President John Bardo: 'It's great to be back'
On July 1, former WSU faculty member John Bardo started his new role as the 13th president of Wichita State. Joe Kleinsasser, director of news and media relations, recently interviewed Bardo on topics ranging from academics to a strategic plan to pets to detective mysteries. Following are highlights from that interview.
Q: How was the transition into the WSU presidency?
It’s been a great transition, a lot easier than I would have anticipated, though I’ve been here before. And it feels great to be back. It’s always a little odd because, in the years between, things change and things move. When someone said, “Oh, you have to go to Human Resources,” I thought I knew where it was and it wasn’t even in the same building. So that’s all part of the learning experience, but it does feel really good to be here.
Q: What are some similarities and differences between Western Carolina and Wichita State?
Well, there are some differences in mission that affect some of the distribution of funds. Western Carolina was more of a comprehensive university and Wichita State is more of a research university, so that has some impact. And as a rural campus, we had to provide things that here the city provides.
For example, I was my own electric company (at Western Carolina). I actually was not only chancellor of Western Carolina University, I was president of the Western Carolina University Electric Co. And fortunately, before I got there, they had managed to offload the sewer system, or I would have been president of the sewer system as well.
One of the other really big differences is while the budget overall here is somewhat larger, some of the budgets there were much bigger. For example, our auxiliary budgets there were substantial, because we slept 4,000 students on the campus, as opposed to 1,200 students (here). And so it really does change a lot of what you do. On the other hand, core questions around quality, core questions of the changing nature of universities, those sorts of things aren’t any different.
Q: From your perspective, what’s similar or different today on WSU’s campus from when you were a faculty member in the ‘70s and early ‘80s?
Number one, we’re a little smaller, which is something that I knew, but probably represents a pretty significant change, about 2,000 students smaller than when I was here.
The other is the emphasis on doctoral education wasn’t here at the time. That occurred just as I was leaving. That was starting to mature. And so I think that was a big shift.
Obviously there are some new buildings, but the environment around the campus, interestingly, hasn’t changed much. So I think there are a lot more similarities than differences.
We still had football when I left, so that’s a big change in the fall.
Overall, the quality of faculty seems to be good. It was a really strong faculty when I was here and it is a really strong faculty now.
The commitment of staff to the university was really strong then, and it seems to be really strong now, so the similarities are there and the differences are really more a matter of emphasis in the education program than other things.
Q. What will be your process of evaluating the direction of Wichita State University?
I have been heavily engaged in that since I was appointed (president). I’m doing a lot of listening to people. I’ve scared several faculty members, I think, by walking into their offices and just kind of plopping down and saying, “OK. Talk to me about what you do and what do you think about these kinds of issues?” I think that’s been really helpful.
I do have a set of issues that have really been consistent and don’t seem to be changing. At the same time, to get really broad input, we’re going to start a planning process this fall, a very open process involving both the Wichita community and the university.
I anticipate that the planning process will go on through the whole academic year, but I want it completed so that we can take the plan to the Board (of Regents) in June, and that the community has a really solid understanding of where we’re going as a university. That’s going to be a very formal process, one that I hope will engage all of our major internal and external constituencies.
Q: You’ve already talked about the importance of having a strategic plan. What does that mean to you?
It’s important that a university has a chance to have a conversation about, what does this mission really mean to us? We have words on paper, but none of us really operate off of words on paper. We operate off of what’s in our head and what’s in our emotions. So what does this really feel like to us? What does it really mean to us?
Once we understand our mission and values in a very open and hopefully articulate way, we can start looking at our assets and liabilities. What are the things that will help us achieve that mission? What are the things that hurt us? What’s outside the university that will impinge on us, maybe in a positive way, maybe in a negative way? Then out of all of that, how do we set goals that allow us to really implement that mission and values?
Probably around winter break we’re going to institute a series of very specialized committees around things like technology transfer and research, enrollment growth, quality of student life, those kinds of issues.
