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Education

Wichita State's New President Rick Muma Discusses Leading A University 'In Transition'

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Wichita State President Rick Muma

Last week, Rick Muma was named the 15th president of Wichita State University.

He assumes the presidency amid the COVID-19 pandemic and following the sudden departures of former president Jay Golden and men’s basketball coach Gregg Marshall.

Muma sat down with KMUW’s Suzanne Perez to talk about his new role and the future of WSU.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Perez: You've been named WSU’s president after two stints as acting or interim president. Talk about what it feels like to have the official title.

Muma: It feels really good — a big weight off of my shoulders. But what I’m really excited is, the institution has been in transition for almost three years. That's been more difficult than I think people realize, not understanding what the future direction of the university is. And so now we have a president in place that I think people are comfortable with and are looking forward to moving the university forward in a positive way.

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected colleges here in Kansas and across the country. Are you worried about declining enrollment, and what can you do as a president to affect that?

We developed a plan over the years, knowing that there would be certain segments of our population that have ups and downs. So on balance, I think that we're in pretty good shape. . . . Our (fall) revenues were actually higher than we projected, and that stayed strong also into the spring. We know a lot of work needs to be done in this regard. Our applications for fall are the highest they've ever been. Our enrollment is a little soft for the fall right now, but we think that’s a factor of high school students just adjusting to COVID and trying to finish out the semester, and they really haven't moved over yet to us.

Do you think your background in public health has given you particular insight into how to handle a pandemic on a college campus?

I started my career as a (physician’s assistant) back in the very beginning of the HIV epidemic. And although that was a much different virus, there were still a lot of uncertainties about whether you should protect yourself or how to protect yourself or, in our case now, should you get a vaccine? A lot of similarities. I’m much more comfortable with some of the nuances that you experience with these kinds of things. Other people are a bit more black-and-white, and to me, it's a lot of gray.

I try to remind people every day that although you may feel uncertain about this, we've made a lot of progress with this virus in a very short period of time. I think we're in a pretty good place overall, in terms of the health and safety of the campus.

You mentioned coming into a university in transition. Part of that is the still-unexplained resignation of former president Jay Golden, who served for about nine months. How do you rebuild trust among faculty, staff, students and the community after that episode?

I know that people put a lot of stock in who the president is. But the university is not built on one person. It's not unusual for a president to resign. It's not unusual for a president to pass away. What is unusual about our circumstance is that it happened over a very short period of time, and that created a lot of anxiety on campus.

I remind people regularly that we have a very clear vision and mission statement at the university. We've made amazing progress over the last two-and-a-half years, in spite of all of this, and in spite of COVID. We’re very fortunate where we are, and it really speaks to the idea that faculty, staff and students are what drive the university. Yes, we have presidents that provide a vision. But if you don't have a way to execute it through interaction with faculty, staff and students, you can't move forward.

Jay Golden faced criticism from donors and others over his handling of the Ivanka Trump commencement speech. Had you been in the presidency at that time, how would you have handled that situation?

It’s a very good question, and here’s what I'll just say about this particular issue: We have to always, particularly as a university, be reminded that we sometimes come across controversial issues. It's what our universities are based on, and it's where academic freedom plays into that, and it’s what it means to be a free society.

I don't care what you think about particular issues. We have to be able to be confronted, be challenged. It seems to me that I would still look at that particular issue in that same way, even though it wasn't popular among many faculty, students, staff and others in the community: We have to always remind each other that to live in a free society, we have to be confronted with things that aren't popular, and we have to be able to debate things that aren't popular. Sometimes they're political issues. Sometimes they're issues that actually move our society forward in a number of ways.

That sounds like you would have maybe let her talk.

Well, remember, it was a commencement address that was recorded many weeks ahead of when it was planned to be released. If you watched it, you know that it was pretty innocuous. I think probably the best thing at that time was to allow that to go forward and let people know, “Hey, if you don't want to watch it or listen, you don't have to. It’s a recording.” And although people might be upset about this, as time went on, I think they would understand why that was important to allow that to go forward.

Another big hit to Wichita State over the past year was the departure of men's basketball coach Gregg Marshall. He’d been accused of verbally and physically abusing players, and the results of an investigation have never been made public. Do you plan to release any details about that investigation moving forward?

That whole situation and the way we investigated it was obviously something that no one at the university asked for. It’s a very unfortunate situation. People often think when you have these situations that there's winners and losers. There’s only losers. We needed to make a decision — a mutual decision with former coach Gregg Marshall — and we agreed that we would come to an agreement in terms of his resignation and how that would play out. And so we won't be releasing any more information.

Both those issues — Golden and Marshall — raise questions about transparency. How do you assure the university and the community that you're being as transparent as possible?

People need to understand that there are no winners and losers. I think people believe that if you get this piece of information that you're going to win, somehow. You’re going to benefit somehow. My concern was the protection of the players, first and foremost. And my other concern is to protect the university.

Now there's a lot of things I can't talk about with this. But one thing that I can say is that you can always count on me to make sure that every decision I make is going to be in the best interest of the faculty, staff and students of the university. And sometimes in these situations, I think people understand that this is where you end up.

