A conversation with Rick Muma

Muma chats with Khan and Tubach during a campus walk.

Rick Muma chats with Student Government Association President Rija Khan and SGA Speaker Jacob Tubach during a campus walk.

Muma’s years of service to WSU give him the passion and expertise he needs to lead

Richard Muma’s rise to president of Wichita State University might seem unsurprising, even preordained: from professor in the College of Health Professions to department chair, from associate vice president of academic affairs to provost, from interim president to landing the top job.

That orderly progression, however, tends to obscure the passion beneath the surface. What drives Muma is a deep affection for the institution to which he’s devoted 25 years of his life and, more generally, an abiding commitment to the ideals of higher education.

Selected by the Kansas Board of Regents on May 6 to become the 15th president of Wichita State University, Muma recently answered some questions about his vision, leadership and the challenges he faces:

You have assured alumni and donors that the university is the same one they’ve always loved and supported. Can you elaborate?

We’ve had a lot of turmoil over the last couple of years and it has been difficult for some. But I remind people all the time that we continue to move forward as an institution. Our enrollment continues to grow, our outcomes in terms of student retention and graduation rates continue to increase, our research portfolio is growing and our campus expansion continues as planned. Yes, we’ve had blips on the radar, but what I try to remind people is that we are still a very strong institution with very strong people who are excited about the future of this university.

What are the top three achievements you hope to see over the next few years.

The vision is probably three-fold with some related goals that are imperative for Wichita State to grow and continue to contribute to the needs of our community. First, we want to provide access to everyone, no matter what form that takes – whether they are seeking a degree or taking some other educational path. Second is to serve our community through research, creative activities and other kinds of service initiatives. And third is to increase enrollment. And not just that, but see more students staying here in Wichita, living productive lives and helping our community grow.

We also have a clear directive from the Kansas Board of Regents to increase graduation rates for underserved students. Georgia State University has a remarkable record of success in this area, so we are bringing them in to look at our practices and recommend what we may want to change.

And finally, we must minimize increases in tuition and fees. Financial obstacles are the main reason students either can’t enroll or are dropping out before completing a degree.

What can you do to help students with financial limitations?

A significant portion of my time will be devoted to raising need-based aid for students, mainly in the form of scholarships from private sources. I am working closely with the WSU Foundation on this priority. We’re looking at other ways to help students with their financial burdens. We recently eliminated $7.3 million in student debt, a move that helped about 3,100 of our students.

What is your message to alumni and others about the importance of philanthropy?

We’re like every other university in this country. We must have private support to make it work – to deliver the best student experience we can and help accomplish the work and initiatives that will strengthen our community. We have transformed this university in the past 10 years to meet community needs. Private investment helped make that possible. Our alumni and donors are generous, they appreciate the power of education to transform our world. I look forward to sharing our story with them.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Collaborative, focused, strategic, trusting, making decisions with integrity that people can rely on. I believe people want open, honest communication that’s open to input and the criticism that goes with it. I want people to see me as someone who provides clear direction and purpose – so everyone can understand how to move forward.

The pandemic has presented many challenges. Do you think it will have a lasting detrimental effect on Wichita State?

With the pandemic, there were some silver linings along with the difficulties. For one, we learned so much from that experience about delivering curriculum online and in other ways. Because of pandemic-related issues, we’ve become even more student-centric, especially in the work around mental health in our division of student affairs. We don’t want to ignore the pain associated with the pandemic, but there have been positive experiences, too. Right now, we’re looking at the highest number of enrollment applications in our history. Whether that translates into an actual enrollment growth remains to be seen.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Richard Muma, who goes by Rick, answered a few questions on the lighter side:

Favorite place on campus?
Fiske Hall, because that’s where my grandmother worked when I was a kid. She was the secretary in the philosophy department up until her retirement from the university. I would come to visit in the summer and that was my first exposure to the campus. Lots of special memories.

Hobbies and interests?
Working out and exercise are important. We work out every morning at 4:30, running in the neighborhood or at the Y. We also enjoy gardening, either in our yard or at College Hill Methodist Church, where we started a community garden about 10 years ago.

Favorite food or cuisine?
I love Mediterranean food. I could eat it all the time.

Favorite vacation destination?
Colorado. We love the mountains and hiking.

Family background?
My spouse is Rick Case. He’s the district director for the USDA here in Wichita. We have two grown children. I was born in Wichita. My father was an electrical engineer and my mother was a homemaker. I have two sisters, one older and one younger.

What influential person, alive or dead, would you most like to meet or have dinner with if you could?
My father. He died when I was 20. I’d like to be able to tell him what I’m doing, where I am. I think he would be surprised.

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