Manhattan It’s not hard to find out what’s on Kirk Schulz’s mind.
The 46-year-old Kansas State University president regularly maintains a blog and a Facebook page, and he Tweets. And it’s him behind the keyboard, not an assistant or someone from the university’s promotions department.
If the electronic means don’t work for you, take a trip to Aggieville on most nights and you can find him sharing a pizza with his family.
“If someone comes up to us and says, ‘Hey, I want to introduce myself, I’m an alum or a K-State fan,’ that in my mind is a successful thing, that people feel comfortable enough to come up and say hi,” says Schulz, who, like Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, started his new position at the beginning of the academic year.
Schulz, a Virginian who last served as vice president at Mississippi State, speaks in bullet points, as if he’s giving a PowerPoint presentation. An engineer by education, he ticks off his lists of goals — point one, point two, point three. And he admits he’s somewhat of a geek.
“Wow! Avatar was a great movie! The graphics were spectacular — nerds unite!”
— kstate_pres Twitter post, 11:01 p.m. Dec. 18
He’s had a short honeymoon in the job. His first significant actions as president were to deal with the aftermath of an audit ordered at the end of former President Jon Wefald’s tenure that revealed undocumented payments totaling $845,000 to a former athletic director, a former vice president who’d also served as athletic director and football coach Bill Snyder, according to The Associated Press.
Schulz sat down last week with the Journal-World to discuss his plans for Kansas State.
Kirk H. Schulz
• Position: President, Kansas State University
• Born: Portsmouth, Va., in 1963 and grew up in Norfolk, Va.
• Family: Wife Noel Nunnally Schulz, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at K-State. They have two sons, Tim, 18, a freshman at Mississippi State, and Andrew, 15.
• Education: Attended Old Dominion University for three years and transferred to Virginia Tech in 1984, where he graduated with bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees in chemical engineering in 1986 and 1991, respectively.
• Career: Assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of North Dakota-Grand Forks, 1991-95; assistant professor of chemical engineering at Michigan Tech, 1995, promoted to associate professor in 1998 and chair of the department of chemical engineering the same year; named director of the Dave C. Swalm School of Chemical Engineering and holder of the Earnest W. Deavenport Jr. endowed chair at Mississippi State in 2001; selected as dean of the James Worth Bagley College of Engineering and the inaugural holder of the Earnest W. and Mary Ann Deavenport Jr. endowed chair in 2005; named vice president for research and economic development at Mississippi State in 2007. Named 13th president of Kansas State University in 2009.
Q: How are you shaping your role?
A: We have a lot of successes here and it’s important for me to have a broad and diverse message, and make sure I’m talking about the achievements of faculty, staff and students. The second thing is visionary leadership. Where are we going? What mountain are we going to climb? What is it that we want K-State to be in 10 or 15 years? The third thing is the president certainly needs to be out securing resources for the institution. It means working with the Legislature to secure funding. It means working with donors and the Kansas Bioscience Authority.
“So, how are you spending your Friday? I am getting ready to host budget forum in Forum Hall at K-State Union at 3 — fun? Aggieville awaits!”
— kstate_pres Twitter post, 2:50 p.m. Nov. 13
Q: What are your impressions of Kansas State?
A: My perception is our alumni have a stronger passion for Kansas State than alumni at some other schools. Every institution has a notion that their alumni are passionate about their school, and they are, but we are first in the Big 12 in the percentage of alumni that are involved in the alumni association.
On the down side, there’s too much of a chip on our shoulder that the University of Kansas has everything and they are better than we are. I think Dr. Wefald worked very hard during his entire tenure here that we have a lot to be proud of and that we don’t have to feel that we are second fiddle. That is something I want to keep up.
Q: How are you going to change that impression?
A: We’re bringing in a professional to brand the university. We’ve just hired Jeff Morris, who is currently at the University of Central Missouri and is a K-State and KU grad. He’s worked in industry and then went to Central Missouri and had to pull it all together there to create an integrated branding effort. His direction is to put together a campaign on how to market us. How do we brand ourselves? What do we call ourselves? Do we call ourselves K-State, Kansas State University or KSU? For people in Virginia, KSU is known as Kennesaw State University. We use all these different monikers, and outside the state of Kansas not a lot of people know who we are. We need someone who is going to help us brag, but also do it effectively.
“In Salina for my regular visit — today I am learning more about our outstanding Aviation programs. Next up — helicopter ride!”
— kstate_pres Twitter post, 2:01 p.m. Oct. 5
Q: What prepared you for this position?
A: It’s a mixture of things. The first being that my dad and my mom both worked at a university. I grew up in a university environment. I understood better the politics and how the university actually functions. I knew in graduate school that I hoped that at some point in my career I would be a university president. So at each job I had some different academic leadership opportunities. The third thing is I got involved in administration very early. I was a department head at 35; that’s probably 15 years earlier than a lot of people. So what happens is you get to serve as a dean a little bit earlier, and a vice president a little bit earlier. So when I got the opportunity, I was ready.
But even then, when you think you have done everything to prepare yourself, it still took me a good six months to feel comfortable. This week, I finally feel settled into the role.
