Kansas State President Richard B. Myers, who began his tenure as the university’s 14th president in 2016, is set to retire on Feb. 11, 2022. He announced his plan to retire in the spring of 2021. The Kansas Board of Regents selected Richard Linton to succeed Myers as the next president. Myers sat down with The Collegian’s Alexander Hurla to reflect on his time at K-State.
What motivated you to become K-State’s president in 2016?
At that point, nothing was motivating me to be the K-State president. I had been out of the military for ten years. I had done other things — some public board work, some speaking, some teaching, some charitable work — and I was starting to scale back in 2016 and spend some more time with children and grandchildren. I got the call if I would be the interim, and I remember telling the Board of Regents who asked me that question, I very distinctly said, “OK, this is April. You better have somebody by December because if you don’t, you’re going to see red dots heading east, and those will be my taillights.” So, I thought it was going to be a short-term sort of thing until I got to campus, and, mainly in August of 2016, when campus comes back to life, I was realizing I was appointed in April, President Kirk Schulz was here until graduation, so there’s not a lot going on in the summer. When this campus came to life, I was just smitten with it. I said, “This is great with the vibrancy of this campus and the people we work with.”
I got a lot of encouragement from people up to and including Coach [Bill] Snyder, who said, “I want you to take the full-time position.” There were a lot of challenges at the time, state funding, and so forth. And there were things where I thought being a Kansan by birth, being an alum, having a different reputation not associated necessarily with academia that perhaps my voice could be helpful. I don’t know if it was or not, but I wanted to make an attempt to try to get more resources for our higher ed in the state of Kansas. Knowing all the challenges, I just wanted to help. So, I got very, very enthusiastic about that and went back to my wife and family. I said, “Hey, I’m thinking about putting my name in the hat.” And they all said in the end, “If you want to do that, do it.” So, I did, and fortunately and luckily, I was chosen to be the next president, but it was never on my bucket list. I mean, I never thought about doing this. But, having said all that and then having fallen in love with students, faculty and staff in August of 2016 when I was here full-time, it’s been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done in my life. Knowing what I know now if I hadn’t done that, I would have kicked myself for not taking the opportunity to serve my alma mater.
What did you enjoy most about being president?
It’s always the people, right? It’s always the people. So, great relationships, I think, with lots of different students, being with the Student Governing Association regularly, teaching in the classroom and trying to stay connected with students. When I first got here, before COVID, we did Pizza with the President, and anybody could sign up and come over to the Union where we had free pizza and cookies, and we could talk about anything they wanted. So, just getting to know people and having them get to know me. With faculty, they’re so innovative and inspirational in the way they teach and the way they think about students.
Everything associated with a land-grant university made it a delight to be here. I think the overarching thing is that higher education plays such an important role in our society. It is a way to bring people — if they’re not already there — into the middle-class. If you get a college education, if you’re first-generation, you affect the whole family, not just you, not just your parents. The whole family system now has a different goal, thinking, “Oh, look what they did. I can do that.” To provide the access and opportunity here at a reasonable cost by relative standards. And to be a part of that, trying to help people’s lives and have a more educated citizen out there and a more productive citizen is a very noble mission. It’s as noble as anything anybody does, so I love that part of it — that we’re really making a contribution to society.
What have been some of your biggest accomplishments as president?
You have to realize that nothing is done by one person. We followed our 2025 Vision that was worked on by the previous president. That is about ready to run its course, and the new president will come up with a new strategic plan. The way that was done was the whole campus. It wasn’t the president who’d sit here and say, “Here’s our plan, go do it.” It was everybody, totally collaborative. 2025 gave us our focus. And despite declining state support, declining enrollment so you don’t have as much tuition, we’ve made great progress against every goal in there. That’s not my credit. That’s a credit to this university for following a strategic plan.
We had to restructure our budget model. We are now in the implementation phase of the new budget model. Faculty, staff and students helped develop it. Faculty, staff and students are involved in the governance of that budget model, and it’s having the expected outcome that we desired.
We were in the middle of an enrollment decline when I came here, and no one could answer why it was going down: we just had no good answers. We hired a national consultant who came in and looked at our enrollment strategies and gave us a good roadmap to turn that around. We’re in the middle of that turnaround right now. We’ve put a lot of resources into that, and I think if it hadn’t been for COVID, we would already be going back up. We’re the best value in that state by anybody’s measure – everybody measures that all the time, and we do very well on all the surveys. I think when we get people here, and we are now, we’ll start to see enrollment go back up.
One other thing is when I was brought on as the president, they had a billion-dollar capital campaign underway to raise, through philanthropy, one billion dollars. When I became president, they raised that to $1.4 billion. I spent a lot of time — as a lot of presidents do — with our friends, supporters, donors, alums, trying to meet that goal. We actually raised $1.6 billion. That’s not me. That’s a whole system of people. It’s powerful. There’s nothing you can attribute to me. It’s the team that gets this stuff done.
What have been some of your biggest challenges as president?
I think budget is a huge challenge with declining state resources and, on top of that, declining enrollment. So, the two buckets of revenue are the state general fund and tuition. With both of them going down, how do you keep accomplishing the land grant mission with declining resources? So, there’s been a lot of belt-tightening all across campus, and it’s been very, very hard.
Then, you get hit by COVID, and we’re two years into this now, and that had its own economic impact. It impacted personally with our faculty, staff and student families. Those are big challenges to work our way through. The way we did that was we had a COVID executive group with all of our shared governance groups represented. I think we managed our way through that pretty well. I think K-State can take a lot of pride in how we managed our way through COVID. We’ve kept ourselves healthy, we got back in the classroom as quickly as any university and we’ve kind of stayed there. So, we’re moving forward, but it’s not over yet.
What do you hope your legacy as K-State’s president will be?
I’m not a big legacy guy. Somebody will have to make that judgment to see where it all fits because a snapshot now is probably not going to be the same snapshot in a year or two years or even ten years. I just hope people recognize how much I loved being here, how fulfilling this was to me and how I loved working with faculty, staff and students.
What are your plans for retirement?
Six years here deprived me of being with family back in Virginia. The three children and seven grandchildren are all back in Virginia. I look forward to being more a part of the family going forward. Beyond that, I’ve got a lot of dreams and schemes of which my wife, Mary Jo, has not yet said, “That’s a really good idea.” We’ve had a little taste of going on trips in RVs, and one of the thoughts is, “Let’s get an RV and see more of the US, just the two of us and the dog.” Flying was my passion. When I got to K-State, they taught me to fly in ROTC, and that’s been my passion for life. I haven’t flown as a pilot-in-command for many years now, so maybe get back into flying.
The good news is I don’t have to decide. I’m not going to wake up on Saturday the 12th and have a schedule for that day. It’s going to be doing, well, pretty much whatever Mary Jo wants me to do. I’ve never had that feeling in my life, even after I left the military.
I’d like to come back here and teach and help in any way the university sees fit. Clearly, staying out of Dr. Linton’s way. I’d never want to be in his way at all. He’s the president, and I’m the has-been, and I’m happy with that. That’s a good role for me. We have bought a condo here in Manhattan because we love this community, and if we didn’t have some tie to make it easy to come back to, it would be like a divorce, and that wouldn’t feel right. So, we want to stay connected but not intrusive.