Kirk and Noel Schulz open up about their time at K-State

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President Kirk Schulz looks on as his wife, first lady Noel Schulz, associate dean for research and graduate programs in the College of Engineering, fields questions from Collegian reporters on Friday, April 8, 2016. (Erin Poppe | The Collegian)

Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories on the Kansas State Collegian’s interview with the president and first lady.

It was about 3 a.m. in August, and the campus police called the president and first lady. The Aggieville bars had recently closed for the night, and two students found their way into a shed at the president’s house.

Noel Schulz said the police needed help identifying what the two students had been caught trying to steal.

The object? A reindeer Christmas decoration.

“At first we thought it might be some kind of prank to take something from the president’s house,” Noel said.

The perpetrators? Australian exchange students.

“It was something you would have seen in a movie and laughed at,” Kirk Schulz said.

Kirk, K-State president, and Noel, first lady and associate dean of research and graduate programs in the College of Engineering, sat down with the Collegian to discuss their experience at K-State. Last month, Kirk accepted the position as president at Washington State University.

Tea or coffee?

She chose tea, and he chose coffee. Not that the couple has much time to enjoy their caffeinated beverages.

A two-day weekend is a rarity in the Schulz house.

“I think one time this semester we actually had nothing on Saturday and Sunday,” Kirk said. “You sort of almost get to Monday and you feel guilty, like you’ve taken some time off.”

Students can sometimes forget that the Schulzes are people, too.

“The first few times we got pizza delivered, people weren’t sure if it was real or not,” Kirk said. “They’d sort of come up to the door, ‘Did you guys really order a pizza?’ and things like that. They had to realize that we show up in jeans and a T-shirt, eat pizza, have a Bud Light, just like a lot of other people.”

When the president and first lady need to refresh, they visit their lake house in Council Grove, Kansas.

“We’re going to miss the lake,” Kirk said. “Council Grove is a great, small Kansas town, 2,500 people, everybody kind of knows everybody. One hardware store, one grocery store, that type of thing.”

Bagels or doughnuts?

Noel went with bagels while Kirk chose doughnuts. Choosing breakfast foods was the easy part of living in a house that came with its share of surprises.

The reindeer Christmas decoration was not the only animal the president and first lady have had issues with. The president’s house has had bats. And a woodpecker. A woodpecker that pokes on the chimney in the bedroom. The metal chimney.

Skunks, possums, raccoons and even a deer have found their way into the president and first lady’s backyard.

“I mean, rabbits and squirrels you’re used to seeing, but a little bit more of the menagerie,” Kirk said. “You never know what you can see in your backyard.”

Kirk said Cayenne, the K-State first dog, may not have as many woodland creatures to chase around on Washington State’s campus in Pullman, Washington.

Noel said Cayenne will enjoy the fenced-in backyard with a pond at the Washington State president’s residence.

When touring Washington State, people were surprised the first dog had a Twitter account, Kirk said.

“Everybody’s like, ‘I can’t believe your dog has a Twitter account.’ Can I follow her?” Kirk said.

Queso or salsa?

The Schulzes chose the cheesy goodness of queso. They have also chosen to support diversity on campus.

The Schulzes have been inclusive toward the LGBT groups of campus and have supported the addition of a queer studies minor.

Kirk said the K-State community does not need to be concerned about the acceptance and tolerance of the next president.

“I think if you look at most modern public university presidents across the country, regardless of state, the idea of a campus being an inclusive environment is really a core principle, and I don’t think you can see lots of places around the country at public universities where they’ve hired somebody that all of a sudden has shut down any particular area of inclusiveness,” Kirk said.

Kirk said he doubted the next president of K-State will be unaccepting of diversity.

“I just don’t think the Kansas Board of Regents, or that search committee or the people on the search committee, are going to hire a president that’s going to be anti-latino or African-American or LGBT,” Kirk said.

Noel said acceptance is a part of the K-State community and is not necessarily controlled by any one person.

“I think it’s really a reflection on the K-State community,” Noel said. “There’s a lot of discussions across the cabinet, across the deans, across the student organizations. So it’s not just about one leader. It’s also about the family creating that culture and being supportive.”

Hot dogs or hamburgers?

Both answered hamburgers. At the same time.

Hamburger, and beef in general, are favorites of the first family.

Noel’s favorite Manhattan restaurant is 4 Olives, where she orders the beef tips with risotto. Kirk’s favorite is the prime rib from Harry’s.