What does it mean to have students living on campus, and what does it mean to have commuter students? What about distance education? What about blended operations? What about transfers from community colleges? How are we going to deal with all of those in a very open and consistent way? That’s where we’re going to be moving.
Q: How important is it to have more enrollment growth, and what can be done to keep it growing?
It’s interesting. To have the resources that you need to do what you’re trying to accomplish really means enrollment growth. That’s one side of it.
The other side of it is to serve our mission. We need to be substantially larger than we are. I don’t think that we are really fully yet addressing the education and research needs of the people of this metropolitan region that we primarily serve. So I’m looking at that as a really serious issue, and how do you do it? Well, you modify the way you recruit. You modify the way you retain. You take a different look at the sub-groups, what they call segmenting the market. It means really focusing some attention on distance and blended education in ways that we haven’t really looked at yet. There’s a lot of upside to this university.
It also means working on the environment around campus to provide a supportive environment where people who choose to come have the services and resources they want. It’s a big job, but I think it’s a real job that can be done, and we’ll move into that this year pretty quickly.
Q: How would you like to see the student experience change?
You’ve got to segment the students as to what you’re talking about. I heard a lot during my interview from traditional undergraduate students about their belief that we really didn’t have the supportive student climate that they anticipated and hoped for.
We certainly don’t have the residence halls either, in terms of volume or quality, so with the Rhatigan Center being redeveloped, it gives us more opportunities for traditional student programming.
In metropolitan universities, somewhere between 15 and 30 percent of your undergraduate students generally live on campus. We’re at 8 percent, so there’s a lot of upside for us even to get to be a typical metropolitan-type university in terms of residential students. That has real implications for the quality of experience that others have on the campus as well, because it helps provide services. So if I’m a commuter student, there are more restaurants. There are more places for me to do things.
When you start talking about the older adult learner, the person over 25, they have a different set of needs. In many cases, it’s the need to access offices at weird times of the day. It’s the need to maybe come every other week and have some classes where some material is online and do the blended kind of courses. I’m looking for us to get into all of that over the next year or two.
Q: How would you like WSU’s contribution to the region’s economy to develop in the coming years?
The reality is that applied research, development and tech transfer have become really important parts of major universities. And so what I’m looking at is how we really magnify our capacities in those areas.
We have a large upside in research. We’ve got one or two entities that are doing most of the funded work on the campus. There are other entities that can do funded work at a larger level than they are, so we need to understand what are their resource needs and their support needs, so we can help move that forward.
We have a tech transfer office, but I’m not clear that we’ve made that a priority. For the health of Wichita, I see us playing an increasingly large role.
At the same time, we have a long history on this campus of working with the city government, of working with nongovernmental organizations, volunteer organizations and working with community businesses, so this isn’t a cultural anathema to this campus, and I think that gives us a leg up in moving forward.
Q: Obviously you feel strongly that research needs to continue to expand here.
Absolutely. We’re a research university. There’s huge potential, and I just need to understand more about some areas that have potential, real upside, what it is we need to do to help them.
I know we have good faculty, so the question then is, what are the support systems we need? Are there facility questions? What is it that we have to get our hands on to help this faculty do what they need to do?
Honestly, the health of this metropolitan area depends a lot on the kind of work that we do here, both in applied research and in development and tech transfers. So I’m looking at where we differentiate ourselves from all other universities that serve this metropolitan area.
When I look at data nationally, states that are being successful have universities that are good at this. Kansas universities, even given our relatively small population size, aren’t all that good at generating research dollars. We can be the leader in our key emphasis areas in research and development in these fields.
Q: This may not be an entirely fair question, but would you speculate what the biggest challenges will be for WSU in the next three to five years?
Budget is always going to be a really big challenge in this environment. I really think we need to do an efficiency analysis, for example, and understand that we’re using the money that we have as well as we can.
I’m very concerned that we not duplicate activities across programs and departments. That doesn’t make sense to me. There are way too many things that we can do and that we should be doing.
