Long-time president Clark Ahlberg dies

5:00:41 PM CDT - Thursday, February 01, 2007

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Clark Ahlberg, 88, one of WSU's longest-serving presidents who oversaw significant growth in several areas of the university, died in Gig Harbor, Wash., on Friday, Jan. 26.

A native Wichitan, Dr. Ahlberg returned to his hometown in 1968 to lead his alma mater until retiring in 1983. He'd been encouraged to interview for the presidency by his mentor and former professor Hugo Wall, along with a number of other faculty who were aware of his successful career and his leadership qualities.

"Most people considered him the right person for the job since we'd just come into the state system and we were ready to take off and grow," said George Platt, a retired faculty member who had known Dr. Ahlberg since both were at Syracuse University.

Dr. Ahlberg grew up in Wichita, graduating from North High. He received his bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Wichita in 1939. He went on to earn a master's and a doctorate degree from Syracuse University in 1942 and 1953, respectively.

At Syracuse, he was an administrator and on the faculty. He also was the state budget director for New York before returning to WSU.

During Dr. Ahlberg's time at WSU, the university was transformed into a major state university, from its size including student body, faculty numbers and physical growth to its cultural and educational impact.

Under his presidency, the student population grew from more than 11,500 to more than 17,000. As faculty numbers grew to coincide with the burgeoning enrollment, Dr. Ahlberg encouraged the recruitment of top-caliber faculty. In his first 11 years, for example, 200 new faculty members were added in the Fairmount College of Liberal Arts and Sciences alone, with nearly three-fourths holding doctorates.

Academic programs were also expanded. The administration of justice program began offering a bachelor's and master's degree. The Center for Entrepreneurship and the women's studies department, among the firsts in the country in their respective areas, were founded.

The College of Health Professions was established in 1970, when Dr. Ahlberg realized the need for educational resources in the health field in Kansas.

He oversaw WSU's cultural growth, as well, backing the purchase of the Marcussen organ and establishing the Ulrich Museum of Art. Dr. Ahlberg persuaded Martin Bush to come to Wichita to lead the museum and build its outdoor sculpture collection, now ranked among the best such collections on a college campus.

Many other major programs that are now heralded as among the best at WSU got their start  or restart, in the case of baseball under his presidency.

He hadn't had a "blueprint for development," he said in an interview with the university's alumni publication 11 years into his presidency. He'd come with respect for the people here and what had been done and an idea that WSU was much better than the faculty and community thought. "I considered it an opportunity to prove that this can be a great institution," he said at the time.

To bring his ideas to fruition, he recruited individuals he knew could accomplish the job.

"He believed that the only way for the university to expand was to have good people doing things," noted Platt, who'd been recruited by Dr. Ahlberg to oversee much of the planning and development of WSU's physical campus.

More than $55 million worth (in 1980s dollars) of physical development and more than a million square feet of space including Clinton Hall, the McKnight Art Center, Hubbard Hall, Lindquist Hall and Ahlberg Hall were added, according to Platt.

He also encouraged the planting of trees and shrubs, believing that by beautifying the campus, students and faculty would take that as a sign that "if we cared about the place, then we would care about them," said Jim Rhatigan, who served as dean of students and vice president for student affairs under President Ahlberg.

When WSU intended to establish the College of Health Professions, now housed in a building named for the former president, Dr. Ahlberg brought in well-respected Wichita physician and educator Dr. Cramer Reed to spearhead the effort.

"That was another marvelous example of him bringing in people to get the job done," Platt said.
Dr. Ahlberg was known for his calm demeanor, which helped him weather controversies, as well.

One story Rhatigan recalls fondly is Dr. Ahlberg's first day on campus as the university's leader. It coincided with a campus visit by Sen. Ed Muskie, who was the vice presidential candidate on the ticket with Hubert Humphrey.

A large protest by a student group greeted Muskie. Dr. Ahlberg, who'd walked into the protest, said, "It's kind of an exciting first day."

After his retirement, he still enjoyed taking part in campus activities, attending basketball games and fine arts events.

Dr. Ahlberg had moved to Gig Harbor, where his son, Thomas, and his wife lived. He was preceded in death by his wife, Rowena, who died in January 2002, and son, John.

Plans for a memorial service at the university were pending at the time of the Inside WSU deadline.

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