W hen Kirk Schulz was working on his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech, his advisor asked him what he wanted to do after college. Schulz said, "I'd like to be a university president someday."
Nearly 20 years later, that dream became a reality. Schulz took over as president of Kansas State University in 2009. After serving there for seven years, he has been chosen to become Washington State University's president.
The role of a university president has changed since Schulz was first inspired to be one decades ago. The average number of years a president spends at one university has decreased, while the pressure to raise money for their schools continues to mount. For Schulz, another challenge will be succeeding Elson S. Floyd, a man lauded for the progress he made at WSU before he died last June following a battle with cancer.
The Inlander asked Schulz about these challenges, how the job of university president has evolved and what can be done to create a safe environment on campus. Responses have been edited for length.
INLANDER: What do you see as a university president's role? Are there misconceptions about what presidents do?
SCHULZ: [Laughs] I think there's a lot of misconceptions about what presidents do. Largely, sometimes people think that you sort of have this super, all-powerful position, and that I can change course grades and grant diplomas and do all this stuff.
What presidents really do is spend a lot of time building relationships. You spend of lot of time in resource acquisition, fundraising privately, working with elected government officials, building corporate partnerships, things like that. It's a very external vision and resource-oriented role compared to what people think. I think through social media — Twitter, Facebook — the WSU community will get to know the types of things I do.
How has the job as a university president evolved over the years?
I think most public universities are much more reliant on private philanthropy and private dollars than they were even five, six years ago. And I think the presidents of a lot of public universities will need to behave almost a little bit more like presidents at private schools.
You look 30 years ago, there were a lot of places that people served as president for 15-20 years. The average time people, I think, serve as president now is five years. That has changed dramatically, the pressures of the job have changed dramatically and I think that's just the future we're going to see.
Why were you looking for other jobs, and what attracted you to WSU?
There's three major items that attracted me here. The first was the medical school — the chance to build and work together and build the second publicly funded medical school in Washington. The second thing was the clear commitment by the state of Washington to decrease tuition and make the university more affordable and accessible. The third thing is just the academic excellence of WSU.
At Kansas State, we're nearing completion of a billion-dollar fundraising campaign. We built $500 million worth of new campus construction. We just had a lot of success. I felt it was a reasonable time, where people didn't go, "Boy, if he stayed with us two or three more years, think of what he could have accomplished."
During your tour of the Pullman campus, you were asked about your role in diversity in education, and you said it's important to create a safe environment, starting at the top. What does a safe environment look like?
It's an environment where students, faculty and staff — from any walk of life, any ethnic group, sexual orientation or background, whether it's a wealthy family or family that doesn't have significant financial assets — that those folks can come and feel supported and achieve the goals that they would like to.
The second part is we have to have an environment where people can express divergent viewpoints, and do that in a way where there's an interactive discourse. Across higher education as a whole, that is really what's the crux of the matter. At schools, students, faculty and staff feel disenfranchised. They don't feel like the administration is paying any attention to their concerns. They don't feel it's a place where they can fulfill the dreams they have.
If I don't work to create that environment with our campuses, it's never going to permeate throughout the rest of the organization.
What kind of improvements could be made at colleges generally when it comes to cutting down on things like sexual assault or drug abuse?
We have to continue to work to educate our incoming students about sexual assault and relationships.
If there are incidents, we've got to respond quickly and fairly. And then we've got to have a report structure for students, faculty or staff that if incidents occur, if they see a student or faculty member or staff member that obviously had some sort of incident, who do you talk to? How do we make sure we get those people support and counseling they need?
Every place is different, and I'm sure there are things that we're probably going to have a greater emphasis on in Pullman. And there may be a different need in Vancouver or any of the other campuses. I'll probably have a much better answer for this in January, when I really know what's going on. ♦