RICHLAND – Washington State University has a new president.
Kirk Schulz, the current president of Kansas State University, will lead WSU starting in June.
After a secretive nine-month search, the WSU board of regents chose Schulz as the successor to Elson Floyd, who died last year of colon cancer.
“He said he’s extremely proud to accept the offer,” regent Mike Worthy told a crowded conference room on WSU’s Tri-Cities campus after making a phone call. “Willing to serve.”
Schulz has led Kansas State, a land-grant university in Manhattan, Kansas, since 2009. An engineer by training, he first worked as vice president for research and economic development at Mississippi State University; on the faculty at Michigan Technological University; and taught at the University of North Dakota. He’s active in several professional societies that deal with chemical engineering and engineering education.
Schulz, 52, also is chairman of the NCAA’s board of governors, serving a term that runs until 2017. As president, he has supported Kansas State’s participation in the Big 12 conference.
Schulz earned $467,000 last year at Kansas State, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. He donated a 2 percent raise worth $9,300 to the University Support Staff Awards program. His WSU salary has not been negotiated.
The regents also offered a faculty position to Schulz’s wife, Noel Nunnally Schulz. She will teach engineering in WSU’s Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture. She is the associate dean for research and graduate programs at Kansas State’s College of Engineering.
The couple have two sons: Tim, a graduate student at the University of Tulsa, and Andrew, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, according to a biography on the Kansas State website.
Attempts to reach Schulz on Friday were not successful.
A long-awaited answer
WSU has been searching for a new president since Floyd died last June of complications from colon cancer. Floyd, who was 59, shared few details about the seriousness of his illness and maintained a busy schedule in his final months, making frequent trips to Olympia to sell the Legislature on a WSU medical school. His death came as a shock to the higher education community.
Regents conducted the search in secret. A 24-member committee that included regents and faculty representatives decided early in the process it would not release candidates’ names, even at the finalist level. Regents believed they could attract better candidates if the names were confidential, allowing men and women serving in top posts at other universities to apply without jeopardizing their jobs.
The secrecy spurred criticism from some WSU faculty members. But Faculty Senate Chairman Richard Zack said he’s happy with the choice of Schulz.
“He was definitely one of the top 10 candidates we wanted before turning over the final decision to the regents,” Zack said.
The committee reached out to about 200 prospects in the months after Floyd’s death. In February, the committee said it had settled on eight finalists, including university presidents and provosts, and one candidate from the private sector. With help from the executive search firm of Isaacson Miller Inc., the committee whittled the list to three candidates for Friday’s meeting.
One by one, the regents voiced support for Schulz, who was referred to as “Candidate C,” declaring him a strong leader, a multifaceted thinker and passionate educator.
Worthy, the regent who led the search committee, said Schulz was first interviewed for the job in February. Regent Don Barbieri, of Spokane, said he was torn between two candidates but eventually voted for Schulz.
The other finalists were not named.
‘A president for the students’
Like WSU, Kansas State is a land-grant university with focuses on agriculture and engineering. Founded in 1863, it has an undergraduate enrollment of about 20,000 and ranks 146th on U.S. News & World Report’s list of best national universities. WSU is ranked 140th and has an undergraduate enrollment of about 24,000.
That mix of rural and urban sensibilities makes Schulz “a good fit” for WSU, said Zack, the Faculty Senate chairman.
During interviews, Schulz “showed he understood an agricultural state and an urban state, a state like Washington,” Zack said. “We wanted someone who could appreciate that kind of place, and all the groups he would have to work with as president.”
Joe Tinker, the student body vice president at Kansas State, said Schulz has been eager to help students on countless initiatives, including a recent plan to curb textbook costs. He called Schulz “a president for the students” and said his brand of leadership is “unique.”
“We are very sad to see him go,” Tinker said. “It’s a loss for K-State, but it’s also exciting because he’ll be able to take his talents somewhere else.”
Regent Lura Powell echoed the sentiment of several other WSU administrators: “Nobody can replace Elson Floyd,” but Schulz “is the right person at the right time.”
One of Floyd’s best qualities was “the way he cared deeply about the student population,” Powell said. “And I can see all of that in Dr. Schulz.”
A fundraiser and salesman
Schulz “has a reputation for getting things done,” said Worthy, the WSU regent.
Under Schulz’s leadership, Kansas State raised $141.5 million in 2015, topping the $100 million mark for the fourth year in a row. Worthy said Schulz also was instrumental in raising more than $1 billion for capital projects on the Kansas State campus.
Floyd is often credited with accomplishing the same feat during his tenure at WSU. But to raise that kind of money at Kansas State – which has a smaller endowment, a smaller campus and fewer students – is even more remarkable, Worthy said.
In almost every way, Worthy said, Schulz was “articulate and precise about where Kansas State was needing to go.”
During Schulz’s tenure, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching upgraded Kansas State’s classification from “very high research activity” in 2010 to “highest research activity” in 2015, according to a WSU news release.
Schulz also is popular with Kansas State faculty.
“He’s a personable, enthusiastic guy,” said Fred Guzek, chairman of Kansas State’s Faculty Senate. “I have a background in sales, and I think he’s been one of the best salesmen for the university.”
Guzek said he wasn’t particularly surprised at Schulz’s departure.
“When he was hired here, at an open forum they asked him, ‘How long do you think you’ll stay?’ and he said, ‘Well, I think 10 years is too long to stay anywhere,’ ” Guzek said. “So seven years seems like it was a good amount of time for him.”
Outspoken on some issues
Schulz has been at odds with Kansas government leaders.
Earlier this year, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced a 3 percent cut to the state’s public universities. Soon after, Schulz announced a 2 percent cut in Kansas State’s budget, according to the Kansas City Star.
Tinker, the student body vice president, said Schulz has been outspoken on those issues.
“He’s not going to hold back. He’s going to lay it all on the line,” Tinker said. “He has always been very upfront and honest, telling us exactly where we’re at in terms of higher education and funding.”