Fort Hays president Tisa Mason (right) and NCK Tech president Eric Burks (left) dropped by Kansas Reflector offices as part of their fall news media tour. Fort Hays communication officer Scott Cason sits in the back. They were joined by Northwest Tech president Ben Schears. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)
If reviving rural Kansas were a simple task, someone would have done it already.
Sadly, rural areas throughout our nation have struggled for decades, as cities and suburbs grew and attracted talent. The challenge has proven especially acute in Kansas, where agriculture powers the economy and the tiniest of towns dot vast swaths of the state. Yet you have to start somewhere. Local, state and national leaders have tackled the problem from different directions, and I was excited to learn about a new approach earlier this month.
Fort Hays State University, Northwest Kansas Technical College and North Central Kansas Technical College have decided they’re stronger together than apart.
The three institutions have faced the challenges of declining rural population and businesses struggling to find workers by launching a strategic affiliation initiative that aims to not only strengthen the institutions, but revitalize whole regions of the state. Fort Hays president Tisa Mason, Northwest Tech president Ben Schears and NCK Tech president Eric Burks dropped by Kansas Reflector offices as part of their fall news media tour and to explain what they have in mind.
Each leader sounded optimistic about the future, but each grasped the challenges ahead. No one claimed that the affiliation would be an instant fix, instead looking at the process as a long-term investment in their capabilities. Our full conversation can be heard in this week’s Reflector podcast.
“Our magnetic north has been really understanding how we can better serve rural communities,” Mason told me. “It’s something that we all are doing now. But we’re really concerned with the shrinkage in the demographics out west and in the rural communities. Definitely the college-age going market also declining. And we know to have a strong state, we have to have all of the state be strong. And so we’ve talked about the fact that we think we can be stronger together, and helping to help students have a better educational experience with more variety and options at different locations, help businesses grow, deepen their hiring, manage and get more employees, and as a result, make our community stronger.
“It’s going to take a lot of efforts. This is just one of them. But we think is essential for us to get together and work very thoughtfully and strategically, to make education more accessible through a variety of means to keep people in rural communities in Kansas.”
You can read more about the details of the affiliation efforts at a special website. But the details at this point frankly sound less important than the fact that civic institutions — which universities and tech colleges definitely are — have broken through the static to understand that everyone has a part to play in reviving rural life.
Schears put it this way: “This is Kansas thing where we have this kind of singularity of mind, where we want to operate as our own, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, we get get ready to work, and we’ll take care of things. And we oftentimes do it in a silo, which then creates additional challenges. So we feel that having a rope with three strands is much stronger than having a rope with a single strand. … What we’re trying to do is break down the way that higher education has worked in the state of Kansas for the last 100 years, do things differently, and hopefully see some really incredible outcomes.”
I certainly couldn’t criticize Schears for not thinking big enough.
Yet the more I listened to these leaders talk about their schools and their students, explain how they educate lifelong learners and train students to support rural communities, the more I felt that you can’t approach the problem otherwise. The demographic shifts can’t be explained away with wishful thinking. Sometimes solving a big problem takes a big swing.
To be clear, as the affiliation website notes, the schools have not decided to merge. They will instead work together on programs and planning, seeing what each one does and where its strengths are, and make sure that rural Kansas students have the resources to succeed.
My wife has been crazy enough to stay with me for 27 years. But the first day when I said 'I do,' and she said 'I do,' I don't think we had any idea what it would look like 27 years later.
– Eric Burks
Burks admitted that the partners couldn’t say for certain how the affiliation would develop. That’s actually a good thing.
“My wife has been crazy enough to stay with me for 27 years,” he said. “But the first day when I said ‘I do,’ and she said ‘I do,’ I don’t think we had any idea what it would look like 27 years later. And I think the same thing about this partnership. … We have a vision for what it can be, just like I had a vision as a young groom on that altar. But I think as it evolves over time, it’s going to be incredible how much better it really is, than even what we can imagine starting into it.”
For now, the partners have to work together toward making their shared vision a reality. They also need support from lawmakers in Topeka. Schear and Burks both noted recent investments in technical education, which have been much appreciated. Mason also sounded positive, but she remained realistic.
“Resources are always tight no matter what,” the Fort Hays president said. “But I would like to just say thank you to the legislators, because they have invested in in higher education, the past couple of sessions pretty significantly. It doesn’t mean we don’t have more needs that we will, will advocate for. And that’s our responsibility is to advocate for those needs.”
Living in Lawrence as I do it can be easy at times to believe that all higher education in Kansas involves either a Jayhawk or a Wildcat. But after talking with Mason, Schears and Burks, I’ll be rooting for the Tigers, Mavericks and Trailblazers too.
So should you.
Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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