Q: You and KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little started about the same time. How often do you talk with her?
A: Monthly. We’re both so busy the best time we have to talk is at Regents meetings. Bernadette and I will take the chance to sit down for an hour or an hour and a half and talk about what kinds of things we are doing. As an example, when we were doing our provost search, she and I visited because KU was just starting a provost search and we were discussing what kind of candidates we were talking to, what kind of salary we were looking to pay, general discussions like that. But as far as me going to Lawrence or her coming here, it just hasn’t happened because of time, not lack of interest.
Q: How will KU and K-State work together under the new administrations?
A: If the University of Kansas and Kansas State really work together and decide on initiatives, we will be tough to beat. That’s the great opportunity for Kansas with two new people coming in at the same time. Neither of us has history here; we are starting with a clean slate.
We’re interested in what we can do together legislatively. For example, we jointly hosted a legislative luncheon before the K-State-KU football game, and we will do the same next year as host and co-host.
So we are working together on research, legislative advocacy and setting a vision together for higher education. Clearly that’s the job of the Regents, but it’s important for our two universities and major research universities to be in leadership positions and be very visible.
The final thing is economic development. We have to erase the lines we’ve drawn in the sand as far as Big 12 competition and say we need to work together to get companies to locate here and get companies to hire our graduates so they can be successful.
“Today I am in Denton, Texas, on an accreditation visit to the University of North Texas — it is always fun to see how other schools do things.”
— kstate_pres Twitter post, 7:33 a.m. Sept. 28
Q: What’s your greatest challenge?
A: The most intriguing thing for me is going to be working with the university community, alumni and donors and say, what do we want to be in 15 years? What do we want endowment to look like? How many students do we want to have? What kind of programming do we want to have on campus? We want to look comprehensively like that and dream. People are ready for that. They are hungry to pick a mountain to go climb and sustain our effort to get there.
Q: What was your strategy for dealing with the audit and athletic department troubles?
A: There is no book you can look in that describes our situation that says, “Do step one, step two, step three.” My style is to be as open as I can, and I told our leadership team that transparency is not selective. In other words, you can’t be transparent when it’s advantageous and then when it isn’t try to slip something under the table and hope nobody sees it.
I felt all I could do was be as open as possible and say, “Here’s the way out of the woods as I see it” and be positive. It could be very easy to point fingers. John Currie, our new athletic director, and I said, “You can’t do anything about the past, so we’re just going to talk about the future.” In retrospect, I think that has worked.
Q: Gov. Mark Parkinson has cut millions from higher education spending. What are you doing to make sure higher education doesn’t lose more?
A: Every organization in the state of Kansas needs money. It’s not an effective argument to just say that we should get funding to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We have to advocate for funding. One of the challenges the presidents and the chancellors have is to use our bully pulpit to advocate for why investment in higher education is important. We need KU, K-State, Wichita State, all the community colleges to be on the same message and use our alumni groups to lobby.
“At Bramlage for Xavier — K-State game — the student section is VERY loud — which should help tonight! Let’s go Cats!”
— kstate_pres Twitter post, 8:16 p.m., Dec. 8
Q: Are you a big sports fan?
A: I like football and basketball, both men’s and women’s, and I’ve grown to appreciate college baseball. College baseball is very relaxed. It’s like a picnic atmosphere. K-Staters figured out last year how much fun it is when the team went to the College World Series.
Q: What’s the university president’s role with the athletic department?
A: My job is to hire the best athletic director I can and to support the athletic director in running the athletic department as he or she deems fit. I meet with John Currie once per week. My expectation is that the AD, like the provost or the vice president for finance administration, is keeping me updated about what kinds of things are on their plate and what kind of decisions they are making. Like I would with any other department within the university, there are some times where you need to step in to add a different perspective. However, there isn’t anything special that I feel I have to do with athletics. I’ve got too much to do to be both athletic director and president.
Q: Is athletic success as important as academic success?
A: Unfortunately, yes. The brutal reality is I can walk around California with a K-State jacket on and someone will come up to me and say, “Hey, that’s where Bill Snyder coached.” We like to think that if we won three Nobel Prizes that it would bring us more notoriety than winning a Big 12 football championship, but the fact of the matter is, you are going to be known more for your athletic success than academics.
The key is, how do you take athletic success and use that so people know something about Kansas State academics? Our goal for the upcoming football season is that every fan learns at least one new thing about Kansas State University. That’s it. We have to take advantage of that captive audience to spread the word about the university.
Q: What’s the most difficult thing for a student starting college today?
A: Tuition. We’re going to launch a fundraising campaign over the next 18 months to increase our goals on endowed scholarships. We can’t price our students out of the public education market.
Q: Why should a prospective student attend K-State over KU?
A: We pride ourselves on our friendly atmosphere and our focus on student individualized success. We have a faculty and a set of degree programs that are focused on assisting students and finding them a job. And if someone likes the feel of Kansas State because they grew up in a farming community or a town in western Kansas, or they are in Johnson County and they always wanted to major in agronomy, we’re the place to go.