Archive for Thursday, June 19, 2008

Wefald had one big misstep

June 19, 2008

The tornado that did an estimated $20 million in damage to Kansas State University last week will provide K-State President Jon Wefald one last challenge.

Since his retirement was announced last month, much has been written about Wefald's accomplishments at K-State. He helped turn around a trend of declining enrollment, with the growth from 16,000 in 1986 to 23,000 in 2008. Private donations have grown from $6 million a year to $100 million annually in that same time period, and 2.2 million square feet of new construction was added to the campus, including a wonderful new library.

There was Bill Snyder and the great turnaround and more Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, Goldwater and Udall (124) than any other public university.

With all that praise, it might be forgotten that there was a time Wefald was the most unpopular man on campus.

Soon after Wefald took over at K-State, I returned to school as a nontraditional student, which is a nice way of saying older than the norm. My goal was to get degrees in journalism and graphic arts. But the graphic arts part soon dropped away as I became more and more involved with the student newspaper (something I foolishly thought I'd avoid when I first went back to school). Soon, I added a job as campus correspondent for a statewide newspaper.

A few weeks after taking that job, Wefald's administration announced a proposal to restructure the university. After nearly two decades, I can't remember all the details of the plan, but it would have scaled back or eliminated several programs offered elsewhere in the Kansas Regent system. Perhaps most noteworthy, and unpopular, was the proposal the school's architectural school be eliminated.

The restructuring proposal was announced on a Friday afternoon, too late to cause much of a stir on campus. I wrote a story to call into the state editor (the Internet was in its infancy then). It was on the paper's Kansas page the next day, which happened to be the day of the KU-K-State game. My pleased new employers told me there was considerable conversation about the story at the game. They wanted more. That was easy as over the next week K-State seemed to slip back two decades to 1960s, with angry students having daily rallies and protests.

It all culminated on a day the Rev. Pat Robertson was on campus to give a Landon Lecture. In a decision I didn't understand, the paper's regular K-State reporter chose to go to that rather than the press conference the administration called to discuss the restructuring plan. It was a page one story I would suddenly get to cover.

It was a crazy day. Protesters that beautiful fall day took over campus, including Fred Phelps regretting his wayward "old friend Pat's" appearance. But the headline-hunting congregation was out of luck. The tape that made the news, even national news, was of a group of angry students chasing Wefald to his office in Anderson Hall.

During the press conference in that building, students marched through the central hallway, calling for his job. It had to be unnerving, but Wefald never lost his composure and just smiled and said no when asked if it bothered him.

But the news from the press conference was that the administration was backing away from the plan. A few days later, it was abandoned.

I was told the K-State administration's biggest mistake was getting out in front of other Regent universities. The plan was that all Regent universities were to restructure with the goal of eliminating duplicate programs and that some K-State programs would grow as other schools downgraded or dropped programs. Instead, it appeared as if the university were unilaterally disarming.

The experience might also explain why Wefald spent the past two decades at K-State. Before the failed restructuring, there were rumors he was headed to Minnesota. I remember him saying later that year he was no longer a hot commodity.

I also remember being in a near empty newsroom one afternoon when the chair of the journalism school and faculty senate president walked in. To a comment made about restructuring, they said every student in the college of arts and science should have supported it.

Parents and students asked to pay higher and higher tuitions and Regent schools might have the same thought.

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