A Friday visit to the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus provided the first opportunity for WSU’s president-elect to talk up his qualifications and vision for the entire university system.
Kirk Schulz, 52, spoke of his upbringing in an academic family and his belief in the importance of land grant universities such as WSU and his most recent employer, Kansas State University.
WSU’s branch campuses, he said, will play a key part in the system’s future in their own unique roles.
“I want to see all of our campuses thrive and grow,” he told the crowd in a packed auditorium in the East Building on the Richland campus.
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Schulz’s wife, Noel Schulz, also spoke and fielded a fair share of the questions posed during a question-and-answer session during their inaugural visit to the campus.
Noel Schulz emphasized that she and her husband are “a team, also a resource.” An electrical engineer by training, she is expected to join the faculty in Pullman.
She commented on the need to improve student retention in science- and technology-related fields, and she encouraged the campus community to tag her and her husband in social media postings about accomplishments so the news isn’t overlooked.
Noel Schulz stressed she and her husband are “a team, also a resource.” An electrical engineer by training, she is expected to join the faculty in Pullman.
“It’s like we got two presidents,” said Jana Kay Lunstad, academic affairs coordinator for the Richland campus. “It’s encouraging.”
The Schulzes were in Washington to tour all the WSU campuses after Kirk Schulz was unanimously offered the president’s job during the WSU Board of Regents meeting in Richland last week. His contract is still in negotiation and yet to be formally approved by the regents.
Kirk Schulz, president of KSU since 2009, has said he was attracted to the WSU job because of the state’s commitment to higher education as demonstrated by lawmakers freezing tuition, WSU’s high academic standards and its new medical school.
The couple was greeted in front of the two main academic buildings at WSU Tri-Cities with a banner, balloons and a couple of dozen students, staff and faculty. The East Building auditorium was packed for the roughly hour-long meeting with the campus community.
Ryan Durkan, chairwoman of the regents, introduced Kirk Schulz as the perfect selection to lead WSU, as it is “poised to enter an era of transformation.”
Kirk Schulz is from Virginia, where his father was a professor at Old Dominion University until recently retiring. His mother also worked at the university.
A chemical engineer, he has worked at three land-grant universities in his academic career. Land-grant institutions were formed with the benefit of federal legislation that ceded federal lands to them to sell for operations and endowments and focus on agriculture, the sciences and engineering.
We have different campuses for a reason. We need to use that geographical diversity as an advantage.
WSU president-elect Kirk Schulz
Land grant universities have an impact on the economies of their respective states, Kirk Schulz told the crowd. He played up his efforts to support and nurture KSU’s branch campus in Olathe, Kansas, near Kansas City and a polytechnic campus in Salina, Kansas.
“We have different campuses for a reason,” he said. “We need to use that geographical diversity as an advantage.”
The Salina campus recently went through a rebranding, changing its name from KSU Salina to Kansas State Polytechnic, an effort aimed at promoting the campus on a more global scale, he said. Faculty and local administrators led the effort, but it wasn’t a problem-free transition.
“If a mistake was made, we didn’t engage our alumni enough,” he said, noting many took pride in the previously more direct association to KSU.
WSU becoming a member of the Association of American Universities, a prestigious group of more than 60 research universities, is an aspiration, Kirk Schulz said. Elevating the university’s research profile is a goal at all its locations.
“We need research and scholarship that fits each of the campuses,” he said, adding that duplication of research needs to be avoided. “I think we want faculty here on the cutting edge.”
For her part, Noel Schulz offered herself as someone who could represent the university at events and functions should her husband not be available. At the same time she positioned herself as a representative for non-administrative folk at the university.
“The other positive I bring is a faculty perspective at home,” she said to laughter. “The president doesn’t always appreciate it.”
Noel Schulz noted that mentoring and properly trained counselors are critical to student retention when asked how that issue could be addressed on campus, particularly for women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields.
“One of the biggest challenges is with women who self select out of STEM,” she said, noting many don’t see how to have a career and family at the same time.
The other positive I bring is a faculty perspective at home. The president doesn’t always appreciate it.
The couple was careful to not make promises. Kirk Schulz said his first six months on the job will be exploratory and that he has a lot to learn, especially when it comes to WSU health care programs such as nursing and the fledgling medical school now named for his predecessor, Elson Floyd.
He wants his visits to the branch campuses to become so commonplace they aren’t noteworthy, he said. He declined to say how much of a role he wants to play in local decisions, adding “I tend to be a fairly hands-off leader as a rule.”
Engineering student Joseph Traverso asked about bringing elective technology courses only offered on the Pullman campus to Richland. Noel Schulz said she understands the university’s electrical engineering and computer science department is looking at expansion, and there’s a possibility some courses could be taught remotely, but she has to look into it further before saying what could happen.
Kirk Schulz’s hiring hasn’t been without controversy. His name wasn’t disclosed until he’d been offered the job and accepted it. Before that, he was referred to as “Candidate C” of three finalists considered by the regents.
A former state auditor and WSU faculty and staff have criticized the hiring process as being too secretive and possibly against state law.
But the Schulzes said they are excited to be headed west, noting that they like living in small college towns such as Pullman, and the Northwest offers them plenty to explore with their camper.
They will have find some crimson and gray attire to replace their KSU purple gear, they said.
But they already have an appreciation for Washington wine, as it was served at their son’s wedding last year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.