Noel said the couple has worked together to advance their goals.

“We’re a team, that we help each other in advancing our careers,” Noel said. “Kirk was a single dad for two years so I could go back and get my Ph.D. with a 2-year-old.”

Noel said social media has posed a challenge.

“One of my biggest challenges has been understanding the role of social media and how it’s an avenue for communication,” Noel said. “But how there are also people who will be unprofessional, do personal attacks on my son, on Kirk, on me and how to learn to deal with that.”

Since apples are the state fruit of Washington, what apple is your favorite?

Cosmic Crisp, a new apple variety developed by Washington State University’s fruit breeding program, was the couple’s choice.

The Schulzes are committed to research, which is evidenced by K-State 2025.

“The university’s plan that I helped bring together and pull together,” Kirk said. “My goal always from day one was that it be a university plan that faculty, staff and students felt was theirs.”

Recently, finances have been a challenge in progressing with K-State 2025, Kirk said.

“In the last couple years, as the state resources have declined, and you know when you’re taking cuts, it doesn’t help you to sort of aspire to do these other types of things,” Kirk said. “Private philanthropy will only take you so far. At some point you just need those state dollars.”

Kirk said the greatest success has been the fundraising, but the greatest failure was stagnant salaries for faculty and staff.

“We have not been able to address faculty and staff salaries in a meaningful way,” Kirk said. “We’ve done a few things — it’s not that we’ve done nothing, but if you really look at it, I was probably more hopeful seven years ago that we would really be able to compensate faculty and staff the way that we would like to. That just hasn’t worked.”

Batman or Superman?

Who would Kirk and Noel choose? The dark hero or the super human? Neither.

“I’ll go with Iron Man,” Kirk said. “I’m an engineer. I mean you got to love that.”

“I got to go with Wonder Woman,” Noel said.

Throughout their time at K-State, the president and first lady have disregarded the artificial boundaries imposed by others.

When Kirk came to K-State, his plan for 2025 was ambitious. Perhaps too ambitious, some said.

“When we first talked about doing (K-State 2025), most people said, ‘That will never happen,'” Kirk said. “‘You can make it K-State 2100. It makes no difference, the university will never get there.'”

It was challenging to get the university community to think bigger and bolder, Kirk said. But once it did, the pieces started falling in place, he said.

“It’s been a pretty remarkable ride,” Kirk said. “That’s because we’ve been able to get people to buy into that, faculty, staff, students, donors and so forth.”

When the couple was asked what their greatest successes were, Kirk said the fundraising campaigns, and Noel said helping early-career faculty.

Kirk, though, disagreed with his wife’s greatest success.

“I’m going to give you a different one for Noel,” Kirk said. “I think in 150 years of the institution, Noel is the first first lady that did not have to step away from her career in order to serve in that capacity. It wasn’t too long ago that the expectation would have been for us coming in, here or anywhere else, that she would stop being a faculty member and would sort of just do volunteer work full time.”

Instead of setting aside her career, Noel was at the forefront of the changing roles of university first ladies, Kirk said.

“She’s been able to grow in her career and hasn’t had to stop because of some artificial convention that was out there,” Kirk said. “We’ve been at the forefront of that nationally, and I think 20 years from now everybody will say, ‘Of course it’s always been that way.’ But (Noel is) the first one at K-State to do that, and that’s been a really important legacy.”

Millenium Falcon or Starship Enterprise?

Both chose the Falcon. How fitting it was, considering Han Solo’s affinity for excitement and knack for making new friends.

When asked about their favorite parts of K-State game days, Kirk went for the action.

“I’m down on the field a lot at the beginning of games, just because we have certain things,” Kirk said. “Watching everybody do the (Wabash) Cannonball … and just the crowd. Kickoff, that time is definitely the best.”

For Noel, it was all about the people.

“I like the opportunity to meet new people, new K-Staters, when we’re in the university lounge,” Noel said. “Just meeting new people, finding out their story about K-State, why they’re passionate about K-State.”

The Schulzes may not explore space, but they do their fair share of hiking and traveling. While Noel said she has been to all seven continents, Kirk said he has yet to visit Africa.

“I would like to do South Africa and do a photo safari,” Kirk said.

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Jason Tidd graduated from Kansas State University's Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communication in May 2017. He was the spring 2017 editor-in-chief, fall 2016 news editor and spring 2016 assistant news editor. While at K-State, Jason played baritone in the Pride of Wildcat Land marching band.