WICHITA STATE UNIVERSITY ALUMNI MAGAZINE
Fall 2012

Blueprint for Change

BY CONNIE KACHEL WHITE | PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAUL CHAUNCEY '70

WSU President John Bardo

Wichita State University President John W. Bardo chose it as his inaugural maxim: Ad Astra. Part of Kansas' motto, the Latin phrase means "to the stars." Ad Astra is also a rocket company. 

Back in April when John Bardo, the chancellor of Western Carolina University from 1995 to 2011, was the last of five finalists for the position of WSU president to speak on campus to university stakeholders, he made the comment, “This university is extremely well positioned for the future. The rocket is on the launch pad, and it’s ready to go.”

In office since July 1 as Wichita State’s 13th president, Bardo has initiated a major university strategic planning process scheduled to produce a document ready for the Kansas Board of Regents in June 2013. After a trip this summer with a number of his top WSU administrators to North Carolina State University, Raleigh, and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, he collected ideas about improving the quality of campus-life offerings at WSU – and advanced plans for a new residence hall to be built on campus ready for students in fall 2014. During his Oct. 12 inaugural address, he announced the creation of a $50,000 fund to provide grants for students who engage in faculty-mentored research. And that’s a sample, mind you, not a full list of our new chief’s WSU start-ups to date.

“Dr. Bardo was the best choice to lead WSU for a number of reasons,” says Tim Emert of Independence, Kan., the chair of the Kansas Board of Regents. “He knows Wichita, WSU and Kansas. His vision and leadership experience, as well as his understanding of the role of a metropolitan university were important factors. Wichita State has a tradition of leadership that is enthusiastic and energetic, and President Bardo displays both these characteristics.”

Keith Pickus, WSU interim provost, says, “President Bardo has outlined an ambitious and challenging agenda for WSU focused on excellence that will enhance the university’s impact on the region.” Mary Herrin ’72/76, vice president for administration and finance at WSU, comments, “Dr. Bardo has a vision for targeted change and growth at WSU, and believes that the university is well-positioned to make this vision a reality.”

That stuck with me.

President Bardo – who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Cincinnati, a master’s degree in sociology from Ohio University and a doctorate in sociology from Ohio State – began his career in higher education at WSU, where he taught sociology (1973-83) and served as graduate coordinator of the Master of Urban Studies program (1976-77) and as chair of WSU’s sociology and social work department (1978-83).

Ron Matson, associate professor of sociology and interim dean of the Fairmount College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at WSU, knew Bardo when he was on campus the first time. “John is bright, energetic and personable,” Matson says. “He loves ideas and the application of those ideas to solve problems. As a young, assistant professor in sociology and urban studies, he was a remarkable teacher, worked on several research projects simultaneously and became an excellent motivator and manager.”

It was at WSU that Bardo began research in earnest, one of his earlier undertakings being 1974’s “Family Adaptation to a New Environment.” In 1977, on a Fulbright Senior Scholar Award, he presented his “The American Immigrants: Who Are They? Why Are They Here?” at a seminar at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. Bardo also ramped up his academic study of the relationships between higher education, community development and the economy. Among his early professional activities in this sphere was serving as a consultant to the city of Wichita on its 1974 Model Cities Program.

“When Wichita State hired me,” Bardo relates, “I taught sociology, but also worked in what is now the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs. A lot of the early work I was asked to do here had to do with the structure of how we helped with the city, how we helped things get better. That stuck with me through my entire career.”

Bardo’s take on the enterprise of higher education continued to broaden and deepen during his years at Wichita State. “I really began to focus on the fundamental questions around what’s happening with globalization, how the world is changing as a result of technology and looking at the role that education can play there,” he says. “What has emerged is that higher education has moved from being this thing that you did for four or five years and then went off to the ‘real world’ – to being at the center of the real world. The prosperity of the United States is tied to education. I believe that in my soul.”

