As retirement looms, colleagues and students cheer President Richard Myers' work at Kansas State University
Richard Myers wasn't supposed to have a second act.
That's in large part because few people have as high-profile of a career as Myers' four decades in military life, which was capped off with a nearly four-year stint as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George W. Bush, making him the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the country's armed forces.
Shortly after his retirement from military work in 2005, Myers was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in honor of his service and began a transition to civilian life.
But Myers still opted to open the curtains on another stint in the public eye, choosing to return to the place his career began: Kansas State University, where his participation in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps hinted at what was to come.
When Myers was appointed as KSU's 14th president in 2016, it meant coming back to Kansas, something he said hadn't happened in any formal way since his graduation from the university in 1965.
The homecoming fit together so perfectly that Myers can look out his office window and see the chapel where he and his wife, Mary Jo, were married years earlier.
The story is poetic, almost fairy-tale-like. It is also was a complete accident.
"This was never intended to be a full journey sort of story," he said.
Serving at the helm of the university was supposed to be temporary, with Myers initially tapped as the interim replacement for outgoing president Kirk Schulz.
But a year later, staying on full time — once the "furthest thing from my mind," Myers said — became a reality.
"I was not an insider, and I'm not trying to build a resume," Myers said. "You know, sometimes people will get suspicious when somebody comes in and tries to change a lot of things and say, 'Well, you're just building a resume for the next job.' But it's pretty clear, I don't intend to have a next job. I didn't intend to have this one, frankly. But this is it.
"And all I care about is Kansas State and higher education in the state of Kansas and, ultimately, the state of Kansas."
Now the curtain is set to close on Myers' second act — the 79-year-old announced last month he would step down at the end of the calendar year. As retirement nears, friends and colleagues say Myers' tenure in charge of his alma mater will leave a mark on the university in ways that bely his five years as president.
And while many on campus note his efforts to overhaul the university's budgeting process or attempts to improve diversity and inclusion on campus, most focus on the thrill of working alongside an accomplished leader whose love affair for Kansas State runs so deep he once dyed his hair purple for a men's basketball game.
"You realize that he's led in the most stressful and the most serious and challenging leadership situations for the country and for the university," said Jack Ayres, who worked alongside Myers as student body president in 2016. "But he does it with a smile on his face, and he does it in a way that makes everybody feel included and makes everybody feel like he's got their back."
From ‘outside voice’ to campus mainstay
Shortly after being tapped for the permanent role in 2016, Myers said he wanted to be an "outside voice," owing to the fact that his background was in a world far removed from higher education administration.
But he wasn't a stranger to Kansas State, even beyond his tenure in Manhattan as a student. He helped lead the Washington, D.C., chapter of the university's alumni association and served as chairman of the KSU Foundation Board of Directors.
Colleagues say that work helped him hit the ground running, leveraging the relationships built in years prior.
"I think it was special," said Amy Button Renz, president and CEO of the university's alumni association. "Because when you already know someone and you know what they're capable of ... it is very easy to map out our strategy and look at our strategic plan and see how we could come together to work closely with the university."
Still, Ayres noted Myers was quick to listen when there were areas he needed to brush up on. He recalled his first interaction with the new president, when Myers dropped by a weekly breakfast meeting with student government leadership.
Higher education administrators aren't always widely known or respected by students — Ayres said there were numerous times where classmates were under the mistaken belief that Pat Bosco, the longtime, beloved dean of students, was running the show.
But at that first meeting, Ayres said Myers proved he was someone willing to listen and relate to what was on the minds of students.
"I thought 'Oh, what is this four star general going to listen to this 21-year-old kid like me,'" he said. "And then he would ask questions, and I noticed, he would just start writing. And just soak in what the students were saying. For me, early on, he was just all ears."
Observers say Myers' passion for K State was equally captivating. Renz said he had "more purple in his wardrobe than anybody." He was known to tool around campus in a golf cart, emblazoned with the school's colors, even giving students a ride to class.
And Renz said Myers had so much fun appearing in the annual homecoming parade that he insisted on returning year after year. The presence on campus was a family affair, with his wife, Mary Jo, also taking a visible role on campus — with the couple even leading an alumni association group to Antarctica.
"They're just down to earth and very approachable," Renz said.
Myers' tenure defined by turbulent change
Myers' tenure at the university dovetails with a period of major change for Kansas State and for the higher education landscape nationally.
From 2016 to 2020, enrollment at KSU dropped by almost 3,000 students. And Kansas State began the process of trying to reimagine its marketing and branding, resulting in a reorientation designed to bring in more students from throughout the Midwest, rather than just Kansas.
The result is a university that looks far different from the one Myers attended in 1965 and one with a far different set of problems.
