Ransdell retirement means search for new president, ‘much to address’

After almost 20 years as WKU’s president, Gary Ransdell announced his retirement and resignation Friday. This decision was announced shortly after a new budget address proposed multiple financial cuts to WKU’s state appropriation. Harrison Hill/HERALD

Jacob Dick

The next 17 months will be a crucial time as Gary Ransdell prepares to step down as WKU’s ninth president.

WKU will be searching for a new leader while Ransdell spends his final months reshaping the university he rebuilt to cope with dramatic changes in how the state funds higher education.

“The pace of this university will quicken over the next 17 months. We have much to address and much to achieve,” Ransdell said Friday when announcing his planned retirement at a WKU Board of Regents meeting in Elizabethtown.

“It’s emotional, but there is much work to do over the next 17 months,” Ransdell said. “I now turn 100 percent of my attention to the challenges ahead of us and all that needs to be achieved in the coming months.”

With his retirement date set, Ransdell said, he will not be worried about job security or other factors in making tough decisions that WKU faces.

While Ransdell will leave the presidency on June 30, 2017, he will take a six-month sabbatical and officially retire on Dec. 31 that year.

The president’s announcement came in the same week new Gov. Matt Bevin ordered an immediate 4.5 percent cut to WKU’s current state funding, along with a 9 percent cut proposed to be effective July 1.

Under Bevin’s plan, all state funding for universities would be shifted to a performance-based pool over the following three years with money awarded based on how a university performs against benchmarks that have not yet been established. Under his plan, there would be no guaranteed state funding beyond the performance pool.

While the president’s announcement came during the same week, Ransdell said he and his wife Julie had been considering his retirement for several months and felt the timing was right. He said he wanted to “go out on positive circumstances, do this on our terms.”

He knows the next president will face enormous challenges.

“My successor’s challenge will be to lead WKU in the penetration of a performance funding pool of money,” Ransdell said.

WKU was in a similar situation in 1997, when Kristen Miller was the student body president and was appointed to the search committee looking for the university’s ninth president.

When Thomas Meredith stepped down as president in 1996, WKU was left at a crossroads on which direction the growing university should go. According to Miller, Meredith had laid the groundwork for the school’s expansion, but budget issues were a growing concern.

“There were serious talks about cutting the football or academic programs,” Miller said. “There was one pot of money everyone was fighting over, and we thought we would have to choose between being a school with athletics or academics. There wasn’t an option for both.”

Miller, who had been a columnist for the Herald before being elected SGA president, was the student representative on the committee that would select a replacement for Meredith.

The company WKU commissioned to search for candidates for president initially introduced five people for the committee to consider, according to Miller. Shortly after, the company contacted the board to announce they had found a sixth candidate who was an alumnus and who had a different kind of background in administration. That candidate was Gary Ransdell.

Ransdell, who graduated from WKU in 1973, already had a work history with WKU. In 1974 he was hired as a field representative in the Office of University School Relations. He assumed the role of associate director of Alumni Affairs in 1978, according to his official bio on WKU’s website. After leaving WKU, Ransdell spent time in administrative roles at Southern Methodist University and Clemson University before applying for the WKU post and returning to WKU in 1997.

Miller said she wasn’t quite sure what to make of Ransdell at first, but it was obvious from day one that he had a vision.

“No one had been really been focusing on the university’s financial interests like they do today, and they couldn’t see what Gary could see,” Miller said. “He was telling us about some of the things he had done at Clemson, and we were thinking, ‘That’s great, but what does that have to do with WKU?’”

Still, Miller said, Ransdell left an impression on the board during his interview that would shape the future of the university.

“The interview went well, and we were about to wrap up when we asked him if he had any questions for us,” Miller said. “That’s when he pulled out a binder full of ideas and thoughts about programs. He had studied the university’s budget and was already planning things out.”

Tamela Smith, staff regent on WKU’s Board of Regents, said those plans have changed the university drastically since she arrived in 1999.

“Even the landscape of the university has changed since I’ve been here,” Smith said. “I’ve watched new buildings come up, and now we even offer doctoral programs. The growth of campus has been pretty drastic.”

That growth during Ransdell’s administration includes the Mass Media and Technology Hall, Ransdell Hall, the Honors College and International Center, a renovation of Diddle Arena, massive expansion of Smith Stadium and a full remodel to the Downing Student Union, formerly known as DUC. During that time, Ransdell has also led two capital fundraising campaigns that raised over $304 million in gifts and pledges.

While change has been dramatic during Ransdell’s tenure at WKU, even more change is on the horizon.

In addition to fundamental changes proposed in state funding of higher education, the building boom that has marked Ransdell’s tenure may also be coming to a halt. Bevin’s budget recommends no major construction projects for the university — including the planned new Gordon Ford College of Business, the school’s top priority for state construction money, and a new parking garage students agreed to fund with a fee.

To current SGA President Jay Todd Richey, the president’s retirement at this time doesn’t seem coincidental.

“His legacy is at its apex, and I believe he is voluntarily stepping down to enable a new generation of leadership to take over,” Richey said. “He is probably going to cash in what political capital he has garnered over the years for the university.”

Richey said he believes candidates to become WKU’s 10th president will be hard pressed to match Ransdell’s involvement with students.

“Ransdell visited high schools to recruit — he visited my high school — and that isn’t something you see from a lot of university presidents,” Richey said. “New candidates will have to show a focus and involvement with students.”

Miller, who is now co-chairwoman of WKU Sisterhood with Julie Ransdell, had some suggestions for regents who will be selecting the next president in 2017.

“Find someone willing to provide for the students in a broad range of experiences,” Miller said, “Someone with a laser focus to graduate sharp and educated students ready to face the world — a person who will make sure students get an education with value for the money they spend.”