“It’s time for someone else”: PSU President to retire at end of 2022 school year.
PITTSBURG, Kan. — On May 1, 2009, then Pittsburg State University Provost Dr. Steve Scott was waiting in a hotel room in Topeka for a call that would change his life.
“I sat in a hotel room after visiting with the Board of Regents waiting for them to call me, to let me know if I was going to be the president,” Scott says. “I had a pair of blue jeans on and was ready to load the car and go home.”
Then the phone rang he said, and before he knew it he was in a suit in downtown Topeka being introduced as Pittsburg State University’s newest president.
“It was a moment,” he says. “It’s one of those kind of forks in the road, it could have gone either way.”
Since that day in 2009, Scott has gone on to have one of the longest tenures of any state university president in Kansas in recent history. Scott says most university presidents only stay at the job five or six years nowadays — he’s been PSU’s president for nearly 13.
“During my time some of the other institutions have had three, maybe four presidents,” he says. “To reach my thirteenth year is quite an accomplishment.”
That reign is about to come to an end, though, as Scott has announced his plans to step down as president in June of 2022.
“My time here and the decision was really based more on age than anything,” he says. “I kind of committed to myself that I wasn’t going to do this beyond age 70 and in fall of 2022 I’ll be 70 years old.”
“Nonetheless, 13 years in this role, it’s time for someone else to take it on.”
Though he has been the president for over a decade, Scott’s time working and learning at PSU spans nearly three decades, first starting out as a student, then moving on to become a professor, chair of the Department of Special Services and Leadership Studies, dean of the College of Education, vice president for Academic Affairs, and then provost in 2008.
“I was going to be a high school math teacher and I was going to coach a little bit,” Scott says. “I’m like a lot of people, I came here thinking I was going to be here three, maybe four years honestly, […] in other words I didn’t really plan to be the university president.”
Scott’s connection to southeast Kansas runs even longer though, as he grew up in Baxter Springs and both his parents are alums of PSU.
“As I look across at McCray Hall, my mother was a student there in the late ‘30s,” he says. “I have a yearbook where Walter McCray had signed it, so my roots are really more than 80 years connected to Pittsburg State University.”
Scott’s brother and former Walmart CEO Harold Lee Scott Jr. is also an alum of the university and an avid donor as well. During Scott’s time as president, many changes have been made to the university, and two of the projects he is most proud of are the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts and Block22, which he says are two projects that are unheard of at institutions of PSU’s size.
“We had a meeting one day where someone said, ‘you know given our size, our scale we probably have no business doing this’ and we did it anyway,” he says.
Besides building programs and buildings, Scott says he is proud of the relationships he has built with students, faculty and donors.
“I’ve been very, very fortunate to attract and maintain a really strong leadership team,” he says. “The culture of this place, the people across the campus, it’s a place I’ve never wanted to run away from, it’s a place I’ve always wanted to serve.”
Then adding, “The students are inspirational to me. They’re fun to be around, they’re energizing; they renew my own spirit of hope for the future. We have extremely talented students come through here with awesome aspirations and capabilities. The world is pretty tough right now, so when you’re around people that can see a brighter future and want to work towards that, it’s a pretty good feeling.”
Scott says he has loved working at a university because he keeps on learning.
“You cannot stop learning, you have to keep learning and I have been obsessed with managing my own learning, whether it’s reading, studying leaders, watching people give speeches, [etc.]” he says. “The word I just despise the most is complacent. That’s just a huge fear of mine, is that someone will say ‘oh he’s complacent'. You just can’t be in this era; everyone will outrun you.”
Though nothing can outweigh his love of his job and the university, Scott says the hardest part of being president was dealing with the politics.
“Everday, I feel like we do good things,” he says. “But at the state level we really haven’t had the funding support to do what we really need to do and that’s been a constant source of frustration.”
He says it was especially hard during the last academic year, dealing with COVID-19.
“It's been exhausting,” he says. “The most difficult decisions we’ve ever had to make. If you make decisions around curriculum, it's one thing, or athletics or funding, but the decisions you make around the pandemic had an impact on people’s lives in terms of their wellbeing, in terms of them being exposed to the virus.
“Then wrapping around the pandemic, just the medical and health part of it, was all the politics of it, and it made it — and I don’t use this word often — but it made it almost impossible to navigate.”
Though this last year has been exhausting, Scott says he “took office” in the middle of the Great Recession so he is no stranger to dealing with complicated world crises.
“So I’m kind of bookending my presidency in another worldwide crisis,” he says.
As he heads into his last school year as president, Scott says he hopes to accomplish a number of things before stepping down. Those include making sure the school’s financial situation is sound, continuing to work on getting enrollment up, as well as a number of capital construction projects. Another priority is renovating the Kelce College of Business, which he hopes the university can start hearing bids on soon.
“The price of building materials has really pushed us to delay that,” he says, “but before I get out of here, I really hope that we can bid that out and have a groundbreaking.”
Though he will be leaving his post, Scott still has things he wants to accomplish, including teaching, possibly running for some sort of elected office, or stepping into the nonprofit world.
“My life has been about purpose. I feel like I’ve lived a life of purpose in serving others. Well, I have a skill set and capacity and the energy to continue to do that but not necessarily in higher education, but in some other area,” he said. “So I’m not headed to the golf course.”
After he leaves the university, Scott will stay in the southeast Kansas area and spend time with his wife, kids and grandkids all of whom are avid gorilla fans.
“This notion of once a gorilla always a gorilla,” he says, “that is not just a marketing tool. There is just such truth in that, and I’m certainly evidence of it.”
The Kansas Board of Regents will begin the search for a new PSU president, with plans to most likely announce Scott's successor in spring of 2022.