Goin’ To Johnson County
By the early 1990s, the University of Kansas had been steadily expanding the scope of its instructional offerings to the residents of metropolitan Kansas City for half a century. Since the 1940s, professors from KU’s main campus in Lawrence had been teaching classes in such fields as education, communications, and business management from makeshift venues as varied as office buildings and a former elementary school.
But on December 3, 1992, KU made it clear this ad hoc approach to providing Kansas City-area adults and other non-traditional students with top-level undergraduate and graduate programs was now a piece of the past. On this day in KU history, the University dedicated the new Regents Center, the first building at KU’s Edwards Campus in Johnson County. The opportunity to obtain higher education in metro Kansas City would never be the same.
Technically, KU’s physical presence in the Kansas City area dated back to 1905 when the University merged with three proprietary medical colleges to form the four-year University of Kansas School of Medicine and build Bell Memorial Hospital in Rosedale (now a part of Kansas City, Kansas).
In 1944, KU’s University Extension office established a presence at the Medical School and continued to operate out of various temporary offices in the vicinity until the 1970s. University Extension emphasized serving the needs of Kansas City area industries, offering basic courses in education, accounting and management. Additional credit courses were offered at the Federal Office Building and other locations in Kansas City, Missouri, as well as on the Kansas side of the state line.
During the postwar years, the Kansas City suburban population was booming. This was particularly the case in Johnson County, directly to the south of Kansas City, Kansas, and southwest of Kansas City, Missouri. From 1940 to 1960 the county’s population mushroomed from 33,327 to 143,792, and in the next decade leaped again to 220,073.
The growing population fueled a parallel demand for higher education, which eventually led to the establishment of Johnson County Community College (JCCC). The school opened in the fall of 1969. Classes met in a former grade school and various rented spaces in Merriam, a far northeast Johnson County suburb close to the Kansas City line. But looking ahead, JCCC purchased 200 acres for its permanent campus, to the south and west where heavy population growth was predicted. In 1972 the community college began operations in its brand new buildings at Quivira Road and 111th Street (soon to be renamed College Boulevard) in Overland Park. The school already employed nearly 100 full-time faculty members and served more than 3,600 students.
At this point, the University of Kansas maintained a considerably smaller presence in Johnson County, now under the auspices of the Division of Continuing Education. Several departments in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as well as the schools of Journalism and Education on the University’s Lawrence campus offered outreach classes evenings and weekends at Shawnee Mission high schools. In addition, just to the north in Wyandotte County, Continuing Ed was organizing classes from offices in three Quonset huts near the Medical School at 39th and Rainbow in Kansas City, Kansas.
Meanwhile, several other institutions of higher learning had opened up satellite operations in the KC metro area, and Johnson County Community College seemed poised to evolve into a four-year school. KU administrators became increasingly concerned about their institution’s share of the education market in the Kansas City region.
The University decided to beef up its presence in suburban Johnson County by consolidating facilities there and expanding course offerings. In July 1975, the KU Endowment Association purchased the former Linwood Elementary School from the Shawnee Mission School District. The Endowment Association then leased the property to the University of Kansas. Within a few weeks, Continuing Education’s Kansas City area offices had moved in and started offering classes in time for the fall 1975 semester. With 16 credit courses and 48 non-credit classes in its catalog, the new center immediately generated an enrollment of 1,336 students. Then as now, the Regents Center scheduled classes in the evening in order to accommodate older and non-traditional college students who needed to fit their education around work and family obligations.
The building at 9900 Mission Road in Overland Park was for a short time known as the Linwood Center, but Kansas City, Missouri, was home to a social services center of the same name. To avoid confusion and to emphasize that KU was operating on behalf of the Kansas Board of Regents, the former Linwood Elementary School became known as the Kansas City Area Regents Center. (The Board of Regents, a nine-member body appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Kansas Senate, governs the State’s six public universities and oversees numerous technical schools and community colleges within Kansas.)
The Linwood Elementary School, which traced its establishment back to 1864, had been located in a purpose-built split-level structure since 1940. In 1965 a wing was added to accommodate the swelling tide of baby boomers. By the mid-1970s, however, the school age population in the neighborhood had declined drastically. The district decided to close Linwood Elementary at the end of the 1974-75 academic year and immediately sold the building to the KU Endowment Association.
During the few weeks between the purchase of the building and the beginning of fall classes, KU Continuing Education provided about $250,000 worth of renovations, furnishings and equipment. Much of the renovation involved adapting the building for adults, with the addition of window air conditioning units and carpeting and the raising of blackboards.
