In a world that can sometimes grind us down, allow me to give a shout-out to one of my most unfailing sources of uplift and inspiration: the WSU Foundation’s National Advisory Council (NAC). This 105-member group meets twice a year. More than a third live outside of Wichita. We met last Friday at the Marcus Welcome Center and virtually. I’m still thinking about the presentations and conversations.
What makes the NAC so special? It goes beyond being a proud Wichita State alumna. I like hearing about and learning from the university’s challenges and triumphs firsthand. The controversies surrounding Gregg Marshall’s departure and Ivanka Trump’s keynote invitation were not sugarcoated, but nor were they dwelled upon.
Foundation President Elizabeth King interviewed Interim WSU President Dr. Rick Muma, a leader in public health and infectious disease as well as a proven administrator. Dr. Muma has been there for the university in some of its most trying times, including the death of the visionary President Dr. John Bardo in 2019 and the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic of this past year. He spoke about doubling down on applied learning and the university emphasis on freedom of expression and diversity and inclusion.
Change Is all Around
Have you been on the WSU campus recently? Drive through sometime soon. It’s a study in transformation. More recent additions include Hyatt Place, Deloitte’s Smart Factory and the Wayne and Kay Woolsey Hall, which will be the new home for the Barton School of Business. Clinton Hall, described as having good bones, will soon be undergoing a $16 million renovation. It will become the new home of student-based services, helping with food insecurities and a clothing closet. Its centralized location and regular hours will offer greater accessibility.
WSU’s reinvention goes beyond all the new physical structures, of course. Dr. Murma spoke about a timely and innovative initiative: WSU’s molecular diagnostics lab. Its quick response enables it to process 32,000 COVID tests a week with results turned around in approximately six hours. The lab has registered and partnered with more than 500 testing locations in and around Sedgwick County.
It’s no small thing that the Foundation’s seven-year Shock the World campaign set a goal of $250 million and, instead, brought in $308 million. Shocker Nation steps up when called upon. That kind of investment and belief in the school also may have helped lead to this fall’s projected group of incoming freshmen – the largest in WSU history.
Isaac Brown, WSU men’s basketball coach, recounted the journey that took him from a less-than-privileged childhood – raised by a single mother on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi – to the first black head coach in Wichita State history. His stepfather died when Brown was 12 and his basketball coach became a father figure to him. Brown believes in getting an education. “When the ball stops bouncing, you need something to fall back on,” he says. He talked about dealing with the heartbreaker in the NCAA Tournament First Four last month – losing 53-52 to Drake. Brown addressed the defeat head on, acknowledging where the team fell short and committing to a renewed emphasis on defense. Learning from loss is how winners win. I look forward to following this team. Brown has obviously earned the trust of his players. He has mine, too.
My ears perked up like never before at the mention of WSU’s engineering school. U.S. News recently ranked it No. 77 in its listing of Best Engineering Schools. Rankings compare schools on their research activity, faculty resources, academic achievements and assessments by other engineering schools and employers. Neither KU or K-State made the Top 100 list.
My great niece was just named a Wallace Scholar and is heading to WSU this fall to be part of the 1,600 incoming freshman students. This highly competitive honor also comes with a $28,500 per year scholarship. She had multiple schools to choose from, and I like to think she’s exactly the type of student Velma Wallace hoped to attract through her endowment. These bright, young scholars don’t just promote engineering; they also engage in community service and are the future leaders in our community. I encouraged my niece to select WSU, too. The opportunity to attend a college of engineering that ranks high in the nation is a big selling point, but so is access to potential employers including Airbus, Spirit AeroSystems, Koch Industries, Textron Aviation, NASA, SpaceX, NASCAR and the U.S. military.
Connections and Celebrations
One of the meeting’s best moments was a heartfelt one. We sang happy birthday to 93-year-young Fred Berry. Few people have done more for our community than this unassuming man. When Berry moved to Wichita in 1957 to open Berry Tractor & Equipment Co. with his brother, it was the beginning of something great. Berry Companies now include multiple interests and dealerships for such brand names as Bobcat and Komatsu. Wichita remains the headquarters for this family-owned company, which now encompasses eight states. As chairman emeritus, Berry exemplifies grace and generosity. He’s a man who promotes doing the right thing and giving back to one’s community. That includes WSU.
Which brings me back to the NAC and its part in advancing the university’s role in a better tomorrow. I always leave these meetings believing the best is yet to come. It’s a good feeling.