It was also at WSU that Bardo discovered he was interested in learning how to administer at a college level, as a department head or dean, for instance. “Paul Magelli, who was longtime dean of liberal arts and sciences here – a quintessential dean – called me in one day,” Bardo recalls. “He said, ‘You ought to think about being a dean. You have the personality for it. You have the guts for it. You ought to try it.’”

He listened to Magelli’s counsel and, after getting his administrative feet wet on a number of committees, served for five years as department chair of sociology and social work. During that time, he came to realize, he says, that his administrative interests rose beyond the college level to the scope of the university: “I was fascinated in how you got the scientists and the artists and the others all working together to solve problems.”

And it was at Wichita State that he discovered he was quite interested in – Deborah. He met his future wife, Deborah (Davis) Bardo ’75/77, in Neff Hall, where she was working for the summer in the sociology department office. At first, she says, “no sparks flew.” In fact, she adds, “my best friend and I fixed another friend and John up on a date, but our matchmaking didn’t last very long. I started student teaching in the fall and wasn’t on campus until the spring semester. One night, some friends of mine and I met John at the old Rafters club. I asked him to dance with me – and the sparks flew. I think we both knew then it was magic. We’ve been married 37 years. I think I’ll probably keep him now.”

The Bardos have a son Christopher, who lives in Cary, N.C., where he is studying biology and chemistry at North Carolina Central University.

WSU President John Bardo
President John Bardo in his Morrison
Hall office.

I always enjoyed it.

The Bardos left Wichita State in 1983 for Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, where he was dean of liberal arts and sciences, and Deborah studied anthropology. They moved on in 1986 to Jacksonville and the University of North Florida, where he was provost and vice president for academic affairs (1986-89) and assistant to the president for planning and evaluation (1989-90). Their next move was to Bridgewater, Mass., where he was vice president for academic affairs (1990-95) and provost (1993-95) at Bridgewater State College.

Now retired, Adrian Tinsley led Bridgewater State as its president for 13 years. “I had the good fortune to work with Adrian for five of those years,” Bardo says, naming Tinsley as one of half a dozen higher education administrators whom he counts as major influences. “She gave me the opportunity to learn some things that most provosts never get to learn. For example, I liked working with politicians. I always enjoyed it – don’t care what party they are – I know they’re trying to do what they think is right. She allowed me the luxury of lobbying the legislature – that is a rare experience for a chief academic officer.”

On St. Patrick’s Day 1995, Bardo was unanimously confirmed by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors as the 10th chief executive officer at Western Carolina, a constituent campus of the UNC system. Adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains, Cullowhee, the town that has been home to WCU since 1889, is nestled in a wide river valley along a creek. For 16 years, the Bardos made their home there, serving WCU and its Catamount students, faculty, staff, alumni and other stakeholders.

“Throughout his long tenure, he worked on multiple fronts to establish WCU as a catalyst for sustainable economic development in that region,” said then UNC President Erskine Bowles in 2010 about Bardo’s accomplishments as chancellor. “In the process, the campus has attracted national recognition for its ongoing efforts to incorporate civic engagement and community outreach into the undergraduate experience.”

“In my last job, I got to work for Erskine Bowles,” Bardo says, mentioning another of those who have shaped the way he views higher education. Bowles co-chaired the presidential commission set up by President Obama to identify policies to improve the fiscal environment and provide long-term fiscal sustainability. The commission’s report, released in 2010, is often called the Simpson-Bowles plan. Bardo credits Bowles with serving as an exemplary example of “how you think about national issues in a meaningful way.”

Under Bardo’s leadership, Western Carolina saw student enrollment grow from 6,500 to more than 9,400. To handle the growth, WCU constructed or completed major additions to 14 buildings, including five new residence halls and an arts building – the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center. In 2005, WCU doubled its size by acquiring 344 acres of property. The acquisition was part of an enterprise called the Millennial Initiative, the key concept of which centers on developing specialized clusters of activity. Each cluster, or “neighborhood” in Millenial Initiative jargon, incorporates special-interest housing, is anchored by a core academic facility and surrounded by related private industry and government partners.

