherit an institution that underwent rapid change during late President John Bardo’s seven years at the helm.

A presidential search profile calls for a “forward-thinking visionary” with a “strong sense of urgency” in advancing the university’s mission.

Bardo said WSU should be the economic driver of the region. He demonstrated his commitment to partnering with private businesses by establishing the Innovation Campus, a research park on the east side of campus.

Now his successor will shape the future of WSU. A search committee is weighing a number of academic and business priorities as the hunt for a new top executive gets underway.

Central to the decision is how the next president will balance a traditional liberal arts education with training Wichita’s future workforce.

The search profile approved by the Kansas Board of Regents on Thursday says WSU’s president should be someone who will “develop, advance and fortify alliances with business, industry, government, academia and community groups” while “advancing a culture of shared governance with faculty” and staff.

Faculty at a recent forum voiced an almost unanimous opinion that the next president should be someone with a background in higher education.

“What I’m hearing is that we really want an academic from a research university,” engineering professor Steve Skinner said.

Bardo, who died in March, was an urban affairs scholar with a doctorate in sociology and more than 40 years of experience in higher education. Prior to WSU, he served for 16 years as chancellor of Western Carolina University.

Beyond academia

A lack of state support is driving many universities to reconsider the notion that presidents should have a background primarily in academia, said Michael Ballew, chief analytics officer and managing director of Wheless, the Alabama-based search firm hired by the regents and paid by WSU to recruit candidates for the presidency.

“About 50% of the searches that we do are for universities now that are saying, ‘We want someone from the business sector, because funds are being cut from the state. We need someone that can talk the language to the businesses,’” Ballew said.

The percentage of university presidents who came to their current positions from outside of higher education actually decreased from 20% in 2011 to 15% in 2016, according to the most recent version of the American College President Survey conducted by the American Council on Education.

This spring, the Kansas Legislature approved $625.9 million for higher education — a $33 million funding boost from last year. That’s still $31.5 million less than Kansas contributed to higher ed in 2009, a high watermark for the state.

“Somebody said public university, privately funded — that’s exactly where it’s going,” Ballew said.

WSU is paying Wheless roughly $95,000 to identify and recruit potential candidates. The regents, a nine-member board of political appointees that oversees state universities, has the ultimate say in who will be hired.

Wichita real estate developer and former regent Steve Clark was tapped by the regents to head a 20-person committee that will come up with a list of finalists. The regents have elected for a closed search, and the committee has been told not to discuss its selections publicly.

Clark also chaired the 2012 search that resulted in Bardo’s selection.

“It’s a different job today than it was [in 2012] because of what Bardo has initiated here,” Clark said. “It’s a complicated university with the Innovation Campus.

“You have all that growth, and you’re dealing with businesses and trying to make deals that will provide synergy for the campus.”

Clark is the namesake of the soon-to-be-opened Steve Clark YMCA and WSU Student Wellness Center on the university’s Innovation Campus.

Koch Industries, Spirit AeroSystems and Airbus Americas are all represented on the search committee, along with other members of the business community. Other committee members include the WSU student body president, the College of Applied Studies dean, the director of the School of Music and the superintendent of the Wichita school district.

Balancing business, learning

At a WSU Board of Trustees meeting in April, WSU Chief of Staff Andy Schlapp said Bardo committed himself to working with businesses to enhance the economy.

“The business community told us, ‘These are the things that you need to do to help us grow,’ and we committed to doing that,” Schlapp said.

At the forum, WSU Assistant Director of Employer Relations, Brian Austin stressed the importance of staying true to Bardo’s vision for the university.

“Wichita State should be an economic driver, and I think it’s important for a president to understand that,” Austin said.

Longtime history professor John Dreifort has worked under five different presidents at Wichita State. He said it’s imperative that the university keep its focus on providing a well-rounded education.

“One of the things that I worry about is, we should not try to become a vocational, technical college serving the needs just of industry and commerce in this city,” Dreifort said at the forum.

Business professor Stan Longhofer echoed Dreifort’s sentiment.

“A university education is not a vocational education. It is about preparing people to be well-rounded so that they are able to change and modify as the needs of businesses change,” he said.

One of Bardo’s major accomplishments was affiliating WSU with WSU Tech, a technical college that offers more than 100 degrees and certificates.

Since WSU’s mission statement was changed in 2013, professors have had to tailor their courses to include more applied-learning opportunities for students, which can be harder to do for traditional disciplines like history, philosophy and English.

Engineering, Patents, and Trademark Librarian Sarah Butts said WSU’s next leader needs to recognize the value in all of the university’s academic offerings.

“Our university has a lot to offer across all colleges and departments, and the research that’s being done and the innovation that’s coming out of our students — I want someone that has an acknowledgment that innovation is more than just engineering and more than just science,” Butts said.

“It’s more than our fancy, shiny Innovation Campus.”

Closed search

Since the presidential search is closed, finalists’ names will not be announced publicly.

Transparency and shared governance have been a point of contention in the past. Students, faculty and community members expressed concerns about how important their input was under Bardo’s administration. University leaders have often cited the needs of private business as reasons to keep their deals secret.

The regents’ decision to prioritize candidates’ privacy excludes the public from the search for one of the highest-paid unelected state employees in Kansas. Bardo made $364,322 in 2018.

Ballew said a closed search makes “good, logical business sense” for WSU.

“A closed-type search like you’re doing here really brings you and ensures you have a greater pool of highly, highly qualified candidates who can truly make a difference,” Ballew said.

He said input provided at forums by faculty, staff and students and through an online survey on the university website would help Wheless build the profile to recruit candidates. The survey garnered 432 responses.

Ballew said an open search would discourage the best candidates from applying, for fear of retribution from their current employers. Wheless plans to recruit candidates who are “happily employed,” he said.

Comparative data compiled by the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information indicates that open presidential searches are no less likely to attract qualified candidates than searches that keep their finalists from the public.

The study, which analyzed presidential searches in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, found that while closed searches in the three states didn’t attract better candidates, they did favor insider candidates.

In Kansas, closed university president searches are a relatively new practice. So far, they haven’t netted any candidates from outside of the regent system.

Including WSU, the last four regents-sanctioned searches have been closed. Searches at Kansas State University and the University of Kansas both led to internal university hires. Fort Hays State University hired a former vice president.

In April, WSU Interim President Andy Tompkins said he expects the Regents to name WSU’s next top executive by late October or early November.

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