The center’s small library met the challenges of the former school building. Nancy Burich, beginning her long tenure as Regents Center Librarian in 1976, remembers setting up business in the old school library on the second floor, a space furnished only with “a desk and a chair and a phone at the other end of the room.” This branch of the KU Libraries soon acquired enough printed material that the floor began to sag ominously. The elementary school’s former gymnasium was quickly renovated to carry the load, and the old school stage was transformed into a reading room.
“Marginal at best” are the words used by Tom Mulinazzi, a University of Kansas professor of Civil Engineering whose involvement with the Regents Center began in 1979, to describe the revamped school building at 99th and Mission. Helen Carr, who had worked for Continuing Education in various offices since 1955, commented that when the staff moved to the Linwood building, “We thought it was a step up, but it really wasn’t.” Indeed, it soon became clear the Kansas City Area Regents Center, as it was formally known, was less than optimal to fulfill its mission.
It also was too small to meet demand. A 1977 report indicated that one of every three students enrolled at the center actually attended classes in other locations, including the KU Med Center, community colleges, local schools and other public buildings. Nevertheless, enrollment remained steady, spiking to 1,830 in the fall semester of 1980 and evening off to approximately 1,400 students per semester thereafter.
Courses offered at the center in the beginning were primarily in the areas of education and business. Faculty from the KU campus in Lawrence taught all classes. The Regents Center also provided space for students to participate in TELENET courses, originating from Kansas State University, Emporia State University, and Fort Hays State University. Students attending these classes obtained their instruction via an interactive audio teleconferencing network that was considered cutting edge in its day.
As of 1987, KU offered through the KC Area Regents Center master’s degrees in Architecture, Business Administration, Engineering, and Social Work; Master of Arts and Master of Science in Education, Masters of Science in Civil Engineering, Engineering Management, Health Science Administration, and Journalism. In addition, Emporia State University offered the Master of Library Science degree at the Regents Center. KU wished to expand Regents’ Center degree offerings to other engineering specializations as well as to computer science and several other fields.
In October of 1987, the Board of Regents issued a statement reaffirming KU’s first priority was the “preservation and enhancement of its research and graduate programs,” adding “to implement this intent, expansion of graduate opportunities will be explored in the Kansas City area.” The Regents further stated educational and library services in the KC metro area should be of or near to the same quality as similar on-campus services.
In anticipation of requesting funds for a better facility, KU Chancellor Gene Budig had appeared before the state Legislative Educational Planning Committee the previous July. Budig pointed out the old Linwood School building not only was too small to meet demand, but also was not properly equipped for education in high technology fields. In addition, the building was located in a residential neighborhood, with inadequate parking and poor access to highways.
Budig emphasized demand for the University’s services in Johnson County was increasing, fueled by population and employment growth. While the county population had risen from 220,073 in 1970 to 288,780 in 1985, the number of people employed in the county jumped 200 percent during the same time period. Not only individuals, but corporations, were seeking expanded educational offerings at the Regents Center and elsewhere.
By 1988, the University administration was actively scouting out a location for a new, expanded Regents Center in Johnson County. JCCC had selected its campus location in anticipation of continuing population growth to the south and west of the recently completed Interstate 435 beltway. KU also wished to place itself strategically to take advantage of economic and population growth within the county, preferably near the educational and cultural “hub” developing around the Community College.
Help was on the way. In September 1988 Clay Blair III, a Johnson County real estate developer and KU alumnus, purchased 160 acres of land in Overland Park at the northwest corner of 127th and Quivira Streets, a few blocks south of the JCCC campus. Blair declared his willingness to donate part of the land for a new Regents Center. As Blair related the story in a 2006 interview, he was interested in helping to expand KU’s operations in Johnson County partly because of his own experiences as a student. While working on a graduate degree in the late 60s, he often drove from Johnson County to the Lawrence campus on old Highway 10, a particularly dangerous route at night. “Education,” Blair noted, “is a convenience business,” and he hoped to create better access to a KU education for Johnson County residents.
In offering the land, Blair requested certain concessions from the City of Overland Park in order to develop the remaining acreage for residential and commercial purposes. Conditions placed on the deal included widening both Quivira Road and 127th Street to four lanes, and extending water and sewer lines to the site. The city agreed to these conditions, at an estimated cost of about $2 million. “That’s a small investment to insure that this blue-ribbon community called Johnson County moves ahead in the quality of life department,” explained Overland Park Mayor Ed Eilert at the time. “Without prompt action, we could be standing still, daydreaming, instead of turning vision into action.”
