Wichita State Chief of Staff Andy Schlapp reflected on John Bardo’s legacy at Thursday’s WSU Board of Trustees meeting — describing the late president as a visionary who charted a new course for WSU during a tumultuous era of higher education.
Bardo put great faith in his executive team, Schlapp said, but it took time for that team to buy into his approach.
“For about a year and a half, he just talked, and no one on the executive team was willing to do it,” Schlapp said.
But Bardo was persistent. Public institutions were spending away money without sustainable revenue or state support, he said, and WSU couldn’t keep doing what they’d always done. Eventually, the executive team started to listen, Schlapp said.
“Okay, maybe you’re right. I can’t listen to you anymore and not do anything,” Schlapp said.
Strategic enrollment management, applied learning, and industry partnership were the pillars of Bardo’s vision for making WSU a sustainable operation. Once he had buy-in from his executive team, he gave them plenty of space to operate, Schlapp said.
“If you bought into his vision and mission, he left you alone. ‘Go do it. Come back, tell me what you’re doing,” Schlapp said.
He said Bardo understood that success meant taking risks.
“One of the things that doesn’t happen in Kansas, surely doesn’t happen in Wichita, and was not happening on our campus, is this idea of failure,” Schlapp said. “We could committee anything to death. Anything. And we could make sure that we mitigated all risk through that process, so whatever we did really didn’t do anything.”
Schlapp said Bardo’s “gift to the university” was empowering its leaders to take risks — whether they ultimately ended in success or failure.
“Here’s what we can do to participate in being a sustainable university in this world, and if you do it, I’ll let you fail,’” Schlapp said.
“And by the way, people hate change, so you’re going to be in conversations where people are angry and upset, and that’s okay. You’re going to face people who say this is the worst thing you’ve ever done, and that’s okay.”
When faced with opposition, Bardo always asked the same two questions, Schlapp said — “Are we doing the right thing?” and “Is [Wichita] going to be better 20, 30 years from today?”
Schlapp said that under Bardo’s leadership, WSU put itself in a position to become the economic driver of the region by establishing a line of communication with the business community.
“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. “We’re doing that regardless of if we get more funding or not — we’re going to have to figure out how to do it. It’s the right thing to do.”
He said state money for higher education is in short supply, and WSU can’t revert back to old methods of running the university if the legislature is unable to increase its contribution.
“Why would you continue to do the wrong thing for the economy because you don’t have new money? And there isn’t new money,” Schlapp said.
He said other universities should be playing catch up to WSU.
“Are other universities doing what we’re doing? And the answer is no, right? They’re not,” Schlapp said. “They’re fighting like hell to hold on to what they’ve always done.”
Vice President for Technology Transfer John Tomblin said other university leaders are amazed to hear about WSU’s approach to higher education. He said that several months ago, he had a group of university presidents to campus, where he explained WSU’s I-35 Corridor in-state tuition offering.
“One of the chancellors said, ‘That is a genius strategy. If your president thought this up by himself, he is a genius,’” Tomblin said.
On Monday, Andy Tompkins will take over as WSU’s interim president. Provost Rick Muma said the university’s mission will be unwavering through the transition process.
“We’re going to continue to move forward. We’re not going to slow down,” Muma said. “The board of regents, they don’t want us to slow down. They want us to continue going this direction.”
Schlapp said replacing Bardo will be a tall task.
“As we start this process of finding a new president, I don’t know if we’re ever going to find a person who really had that ability to let his team — once he trusted you and once you were on board, he let you do what you wanted to do,” Schlapp said.
Schlapp said that, as of now, the Kansas Board of Regents has no timetable for a presidential search.
“I would assume that they’d have a search chair and committee at some point in time,” Schlapp said.
The Regents’ next meeting is April 17 in Lawrence.
“Whether they’re ready at that point or not, I don’t know,” Schlapp said.
“I would assume the earliest we’d have somebody is January 1, and probably the latest would be July 1. We’ll get more of those details from the Regents as they make their decisions.”