Before Gary Ransdell officially steps down as president of Western Kentucky University, he’s embarking on a victory tour of sorts to celebrate his tenure.
At a farewell reception held Tuesday at the regional campus in Elizabethtown, he listed the greatest hits of his 20-year presidency. He oversaw a billion-dollar investment into the rebuilding of the Bowling Green campus, started the regional campuses, increased enrollment, grew the budget and pushed the university to see itself as a leading university with an international reach. “These 20 years have been the passion of our lives,” he said.
Locally, Ransdell’s impact is felt through the regional campus he started in the late 1990s and the Early College and Career Center for which WKU donated the land.
Ransdell officially will step down June 30. He’s taking six months off and then will take over as president of Semester at Sea, a study abroad program based at Colorado State University. He’ll maintain his home in Bowling Green and said he already purchased season tickets for WKU football and basketball. WKU Board of Regents selected Tim Caboni, a vice president at the University of Kansas, to succeed Ransdell.
Before the reception, he met with The News-Enterprise editorial board to discuss his tenure.What’s changed the most for WKU during his 20 years is its mission, he said.“No longer is our mission to educate students,” he said. “Our mission is to drive Kentucky’s economy with a relevant curriculum and improve the lives of Kentuckians. That’s why we exist as public universities.” He said the time was right for him to step down.
Of all the changes in higher education over the past 20 years, Ransdell said social media has been the most challenging. “The world of social media has made this job so different,” he said, noting he has tried to be cool. Ransdell said he doesn’t use Twitter, but his wife reads it all and keeps him posted. “You have to be yourself, and I’m not sure if I’m as all-in for all the different dynamics that exist today that maybe weren’t the case for the last 20 years,” he said.
At Tuesday’s reception, Evelyn Ellis, regional chancellor of the WKU campuses in Elizabethtown and Fort Knox, thanked Ransdell. She said Ransdell helped to instill pride in the WKU community. She recalled her visit to the main campus when she interviewed for the chancellorship. She said many of the students were wearing WKU colors or other school apparel. “When you create an organization that people are proud to be a part of, then you are halfway to unforgettable success,” she said.
Ransdell’s influence is widespread in Hardin County. He partnered with Elizabethtown Community and Technical College and started the regional campus in the late 1990s. Ransdell said the agreement was that WKU would not offer first or second-year courses, so they wouldn’t “usurp” ECTC’s territory.
More recently, Ransdell worked with former Hardin County Schools Superintendent Nannette Johnston to make her vision of the Early College and Career Center a reality. He still remembers the day when he met with Johnston and she sketched out on a legal pad the initial concept that would be become the Early College and Career Center, he said.
“She welcomed us with open arms into that facility,” he said. “That’s been a major variable for us since the day it opened.” He couldn’t help Johnston with funding for the project, but he could donate land. He received the site where EC3 now sits in 2007 as a gift from the Central Kentucky Community Foundation. He intended to use it to expand the regional campus. But he said that “didn’t appear to be in the cards for us in the near term.” “The land seemed to be right for what she had in mind,” he said.
Another lasting legacy for Ransdell is the Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Sciences, which consistently accepts local students. Ten years ago, the academy welcomed its first group of students. Since then, it’s become one of the top high schools in the country and has grown to 200 students, thanks to a recent gift from Bill Gatton. High school juniors and seniors from around the state live on campus and attend the academy for their last two years of high school.
Ransdell said the idea for Gatton Academy stemmed from a desire to keep high-performing high school students in the state. The data, for the most part, has shown even if students go out of state for college, they do come back eventually. “Our goal was to create the intellectual heartbeat of Kentucky,” he said, and the academy was a key component of that goal.
As Ransdell looked back, he said it was satisfying to watch to that vision come to fruition. Ransdell said he hopes his legacy will be the university’s academic strength and international focus. Under his watch, WKU shed its regional identity. “We are indeed a leading American institution with an international reach,” he said at the reception. “I’m proud of how we changed our attitude and focus.”