Efforts to finalize the plan were complicated by requests from Blair and his business associates for rezoning of acreage adjoining the proposed Regents Center site. Blair planned to donate 15 acres to KU with a possible future addition of 23 acres. Proposed use of the remaining acreage included a shopping center and a very large apartment complex that did not fit within the guidelines of Overland Park’s Master Plan.
The Board of Regents approved KU’s plans for the Overland Park satellite campus in mid-December 1988. The Overland Park Planning Commission, however, was not able to come to a decision until well into January 1989. Neighbors of the proposed Regents Center expressed concerns about extensive commercial and apartment development, as did the city planning staff. Finally compromises were reached, placing the Regents Center property at the corner of 127th and Quivira and allowing slightly modified plans for commercial and residential construction to the north and west.
Kansas Governor Mike Hayden backed KU’s plan to expand its services to the prosperous suburbs of Johnson County. Hayden announced his intention to include $2 million for the project in his upcoming budget proposal. However, not everyone in Topeka was happy with the idea. The issue sparked significant dissension in the state legislature, highlighting the perpetual rivalry between urban and rural interests in Kansas.
According to Marlin Rein, who at the time was director of budget and governmental affairs for the University of Kansas, rural legislators were still angry over Johnson County’s refusal during the previous legislative session to back rural highway improvements. Their opposition to funding the new Regents Center was a matter of principle rather than money. Other legislators expressed concern about the particulars of Clay Blair’s land donation deal, and over KU’s alleged “empire-building” beyond the bounds of the Lawrence campus.
Also troubling was the possibility that the University of Kansas was receiving favors at the expense of smaller Regents institutions. Despite these concerns, partial state funding for the project was passed during the legislative wrap-up session.
Specific plans for the new Regents Center called for a building of roughly the same square footage as the old Linwood School, causing some concern locally. Although University officials pointed to more efficient use of space and improved technological capability, articles appeared in the Johnson County press questioning whether the small proposed size of both the building and the campus was shortsighted and would produce undesirable limitations in meeting the county’s needs. In reality, the proposed size of the building in all likelihood was related both to funding limitations and to political realities. In order to expand its operations in Johnson County, the University of Kansas needed to limit the initial project to assuage the fears and doubts of other Regents institutions and citizens of the more rural parts of the state.
By the summer of 1989, the Johnson County architectural firm of Linscott, Haylett, Wimmer and Wheat had been retained to design the new Regents Center building. Although the new building was not much bigger than the former elementary school in terms of usable square footage, the location at 127th and Quivira was certainly more campus-like and accessible, with an ample 500-stall parking lot. While the Linwood Center included about 31,500 square feet, the new Regents Center would provide 37,000 square feet of useable space, most of which would be considerably more flexible than the old quarters. In addition, plans were made to accommodate more modern technology such as computer networks and instructional TV capabilities. Features would include 23 classrooms, a 100-seat lecture hall and two 70-seat halls, a 6,600 square foot library, a computer lab, and offices for 11 faculty members and administrative personnel.
Although the state provided $2 million for the new building, the total projected cost amounted to three times that amount. Some funding came through the KU Endowment Association in the form of bequests and corporate grants. Revenue bonds supported by student fees accounted for the remaining funds. The student contribution would amount to an additional $10 per credit hour charge over a 20-year period for students enrolling at the Regents Center.
The new Regents facility had its official beginnings on October 23, 1990, when Governor Mike Hayden, KU officials, and various state and local dignitaries gathered at 127th and Quivira to unveil an artist’s rendering of the new building.
Meanwhile, KU officials proceeded to act on the wish of Clay Blair III, donor of the land, that the Regents Center grounds be named the Roy and Joan Edwards Campus in honor of these long-time University supporters. Blair had met the couple during his days as an undergraduate at the University, and they had encouraged and supported him in his later academic and business ventures.
The Edwardses, both of whom were natives of Kansas City, Kansas, and 1942 KU graduates, had worked hard over the years in support of their alma mater.
After serving in the US Navy during World War II, Roy Edwards had returned to Kansas City where he became owner of Research Seeds Inc., specializing in breeding and growing grasses and legumes for livestock feed. Edwards served the University of Kansas as a member of the board of trustees of the Endowment Association and of the advisory board for the School of Business. He was also a president of the KU Alumni Association. Edwards died in December 1987. KU’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Citation, was awarded posthumously to Roy Edwards in 1988.