During Bardo’s time in Cullowhee, WCU also expanded its student union, began women’s soccer and softball programs and renovated every athletics facility on campus, including adding west-side stands to the Catamounts’ formerly one-sided football stadium.

Not yet, but not no.

President Bardo is a football guy. He enjoys watching almost any two teams take the field against each other. If he doesn’t know them, he tends to root for the team in red, a hold-over from his time at Ohio State. In high school, he played defensive end. “But,” he says with a wry smile, “the harder I worked, the lighter I got, and I wasn’t particularly fast. That’s always a football coach’s dream – slow and light. I was the guy they put in at the end of the season who hadn’t been in a game.”

As an assistant professor at Wichita State, he and Deborah had season tickets to Shocker football. He remembers bundling up for home games played in bitter cold; he has vivid memories of the 1982 13-10 WSU win over KU; and he recalls seeing one of the oddest plays he has ever seen – it happened during a game against Drake. The Shockers were trailing, he relates, but had held Drake to the three-yard line. Time was short, and all the Bulldogs had to do to win the game was punt the ball away, which they did. Sort of. Bardo explains, “They call for a punt. But they don’t take the wind into consideration. In Kansas, the wind is the fourth dimension. The ball goes out and comes right back. Our guys recover.” On the next play, the Shockers take the ball into the endzone for the win.

Bardo’s unabashed delight in the game has Shocker supporters of bringing football back to campus excited. The president’s response is measured: “Not yet, but not no.” He emphasizes that it will take time and study to develop plans that deal with the issue in its entirety, including coming up with cost estimates not only for fielding a team, but also for updating Cessna Stadium and adding women sports in the same number of scholarships and players. “I’ve got to make this as a business decision, not an emotional decision,” he says.

As much as he enjoys football, his focus is elsewhere. “In three or four years, we can take a look at football again, but we have so many big things on the table right now,” he says. “I just don’t want to distract us from that.”

WSU President John Bardo

That’s so important.

From space on a clear night, the southern interior plains of the United States shine in clusters of light aligned along Interstate 35. Brightest is Dallas/Fort Worth in the south, with Kansas City in the north and Oklahoma City and Wichita sharing the middle. Bardo sees WSU’s position in this I-35 corridor as an important facet of its own global identity. “As I look at the data on the Wichita economic base and location,” he says, “there appears to be real opportunity for development of entrepreneurial and spin-out businesses related to the region’s core technologies. Wichita State has a long tradition in entrepreneurship education and support for emerging businesses, and I hope to place ever greater emphasis on these types of developments.”

“Dr. Bardo’s ideas in the areas of technology and technology transfer are bold and timely,” says Ravi Pendse, WSU’s CIO and Cisco fellow. “Implementation of these ideas will position WSU as the university of choice for outstanding students, distinguished faculty, and for emerging industries of tomorrow.”

Bardo’s ground-level, more personal view of WSU is lit with the influences of a number of former administrators, including these three: Magelli, LAS dean, John Breazeale, vice president of academic affairs, and WSU’s ninth president. “Clark Ahlberg – that’s his,” Bardo says, pointing to the desk he rescued from storage that now occupies the outer room of his Morrison Hall office. “Clark was a really important man in the way I view the world. Take those three people together: one of the things they did that’s so much a part of the culture of this campus was that they gave me the chance to try. That’s so important.”

As a university president, Bardo sees his role as similar to that of a legislator. “Universities are constituency based organizations,” he says, “and what you’re really trying to do is get the constituencies to talk to each other to build concensus around direction and to allocate resources toward that direction – that’s not unlike being chair of appropriations or majority leader of the senate, for example. Your power is in the bully pulpit, to cause conversations that otherwise would not occur.” Earlier this semester, Bardo set in motion a yearlong strategic planning process, what he calls, “a conversation about what this university’s mission really means to us.”

Elizabeth King, president and CEO of the WSU Foundation, comments, “We are enthused about President Bardo’s vision for Wichita State and the rapidness with which he is moving and involving all stakeholders in the process.”

