‘This is about the students’: Tompkins says WSU presidential search should prioritize higher ed proficiency


Austin Shaw

Interim President Andy Tompkins talks about the future of Wichita State and the presidential search at the Celebration of Life event for late President John Bardo.

The search profile for Wichita State’s next president calls for a “forward-thinking visionary” who will “lead dramatic and dynamic changes” while advancing a culture of shared governance on campus.

Among other things, the search committee is looking for a president who can grow student enrollment and bolster alliances with businesses and industry while ensuring the university has “necessary public and private resources” to execute its goals.

The list goes on.

Interim President Andy Tompkins said WSU will be hard-pressed to find a leader who fits all of the criteria outlined by Wheless Partners, the Alabama-based firm assisting in the closed search.

“I looked at it and said, ‘If you can find someone with all those things, Hallelujah’ — I don’t know how you do it,” Tompkins said of the search profile in an interview with The Sunflower last week.

Tompkins, a lifelong educator and retired Kansas Board of Regents president, said WSU needs a top executive who knows their way around higher education.

“I think they need to have an understanding of the higher ed system,” Tompkins said. “At the end of the day, this is about the students. That’s why you exist is to help the students, so you’ve got to have this understanding about how this higher ed system works.”

At a town hall event over the summer, Wheless Chief Analytics Officer and Managing Director Michael Ballew said many of the universities his firm assists now want a president with a background in business.

“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.

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

This spring, after years of stagnant funding, the Kansas Legislature approved a $33 million increase in funds for higher education.

Tompkins said that along with increasing enrollment, securing adequate funds for the university will be chief among the challenges WSU’s next president faces.

“The thing I worry about the most is making sure that this place stays healthy — financially healthy — so that we make sure it’s going to be there for the next generation and the next,” Tompkins said. “That’s going to be a huge pressure on this president. The state hasn’t generally been giving lots of money.”

He acknowledged the upside to hiring a business-savvy president.

“Having this business background doesn’t hurt, because this community now does count on this institution to have a real sense about the economy and how are we helping them in that economy.”

Late President John Bardo, an urban affairs scholar with a doctorate in sociology, put an emphasis on expanding applied learning offerings and positioning WSU as an economic driver of the region. Tompkins represented KBOR on the 2012 search committee that selected Bardo.

Tompkins said he’s encouraged by WSU’s recent focus on applied learning, which he characterized as invaluable when done right.

“If I can get someone in an applied environment, I don’t care if you’re the smartest theoretician there is, you understand it more,” Tompkins said.

He said partnerships and applied learning ventures on campus should provide substantive opportunities for students.

“The reason is to help people understand what they’re learning more,” Tompkins said. “It’s not for in and of itself so we can say we have applied learning. That doesn’t get you anywhere.”

He noted that WSU has every right to turn away unwanted businesses.

“If it’s going to try to be a business on campus, we have a right of refusal,” Tompkins said. “If we don’t see them as matching with the students where they would work, programs we have on campus, and that kind of thing, then we don’t agree to them being on campus.”