The western Kansas preference for Kansas State University over Kansas University isn't particularly startling news, but a historian's explanation for how that trend got started is food for thought.
Craig Miner's latest book, "Next Year Country: Dust to Dust in Western Kansas, 1890-1940," was featured in Monday's Journal-World. In the book, Miner, a history professor at Wichita State University, chronicles the peaks and valleys of western Kansas, where harsh weather often spelled the difference between success and failure for the agricultural economy.
While compiling the history, Miner turned up several clues about why residents of the western two-thirds of the state have a good feeling about K-State. The school set up experiment stations across the area to test crop varieties and develop new hybrids that were resistant to pests and drought.
K-State, the railroads and the local Farm Bureaus took information on the road, traveling to different cities giving lectures and sharing information about better agriculture techniques for men and home economics for women.
When times got tough, such as during the drought of the 1930s, K-State officials were helping farmers in western Kansas survive. The only bright spot Miner could point out for KU is that it was home of Francis Snow who was well known for his weather-predicting efforts. Great. Who's going to be more popular in western Kansas during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s: someone who is reaching out to help farmers or the guy who tells them there's no rain in the foreseeable forecast?
It's no wonder, as Miner pointed out, that western Kansas was dubbed "K-State Country" and continues to be partial to the state's land-grant university in Manhattan.
The state's history provides an obvious challenge for KU officials as they try to explain their university's relevance and value across the state. But looking at history also may suggest some new strategies for spreading KU's mission and worth in areas that are finding it increasingly difficult to survive on an agricultural economy - even with all the help K-State can give them.
What many western Kansas towns now need are new options, ventures that KU experts might be able to support through research and technological developments. If KU faculty and researchers can figure ways to take their knowledge and expertise on the road to help prop up failing communities, it seems likely they could find a friendly and appreciative audience in western Kansas.