"I'm not sure there was a president in our school that had as many highs and lows as President Myers had to address," said Bosco, the dean of students whose tenure at KSU spanned five presidents.
Myers is credited for spearheading a variety of projects, including a spate of privately funded building projects aimed to balance out a decline in state support, with the last publicly financed construction on campus occurring in the 1980s.
Fundraising and alumni engagement got a boost as a whole under Myers, Renz said. And his prominent public profile gave a well-known ally as the state's public universities worked with the Kansas Legislature on funding and policy challenges.
Budgeting changes, diversity efforts listed as top achievements
But two major projects crop up again and again when those on campus are asked to reflect on Myers' legacy. One was a significant overhaul of how the university handles budgeting, with a move toward a model that is less centralized and gives individual deans more control while also containing performance incentives.
That effort also helped to make the school tuition and fee structure more transparent. And it prompted a rethinking of its financial aid and marketing strategies, ones which Myers predicts will reverse the years-long enrollment decline.
"We think we're gonna see some improvement in our freshmen class in terms of numbers," Myers said. "It'll be modest, but it's going to be a start to turn the ship around."
The second major piece was the development of a multicultural student center on campus, which came as part of a broader effort to improve diversity and inclusion initiatives. The university rolled out a cabinet-level position specifically designed to spearhead those issues and also unveiled a long-term plan for making KSU a more welcoming space.
Myers noted the importance of this effort, given that changing demographics in the state and region will mean more students of color on K State's campus.
"Social justice issues, people are much more aware of those today than they were when I went to school," Myers said. "I think this whole movement ... is something that we have to be responsive to. And make sure on our campus that we have the kind of environment that is inclusive and that doesn't discriminate in any way — even ways that we might not intend."
But the work wasn't always easy.
Bosco said the multicultural student center project was "dead in the water" before Myers came aboard, the school's first chief diversity officer left the position earlier this year and the university was hit last year with a controversy stemming from a student's racist tweet in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
Ayres noted that the initial blueprint for diversity improvement wasn't popular with students. But he gave Myers credit for returning to the drawing board, rather than unilaterally forging ahead.
"He said, 'Hey, look, I think we might have gotten this wrong," Ayres said.
Del'Sha Roberts, who served as president of the Black Student Union in 2018-19, noted it is important to credit a host of individuals for the Multicultural Student Center and diversity officer efforts but added Myers was particularly helpful at working with donors and the Kansas Board of Regents on the projects.
She said Myers grew on those issues over the course of his tenure.
"He came off as genuine and as a person who doesn't know a whole lot about diversity and multicultural issues but who wants to learn more about them," Roberts said.
Myers champions higher education ideals amid uncertain future
The COVID-19 pandemic was a chaotic capstone to Myers' tenure, with the university forced to hurriedly transition to remote learning, while coordinating with Manhattan and Riley County to avoid a mass outbreak of cases in the college town.
The experience was tantamount to turning a battleship on a dime. But Myers noted it wasn't the most challenging part of the pandemic. Instead, he said, the most trying element was dealing with staff layoffs and furloughs, owing to revenue lost due to an absence of students physically on campus.
Moving forward, however, he noted the pandemic would ask philosophical questions of higher education, requiring a school like Kansas State to figure out how to carry out its mission in new ways.
That will include more online courses, with a majority of K State students already taking classes virtually, even before COVID-19. And, Myers said, it involves figuring out how to support prospective students of all ages who are interested in continuing their education or starting anew.
How state support for that work will play out going forward is unclear.
Myers' exit comes after Gov. Laura Kelly proposed significant cuts to state support for higher education, and while some of that money was restored and new funding streams even added, the future remains uncertain.
Debates over what is being taught at public colleges and universities have also become increasingly polarized, and lawmakers in many states, including Kansas, have become far less shy about highlighting perceived inefficiencies and attacking them publicly.
Myers gave an impassioned plea, warning against the politicization of the state's colleges and universities and arguing it could be the undoing of economic and cultural development in both Kansas and the U.S. as a whole.
"If it becomes politicized, if we're only teaching dogma, then that's not higher education," he said. "It is way too easy to generalize about these things. In my experience in higher education, somebody coming in from the outside, is that all those stereotypes are absolutely wrong."
The outgoing president may be an outsider to higher education, someone who never intended to arrive in the field or stay in it as long as he did.
Myers made it clear where his loyalties lie, however. He repeatedly highlighted K-State's status as the nation's first land grant university and underscored the need to preserve its public access mission going forward.
"We offer a lot more to the state of Kansas than those things you hear in the media about how higher education is going to the dogs," Myers said. "I don't see it and I don't believe it."