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K-State's new president talks about challenges and priorities for the university post-pandemic

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Courtesy photo
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Kansas State University
Kansas State University president Richard Linton took the helm of the university in February.

Richard Linton was named the school's 15th president earlier this year.

Richard Linton became president of Kansas State University in February.

Linton visited Wichita recently and talked with KMUW’s Suzanne Perez and Tom Shine about his priorities for the university.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

KMUW: The new president at Fort Hays State University told us that the largest population not going to college is rural students. Why is that?

LINTON: We have a challenge nationally, and we have a challenge in the state of Kansas. In the last 10 years, we've gone from 54% to 44% of high school graduates going to any kind of college. So a big part of our strategy is to message that we're going to take care of you, we're going to make you successful. And when you graduate, there's a 97% chance that you're going to have a job within six months.

President Biden and federal officials continue to talk about waiving and maybe even erasing student debt. Do you think that’s a good idea?

I like to think about what our role is in minimizing student debt — lessening tuition increases, and this year, of course, we don't have any tuition increase at all. But also providing financial support. You know, 77% of our students currently get funding today. And that sounds like a really high number. It's not a high enough number for me. I'd like to see 100% of our students get some form of financial support.

You are the first K-State president since 1986 to have an agriculture-related degree. How's that going to inform your presidency?

I think it's, right now, the perfect marriage. I think there's two things that I sensed in the interview process that Kansas State University was looking for — someone with land grant experience, and I’ve got 38 years of that, and someone that knew and understood agriculture and food systems and how you integrate research and extension and teaching. So I think it's going to push us in a very forward direction and launch us very positively to the future.

You've mentioned a lot of goals today, enrollment being a big one. Have you quantified that?

Right now, Kansas State University is at 20,000 students. I'd like to see us with somewhere between 24,000 and 26,000 over the next several years. That would be an aspirational goal, but I think it's a realistic goal. I think we also need to think about that and balance it with the interest in distance education. I know that we don't want to be a distance university. But I also know that in order to be able to play well and compete well in this market, we have to offer what students want.

According to some statistics, about four in 10 college students end up in remedial English or math classes, at significant cost to both students and universities. Why do you think that number is so high, and what should be done about it?

I do know that quite often, coming out of high school, we're not getting the student base that we used to get in the past. And I think, rather than us trying to fix the challenge in 10th, 11th and 12th grade, what we're focusing on is what can we do once they enter the doors at Kansas State? How can we know and identify that there's a potential deficiency there? And what can we do to be able to calibrate them from where they are to where they need to be? I think that would be true for students coming in as freshmen, as well as those students that might come in from community colleges. Because the most important thing for us is student success.

You told your student newspaper recently that you believe in the land grant and what it stands for. Do you think K-State has strayed from its land-grant roots?

In my opinion, there's five or six truly foundational land grant universities that still believe in research, teaching, education and extension for the people of the state for all the people of the state. Those are the only five or six universities I would have considered going to to be president. I think Kansas State does it better than most. I think that Iowa State, the University of Nebraska, Virginia Tech and Purdue are the other universities that still believe in the land grant. Many other land grants that I've worked at are headed in a different direction, where it's about the rankings.

I think Kansas State does it really well. However, I think our opportunity is better engagement in all 105 counties. I think that's where we've fallen down just a little bit over the last several years. COVID certainly had an impact on that. So we're doing everything we can to re-engage with communities around the state to be able to reinforce: We are the land grant, we are the only university in the state that is present and makes a difference in all 105 counties.

Will COVID-19 have a long-term impact on universities?

I think there's absolutely an impact of COVID. Certainly, distance education and people transitioning to a different way of learning. I think well-being and mental health is another tremendous challenge that we have. When I was at N.C. State University, we saw a six-fold increase in mental health and well-being kinds of appointments that were made at the university from students. We need to be aware of that. And as we transition back to what we call the new normal, let's not expect that transition to be easy. And let's be very thoughtful to how we're watching students, faculty and staff manage this transition. But we are definitely different, and we're not going back to the way we used to be.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.