In the long run, what President Bardo wants is to make sure WSU meets, to the best of its unique abilities, the emerging needs of society. To that end, he is looking closely at WSU and comparing it to other urban universities. “We are much more heavily involved in engineering, for example, than most of the others that are similar to us,” he says. “Given what’s going on in the world at large, given the importance of technology, for us to be engaged in engineering at the level we are is a real plus.” There is room for improvement, though, in the ways in which Wichita State engages people in creating what Bardo calls the academic and social “life churn” of a vibrant campus – and that, he explains, includes student housing: “When I look at typical schools like us, they sleep 20 to 30 percent of their students. We sleep 8 percent, and that 8 percent is in residence halls built before I came here the first time.”

“President Bardo has an exciting and aggessive agenda that makes student life and service to students a focal point,” says Wade Robinson, vice president of Campus Life and University Relations. “The Rhatigan Student Center renovation sets the stage for dramatic changes – new residence halls and other academic, research and service buildings that will change the shape of WSU.”

Debbie Kennedy ’94, president and CEO of the WSU Alumni Association, adds, “He is dedicated to building on our strengths and seizing the future with eagerness. As a WSU alumna, I’m looking forward to embracing the changes that are coming our way.”

I hated school – I really did.

John William Bardo grew up in Cincinnati. He didn’t like school much, didn’t have a favorite course or subject. In fact, he says, “I hated school – I really did. Honestly, I stayed in school because there was no other option.” Outside the classroom, he developed a taste for travel and an interest in photography, but his parents were so relieved when he made it through high school they gave him a special graduation present, a gold Longines watch. “They didn’t think I would ever graduate from anything else ever again,” Bardo says with a laugh.

He enrolled at the University of Cincinnati, but it took some time for the future scholar with two books and nearly 100 articles to his professional credit to seriously attend to his undergraduate studies. “As a sophomore I was in danger of failing out,” he says. “My parents always knew I wanted to travel, so I guess in desperation to get me to actually do something they offered to send me to England to study.” There, in 1968-69 while a visiting student in economics and social administration at the University of Southampton, he was struck by the role higher education played in helping find answers to how a society devastated by World War II could best resurrect itself.

Back in Ohio, he began noticing more clearly what higher education can mean on an individual basis in people’s lives. “I worked at a hospital for a while as an unskilled laborerer in the pharmacy,” he says. “I saw people who couldn’t read and write coming in for emergency help – I saw a different side of life. So when I went into the profession of higher education, it was with the notion that, by majoring in the fields in which I majored, I might be able to help figure out what the alternatives were that would help people create different lives. In the end, we have to make a difference in people’s lives – not always immediately, but over time.”

Nearly three decades stand between President Bardo and his first stint at WSU as an assistant and then associate professor. Many things have changed, but in some ways, he says, it’s as if he never left. “As I came back and saw friends, it was like I had just gone down the street to buy a quart of milk,” he says. “The people of this metropolitan area are very special to me. When I came from Ohio, what did I know about this place? But I felt immediately that I was treated like I was at home.”

For his inauguration, he wanted to showcase and celebrate Wichita State. “I chose as the theme ad astra,” he says, “because WSU can ‘reach to the stars.’ If I were ever to say anything not glowing about this university, it would be that sometimes it doesn’t realize how good it is – doesn’t let itself reach for the stars.”

Ted Ayres, WSU vice president and general counsel, says, “John Bardo strikes me as a man who deeply cares about the academic enterprise, Wichita State University and about Wichita. He practices ‘high octane’ aspirational leadership, with open eyes and open ears. I believe him to be an individual who is on a mission, and that mission is to improve Wichita State in all facets.”

If you ask Bardo what he would have been had he not made higher education his profession, he’ll think for a moment and say, “If I could make a living at it, I’d be a stained glass artist or a photographer.” Then he’ll add with a big grin: “Or a pro quarterback.”

Here’s another idea: a rocketeer at the Ad Astra Rocket Company.

Strap in for blast-off, everyone.

We’re going for a Shocker of a ride.


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