KANSAS — When Jon Wefald showed up at Kansas State in 1986 to be president, he took one look at a school with just 16,000 students heading down to 12,000, maybe fewer, and pulled the hatchet from his belt. Faster than you can say Bob Dole, he chopped down 25 top-level administrators.
Then, Kansas State began its thrilling academic march. Unbelievably, among the nation's 500 four-year public universities, Kansas State - now with 21,000 students - ranks second since 1986 in Rhodes Scholarships won with six, behind only the University of North Carolina. The University of California-Berkeley ranks fifth. After the Rhodes (worth $40,000 to $60,000), the most prestigious undergraduate scholarships include the Truman ($30,000; K-State is way first), Goldwater ($14,000; first), and Marshall ($40,000-$60,000; third).
Throw in the 1,500 private colleges and K-State is second in Goldwaters, trailing only Princeton - 35 to 34 - and ahead of the likes of Harvard and Duke. Chortles President Wefald at a meeting of the Alumni Board, "And everybody who goes to Harvard is by definition a genius, right?" Include the private schools in the Truman competition and Kansas State is sixth - behind Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and Duke.
Says Wefald, who has never encountered hyperbole he considers excessive: "We are taking diamonds in the rough from high schools nobody has ever heard of and bringing them to the academic mountaintop." To do this, all manner of folks at the school devote themselves to the young scholars. They nurture them. They convince them they can achieve at world-class heights. They help. It's called teaching. And, lo and behold, the students - 85 percent from Kansas - learn.