I think we have a land issue here. Understanding where we’re going to expand and how we’re going to expand is going to be a really big question for us. And helping the community understand the support systems and services we need to help them.
Q: Just for fun, what are some of your favorite books?
I’m actually an Agatha Christie fan, which will probably gross a lot of people out in terms of, she’s kind of light and fluffy. But I really like the Poirot series. I like both the videos and books. I’ve read all of them multiple times. I just really enjoy those. They’re not particularly deep, but they’re fun.
When I’m reading just because I want to read, not just to be light and airy, I generally read Civil War histories and World War II histories.
What really intrigues me more than anything else, when you didn’t have automobiles and airplanes, the idea of moving 100,000 people anywhere and the idea of supplying them with food and material just fascinates me. And the implication of all of this for the nation and its culture also intrigues me, so I tend to read in those areas.
Q: When you get to watch TV, what do you like to watch?
If we’re going to watch television, I tend to like comedies that have some smarts to them. I think those are a lot of fun. I’ve always enjoyed the British comedies because they do seem to have a little bit of underlying intelligence to them.
I like “Big Bang Theory.” It’s goofy, but there’s some smarts to it.
I actually own a lot of mystery series DVDs. I particularly like those. Again, those tend to be quite smart.
If I just want to not think a whole lot, I enjoy something like “NCIS.” I don’t watch shows like “Dancing with the Stars.” I just don’t find those things interesting at all.
In the fall, if I don’t have to be somewhere, I am a football guy. I can watch any two teams play. My tradition has been that if I don’t care about either team, I root for whichever one is wearing red. Since I’m here (at WSU) I’ll probably root for whichever one is wearing black and gold. I just really like football a lot and will watch that if I have an opportunity.
Q: Do you have any pets?
This is the first time in our married lives, since our first year, that we haven’t had any pets. We’ve had a series of dogs and cats. Most recently, we had one for 16 years and the other for 14. They both passed in the last couple of years. That was such an emotional thing, I think we’re going to let that go for a while. Plus, given our roles right now, it just isn’t sensible.
Our son, from the time he was a little kid, loved critters. He’s now a biology and chemistry major, which fits. We’ve shared our house with all kinds of weird and wonderful things from ferrets to crabs to guinea pigs to white mice, and sometimes bugs that were brought in from outside.
If I thought I could get a dog that would live 40 years so I wouldn’t have to watch it go, I might well have another dog. The last couple of dogs that we lost were members of the family, and that’s something I’m not sure I want to go through again.
Q: I’ve read that one of your hobbies is working with stained glass. How did you get interested in that?
When I was a little kid, the first house my parents bought had a stained glass window on the stairwell. And the main entry was a beveled-glass door. I remember as a kid playing on the floor and having the light from that beveled-glass door as I played, and I always just thought that was really pretty.
After Deborah and I got married and we were living here, she was trying to figure out what to give me for Christmas one year. She had read something about stained glass classes, and I took some.
I’ve made about 20 panels. I still have about half of them. I’ve given some away and gave some to auctions. One donor (at Western Carolina) actually came into the house for dinner and was commenting on one of the pieces I did and how much he liked it. So I took it down and gave it to him, and he gave us a check for $10,000. I said I’ll make as many of these as you want for $10,000 a pop. But I do love that (working with stained glass) and really enjoy it.
I also like woodworking and we really enjoy traveling a lot. We have very close friends in England and hope they can come over in the fall term. We like to go see them. We tend to travel together and go off together.
In fact, had I not gotten this job, we would have gone and spent a couple of weeks in France together, renting a farmhouse. I’ve known them since I did my dissertation back when I was a babe, and we’ve watched their kids grow and are now watching their grandkids grow, so it’s been fun.
Q: Is there anything you want to share with faculty and staff?
Deborah and I are both so thrilled to be back here and have an opportunity to work with the caliber of people who are here. Their commitment to this university, their commitment to what they do, is palpable and it really energizes both of us to be around them. We’re just really pleased to have an opportunity to part of them again.