Andy Tompkins pauses and waves his hands to punctuate the point he is about to make.
“I don’t want to be remembered for anything,” he said, in the final moments of an interview about his nine-month tenure as Wichita State University’s interim president.
The people who work with Tompkins, however, won’t let him decide that, no matter how nicely he asks before he returns to retired life, his volunteer work at his church and a hospital in Topeka, reading novels and attending movies.
In nine months, Tompkins impressed everyone by putting a full-time effort into a temporary job, walking the campus almost every morning, touring every building, learning names and backgrounds and using his avuncular personality to put people at ease during a time of transition.
Vanessa Teran, a sophomore who works as senior office associate in the president’s office, started under previous president John Bardo. Tompkins took over in late March and it took him almost no time to assure people he cared about his interim position, perhaps in ways people didn’t expect.
“Anyone could walk through those doors,” Teran said. “When Dr. Tompkins showed up, he was always smiling. Very warm and welcoming. He made you feel like you mattered. He asked me a lot of about my major, school, what else I liked to do outside of school. Kind of like in a grandpa kind of way.”
The Kansas Board of Regents appointed Tompkins interim president in late March, following the death of President Bardo earlier that month. Tompkins’ tenure ends on Dec. 16, the day after commencement. President-elect Jay Golden begins his tenure on Dec. 17.
Tompkins came to Wichita State with 46 years as an educator at universities and high schools, ranging from teaching English at Hugoton High School to serving as president and CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents from 2010-15. His touch dealing with students, faculty and staff comes from that background.
“Doing something like this is a real privilege,” Tompkins said. “The thing that really impresses you here is who we’re serving and how we’ve organized ourselves to serve all of these people who are either first-generation or under-privileged . . . our combined to do that is amazing, to make it affordable for everyone.”
From his first days on campus, Tompkins set out to learn all he could. He met with students and faculty and attended as many campus events as his schedule allowed.
“It was so inspiring that he came in with the dedication, because, honestly, that’s not something I would have expected from a temporary university president,” said Kitrina Miller, student body president. “He came in and got things done. It’s really nice knowing we were in good hands and that our university was only going forward.”
When Tompkins leaves his Morrison Hall office, he tells the students, “You’re in charge now. Hold the fort.” If he leaves at lunchtime, he says, “I’m going to go have my bologna sandwich.” Most days, he indeed goes to his residence for a bologna sandwich.
He walks on campus (inside Charles Koch Arena if it’s cold) around 5:30 a.m. and comes to his office in Morrison Hall by 7.
Tompkins wanted to tour buildings to familiarize himself with the programs housed within and provide a reference for maintenance or improvements that might pop up. He walked the campus to enjoy the sculptures and orient himself to the layout of the entire place. His association with Wichita State dates back to his time as school superintendent in El Dorado in 1979, so he can mark the changes as more students moved on campus.
“The campus is so beautiful,” he said. “Our grounds crews did such nice work. It feels like it’s a campus and there’s walking and there’s students out. I just love that part of it.”
He told Teran he likes to arrive early so he has time during the day to attend a spontaneous event, such as the time she invited him to “Coffee with a Cop” in November in the Rhatigan Student Center.
“He was typing away on his computer and I knocked,” she said. “I didn’t know how to ask him, and he looked really busy. And then he said, ‘What’s up, Vanessa?’ I invited him and I said, ‘I’m heading over to RSC if you want to join me.’ He said, ‘Well, all right,’ and he stood up and stopped what he was doing. He likes to be out and about.”
Teran, who majors in bio pre-med and hopes to practice medicine in her hometown of Dodge City, connected with Tompkins through their interest in rural health care. Miller, a senior majoring in social work, meets with Tompkins monthly, and grew to appreciate his efforts in keeping the students updated on campus happenings.
“He’s probably one of my favorite people,” Miller said. “The whole conversation about bringing NetApp to our campus, before the announcement was made, he brought me in, along with a couple others, to give us a heads up. Conversations like that are so meaningful and so helpful, because it helps me spread that communication and understanding to the student body.”
Tompkins is well-known for his love of Hershey’s milk chocolate with almonds bars around the office. He played catcher for the East Central (Okla.) University baseball team, and Chief of Staff Andy Schlapp tells him that he is one of Oklahoma’s top three baseball players, along with Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench. Jeffrey Jarman, director of the Elliott School of Communication, remembers an early conversation that ranged from students to faculty research to the Shocker Support Locker food pantry.
“It was how easily he was able to work through that wide variety of things, having just been on the campus for a short period of time,” Jarman said. “He asked a lot of questions and listened a lot, as well.”
While walking, talking and listening, Tompkins learned much about his temporary home. Some information amplified what he already knew of the university and city. He regards ideas such as the emphasis on recruiting students from the I-35 corridor with in-state tuition as inventive. The university’s connection to the community – research, business, fine arts and athletics - impressed him. He appreciates how Wichita State’s emphasis on applied learning makes the university distinctive.
“You see what John Bardo did, transforming the campus and the philosophy of applied learning,” Tompkins said. “We’ve found a nice place, I think, a good way for us to be more distinctive – not only say we’re going to have great faculty and great programs to help you, we’re going to make sure you have a chance to apply what you’re learning."