You've said one of your top goals is to make college more affordable and accessible. How do you plan to do that?

It's really unfortunate that that’s where we are in higher education — not just in the state of Kansas, but across the country. The contraction of state support is just continuing. People don't have the appetite to fund public programs. One of the things that we have worked really hard on is making sure that we keep tuition as affordable as possible. We are not requesting a tuition increase this next academic year. There are some fee changes that we're going to have in place, but we've put those in place or are proposing those along with students who are supportive of that.

One of the things I see myself spending a lot of time on as president is raising as much need-based aid as possible. This is essential to this community. I call it “gap aid” or “trailing aid.” So many of the students who come to Wichita State qualify for federal grants and other institutional aid, but there's still that gap between whatever that is and the full cost of attendance. That's the dollars that I'm going to be spending a lot of my time raising. The WSU Foundation and our last capital campaign raised $80 million for that purpose. And I will expect our next capital campaign to raise at least that if not more.

What can WSU do to attract students and keep them here in Kansas?

One of our major initiatives is recruiting students up and down the I-35 corridor. What appeals to a lot of people who live in Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Kansas City, is what we're providing for students here — which really no one is providing it the way we are — and that’s a paid applied learning experience. We have documentation that over 5,000 of our students are getting that kind of experience and earning $27 million to help pay for their school, along with the need-based aid that we can help raise. Having that pay-to-play learning experience really will help more students be able to go to school and stay in school and graduate once they're here.

Mental health is a huge concern coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s being done to help students at WSU?

We’ve kind of led in this with the We Support U initiative. It started with federal funding, but it’s sort of a wrap-around service for mental health issues. It's really taken off at our campus and even beyond the campus. It requires a lot of hands-on resources, and we've hired some additional counseling staff to help with this. I believe it’s going to be a continued issue, particularly in this COVID era. It's going to require us to continue to invest.

What's next for the Innovation Campus?

We have built out most of that east side of campus; there are only three lots that are not spoken for. One of the things I want to see with whomever comes to campus is a deeper connection with what we're doing, particularly around applied learning — investing for the long-term to help students for the ages and not just at the moment, making sure that they tie what they do deeply into what we're doing in terms of research. One of my goals is to grow research and make sure we, as a university, help our community solve some of their most pressing issues.

You’re the first openly gay president of WSU. You and your spouse (Rick Case) have established an equity scholarship for LGBTQ students and allies. What do you think your appointment means for LGBTQ people and for Kansas?

I want to just say that that's one aspect of me. What I'm interested in as the president is fully supporting the entire university, regardless of whether you're gay, straight, white, black, (or) a trans student. It's important for me to think about it from that perspective. None of this should really matter, right? I'm very appreciative of being appointed to the university president position, but I'm quite sure that's not the reason why I was. I think they were more interested in what I was thinking about in terms of the vision of the university.

That said, are there things the university needs to do or keep in mind to promote racial, cultural or socioeconomic diversity?

Absolutely. Since I was interim president we have made a decision to develop a diversity, equity and inclusion plan with clear goals, metrics and strategies, not just for recruiting a diverse student population, but also supporting a diverse student population. Making sure students have the ability to engage in diversity of thought in not just coursework, but other kinds of things that they might engage in as students. The most important thing is to make sure our workforce is more representative of our student body.

If we talk to you a year from now, where do you hope the university is?

I hope to see continued enrollment growth. We have plans to grow enrollment to around 17,000 students at the Wichita State campus; WSU Tech will be around 5,000 to 6,000 students. I want to see more students enrolled at the university who wouldn't have the chance otherwise because we've been able to provide them need-based aid and other support for them to get there. I also want to see our research portfolio growing. I see Wichita State becoming a premier urban public research university.

I advocate for reading through the #ReadICT initiative, so I’m curious: Is there a particular book you've read recently that stuck with you, or something you're looking forward to reading?

Right now I'm reading a book called, “Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities.” And it's the first time I've actually come across a book that describes what we're doing at the university, which is making sure that we provide access to the most under-resourced students and giving them the opportunity to go to a research university and provide them with a quality education. A lot of hay has been made about public-private partnerships, but these are the kinds of things that we have to do.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Well, I'm kind of boring. Rick and I get up every morning at 4:15 to be at the YMCA to do our workout because if we don’t do it then, it's just not going to happen. We spend a lot of time doing fitness, go on lots of walks, ride bikes.

One of the things that we focus on a lot is gardening. We founded the College Hill United Methodist Church community garden about 10 years ago, and that’s been a real blessing not just for the church, but the community. We just finished planting everything — tomatoes, onions, okra, peppers, lettuce, radishes. My job is chief weeder because no one really wants to do that work. But to me it’s sort of therapeutic, it's mindless, and I can think about a lot of things.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you?

I was born here. My family homesteaded here. I moved away when I was a child, but then I had an opportunity to come back to Wichita State to be a faculty member. I was recruited away to St. Louis University, but I came back for a third time. That should tell you about my commitment to this community and to the university, and I will work hard every day to make sure I move that university forward in a positive way. My ultimate goal is to make sure people get their degree so they can go on and live productive lives.