Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little remembered Friday morning what she and Kansas Senate President Steve Morris talked about the first time they met, before she had even taken office: how KU could help produce more engineers for Kansas.
That conversation, and many others, led to the scene outside of KU’s engineering complex early Friday morning. Leaders from the state and KU braved chilly temperatures for a ceremonial groundbreaking for an $80 million expansion for the School of Engineering.
Gray-Little and other speakers told a crowd of administrators, faculty, students and others that the expansion would serve as a boost to the Kansas economy as well as the future of engineering in the state.
“As the state’s flagship university, and as the home of the state’s top-ranked school of engineering,” Gray-Little said, “the University of Kansas has special responsibility to contribute to the vitality and prosperity of the state.”
The project will make use of $35 million in funding approved by the state in 2011 to support engineering expansions at KU, Kansas State and Wichita State universities. The remaining cost will be paid through other university funds and a fundraising effort conducted with the help of the KU Endowment.
As interim engineering dean Stan Rolfe emphasized during an introduction Friday morning, that fundraising is ongoing.
“It’s also a partnership among the alumni who have and who will help us support this building,” Rolfe said to laughs from the crowd.
The expansion includes two buildings: a four-story, 110,000-square-foot building at the engineering complex dedicated largely to teaching, and a 30,000-square-foot building on KU’s West Campus devoted to research and development. As of now, both are unnamed.
The larger building will serve as a front door to the engineering complex, JoAnn Browning, the engineering school’s associate dean for administration said after Friday’s groundbreaking.
“We’re really trying to create a place where it’s central to all student needs,” Browning said.
That building will attach to the north end of the school’s other new building, the Measurement, Materials and Sustainable Environment Center, which was just dedicated earlier this month. It will connect that building with the rest of the engineering complex, and it will replace Burt Hall.
The building will include six new classrooms and eight new teaching laboratories to accommodate the growing number of engineering students at KU.
Spurred in part by calls from the state to produce more engineers for Kansas companies, the school enrolled a record 2,151 students this fall. Its freshman class grew by 22 percent from 2011.
The new building on the main campus also will include space for programs designed to help students stay in the engineering school and graduate, including study areas, student meeting rooms and a new space for the Engineering Career Center.
The smaller building on West Campus will have a facility for research and development of systems used in bridges or other structures.
Provost Jeff Vitter, speaking at the groundbreaking, noted that the new buildings’ research facilities would help as the university seeks to hire 30 new engineering faculty members over the next few years.
“It will also be a major benefit for our students, and it’s going to be a truly attractive lure to bring the very, very best faculty to teach those students,” Vitter said.
KU student Amir Bachelani, a senior in the engineering school who spoke during the event, said it was clear that the growing population of engineering students needed more space to learn, study and collaborate on projects.
“Every night, the student group study space at Spahr library is filled to the brim with students,” Bachelani said. “Only last year, I had my first engineering class outside of the engineering complex, because the classrooms in Learned Hall and Eaton Hall were all full.”
Morris, the outgoing Kansas Senate president, appeared Friday morning, along with outgoing Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal. Both recalled that talks with the state’s universities about producing more engineers began in 2007 and 2008 and endured challenges as the state and the country weathered a recession.
The state’s effort was prompted largely by Kansas engineering companies, Morris said. Without enough engineers being developed within the state, he said, those companies often had to hire people from the coasts.
“Those folks would work out fine for two or three years, or however long it took for them to get good and trained,” Morris said. “And then they’d find opportunities in other places. They didn’t have the loyalty to the state, so they’d go someplace else.”
Browning said construction on both new buildings is set to begin in the spring. The West Campus building is scheduled to be complete in 2014, but work on the larger building on the main campus will take until 2015.
She noted that though that’s a few years off, it will be soon enough for members of this year’s large freshman class to make use of the new building before they graduate.