When John Kennedy, a Kansas University political science assistant professor, moved to Lawrence, he couldn’t understand his students who found the city overwhelming.
That is until Kennedy, who is originally from Los Angeles, went on an annual Wheat State Whirlwind Tour, which hauls anywhere from 40 to 50 faculty and staff members along more than 1,000 miles of roadway to see the rural part of the state.
Budget concerns have caused the cancellation of this year’s event, which has taken more than 500 participants across the state since 1997.
It’s a shame, said Kennedy, who, when he returned, purchased a map of the state’s 105 counties and uses it to locate students’ hometowns.
“I’m very defensive when I go to California,” he said. “I find myself defending Kansas now, and for good reason.”
University officials said they hoped to bring the event back for future years. A lack of funds also caused the cancellation of the tour in 2003.
The tour is financed with $10,000 in state money and $17,000 in private funds from KU Endowment.
Don Steeples, senior vice provost, has been an annual participant of the tours, and now serves as the program’s director.
He said that even though the amount of money saved may seem small, it helps prevent one less person from being laid off because of a tight budget.
No endowed funds were ever dedicated specifically for the event — something that could be considered in the future, Steeples said.
Ultimately, the fate of the program will depend on the priorities of the next chancellor of the university, Steeples said.
James Shortridge, a professor of geography at KU, went on the first tour in 1997.
“Basically, most professors who teach at KU are not Kansans,” he said.
Shortridge studies Kansas, and was brought along to help explain some things to some of the more urbane attendees.
“I would basically say things like, ‘Those funny-looking things over there are actually oil derricks,’” he said.
He said that occasionally, research topics would come out of the tour, which could deal with anything from communities that appeared to be aging at higher rates than the average, or from issues related to bringing water to rural communities.
“I think the biggest thing is sensitivity, but I think there’s a fair amount of practicality that comes out of it, too,” Shortridge said.
Kennedy said he was struck both by the cultural and geographic diversity of the state, and by the way farmers in Kansas had similar concerns to farmers in China, whom he had talked to for his own research.
Both seemed interested in things like what kind of fertilizers others were using and how much money they got for crops.
“Kansas farmers seem to have more in common with farmers in China than they do with people in Kansas City,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said the tour contributed heavily to all of the positive aspects he carries with him from the state where he now works, and he hoped it would continue in future years.
“It really brought me closer to the students,” he said.