Joan Edwards, too, served the University community in Endowment Association activities and through her involvement in the KU Alumni Association and in KU Athletics. All three of the couple’s children also graduated from the University of Kansas.
Joan Edwards, noting she and her husband had a long-term interest in education, stated that, “we realized in our early years that so many people did not have the opportunity to go to school.” The Edwards Campus facility, she commented, provides a “tremendous opportunity for people to better themselves.”
The construction of the new Regents Center on the Edwards Campus proceeded on schedule, and a dedication ceremony for the facility took place on December 3, 1992. The center opened for business in January, just in time for the spring 1993 semester.
Completion of the new Regents Center represented a real milestone for the University of Kansas. In spring 1993, the Kansas Alumni Magazine noted “the center boosted KU’s standing as a player in the state’s fastest growing area. The center also sent a statement to area businesses, governments, alumni and other institutions of higher learning that KU remains committed to the delivery of graduate education.”
The University not only positioned itself to serve the business community, but also worked to forge cooperative links with other educational institutions in the area, particularly Johnson County Community College. Beginning in 2001, the Edwards Campus began to offer upper-level undergraduate courses, aimed particularly at JCCC graduates who wanted to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas but found it inconvenient to take classes in Lawrence. Edwards also soon began sharing laboratory and classroom space with JCCC.
Since 1993, KU’s Johnson County facility has greatly expanded its offering of degree programs. Within a year of the Edwards Campus opening, students could enroll in any of 11 master’s level programs (in various fields of education, engineering, business, administration and communications) and one doctoral degree program (Education Administration). Only one track, the MA in social work, was a full-time program. The other degrees were scheduled as part-time programs, with classes offered during evenings and weekends to accommodate working students.
By the year 2000, Edwards Campus students had a choice of 15 master’s programs and two doctoral programs, and 51 percent of total KU graduate credit hours came from enrollment at Edwards.
Rapid growth led to formulation of a Master Plan for the Overland Park facility. The plan called for three new buildings and an extended parking lot. The Board of Regents approved it in October 1999. At that time it was estimated that implementation of the plan would require 10 years at a cost of about $70 million.
Groundbreaking for the second building on campus occurred in October 2002. Funding for the structure came from the Hall Family Foundation of Kansas City, the Victor and Helen Regnier Charitable Foundation of Leawood, Kansas, and a $15 per credit hour bond fee to be paid by Edwards Campus students. Dedicated in the summer of 2004, the 82,000 square foot building houses 21 classrooms, a 240 seat auditorium, and offices for administrative staff and 45 faculty members. The structure was christened Victor and Helen Regnier Hall.
In August 2005, the campus gained use of a third structure, a 20,000 square foot building to be used for student services and faculty research. Originally part of the retail space to the north of campus, the building was purchased by the KU Endowment Association in 2003. The upper level has been outfitted to serve as a gathering area for students, with a bookstore, a café, and an online information center. Known as Jayhawk Central, the facility is maintained and operated by the KU Memorial Unions.
Bob Clark, vice chancellor and dean of the KU Edwards Campus, has overseen tremendous expansion since he arrived in 1997. Clark called the opening of an on-site student union an important step in the ongoing development of campus identity. "It's a symbolic expression of our growth," Clark said in a 2006 interview. "Along with Regnier Hall, the new Confucius Institute and our soon to be completed Molecular Bioscience Lab, these expansions send a message to Johnson County that our commitment is not for the short-term; it's for the long-term."
The Edwards Campus Master Plan calls for construction of two additional classroom buildings forming a traditional campus quadrangle. Finally, Edwards Campus officials hope to add an auditorium and conference room onto the original Regents Center building. According to the Master Plan, the campus will ultimately be able to serve 5,500 students.
As of spring 2006, students attending the KU Edwards Campus can choose among more than 22 different degree programs, up from 11 in 1994. Enrollment now averages around 2,000 students per semester. During its first 12 years, the Edwards Campus has produced 4,000 graduates, and it is estimated the institution has contributed at least $350 million to the Johnson County economy. The University of Kansas presence in the Kansas City metro area has come a long way from those Quonset huts by the Medical Center.
Dedicated on March 2, 2012, the new BEST (Business, Engineering, Sciences and Technology ) Building will allow the campus to offer 10 more degree programs to start and become an economic engine for Johnson County. The building offers more classrooms, a business conference center, computer labs and faculty and staff offices. The 75,000 sq. foot building cost $25 million to construct.