Wichita State University administration and outgoing student government leaders are coming to the end of a rocky relationship, with the split playing out in public.
During March, the campus saw a sit-in protest, multiple staff resignations and a Student Government Association vote of no confidence in president John Bardo’s leadership. The actions come as the university looks to build up its new Innovation Campus.
Some students are worried a proposal to build a YMCA on the Innovation Campus will move forward despite objections of the Student Government Association (SGA) to a student fee increase to help pay for it.
Student leaders say it’s part of a larger struggle for transparency, inclusion and a greater say by students in the direction of their school.
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“We’re not a check mark,” graduate student Taben Azad told the university’s faculty senate this week. “We truly feel that our voice needs to have an influence on the policies that take place on campus.”
We’re not a checkmark. … We truly feel that our voice needs to have an influence on the policies that take place on campus.
Taben Azad, WSU graduate student and suspended SGA vice president
Azad was briefly suspended by the university as student vice president. He is still suspended as chief election commissioner for participating in a protest group called We The Students. The group, which says it is concerned about myriad issues on campus such as interfaith inclusion and sexual assault, organized a sit-in and pushed for the no-confidence vote.
Student president Joseph Shepard said the group worries about an administration they think retaliates against students and staff members for disagreeing.
“They want this culture of fear to disappear,” Shepard said.
Lou Heldman, the university’s vice president for strategic communications, said in a statement the administration believes the vast majority of students are happy with “improvements in the campus and the opportunities they have here.”
“We don’t doubt the sincerity of most students seeking changes, but we also know that a handful of their leaders have methodically created controversies to drive a wedge between student government and the administration,” he said.
A faculty member asked Teri Hall, the new WSU vice president of student affairs, during a faculty senate meeting this week how she would repair “what is clearly an unhealthy relationship between you and the people that you are supposed to be representing.”
Hall cited meetings with Shepard and students who protested.
“My plan was that we have elections in a week and then when those new folks are elected to really focus on a relationship with them,” Hall said Monday. “I came into relationships that were broken already.”
I came into relationships that were broken already. … But I don’t know that I could have really done anything to help the rift that has existed between the SGA and the administration.
Teri Hall, WSU vice president of student affairs
“I’m sure I haven’t done anything to help them,” she added. “But I don’t know that I could have really done anything to help the rift that has existed between the SGA and the administration.”
Hall, who began at WSU in January, said transparency is a two-way street and that student leaders aren’t spreading answers they get back from administration officials.
“We need to build relationships that don’t exist,” she said. “But really it’s going to start when we have a new group that comes in.”
Wichita State students will vote for their 2017-2018 student government from April 3 to 5. Results will be announced April 6. The winners will assume office two weeks later.
Heldman said administrators are “resolved to build good relations with the new leaders, no matter who is elected.”
Shepard said senior administration
officials were “waiting us out.”
“If that isn’t a sign of a lack of support, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Shepard said he has not signed off on the SGA’s March 15 vote of no confidence to give Bardo more time to respond to the concerns of We The Students.
The student government widely rejected on March 8 a student fee increase of $7.75 per credit hour to help pay for a proposed YMCA on the Innovation Campus. The facility also would include a health clinic, wellness and counseling services, and a drop-in day care center.
“The Y is still being discussed,” Heldman said. “Maybe there’s another way of paying for the operating costs of it.”
He said the WSU administration has talked to “a lot of students” about the proposal. But he noted that “student government doesn’t have any authority in the decision.”
Bardo said in a statement that the new facilities were important enough to “keep exploring the idea” despite the SGA vote.
Student government doesn’t have any authority in the decision.
Lou Heldman, WSU vice president for strategic communication
Students already have use of the Heskett Center, a recreation center on campus. Azad said some students felt the Y proposal was sprung on them.
“There was little to no information as to what that would entail,” Azad said. “They felt that the Heskett (Center) was more than adequate, but they’re also just concerned about the way that it was brought about.”
In a larger sense, members of We The Students are concerned the administration is focused too much on developing the Innovation Campus at the expense of the rest of the university.
“We are not a Wichita State University that prides ourselves in being a corporate mall … at the Innovation Campus,” Shepard said.
Dalton Glasscock, a senior student and former SGA senator, said some students support the efforts to bring the YMCA to campus.
“The idea of creating an environment where businesses can come on campus … has been pretty clear,” Glasscock said. “(Bardo) hasn’t hid his desire for public-private partnerships.”
‘WSU’s best and brightest’
Student leaders also have voiced concerns about recent high-profile resignations, such as Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Christine Schneikart-Luebbe and campus recreation director Eric Maki.
“There’s been somewhat of a history of student advocates … being removed from their positions,” Azad told the faculty senate.
Heldman said the university does not comment on personnel matters.
Eugene Hughes, who was president of the university from 1993 to 1998, wrote to The Eagle saying he was concerned about “the continuing loss of some of WSU’s best and brightest staff members.”
Shepard wrote an open letter in the student newspaper, The Sunflower, about the recent resignations, particularly that of Schneikart-Luebbe.
‘When I heard that Christine ‘resigned,’ I just couldn’t believe that it was by choice,” Shepard wrote. “She very well might have made the decision to leave, but the bigger question is ‘Why?’ ”
‘The horse has left the barn’
Azad was suspended last week as the SGA’s vice president and election commissioner. He was reinstated on Thursday to the remainder of his VP term, about three weeks.
His suspension as chief election commissioner still stands. Azad said officials cited concerns about his impartiality because he participates in the We The Students group.
Hall told the faculty senate this week that she could not discuss why Azad was suspended, citing university policy.
“That student will have due process,” Hall said.
George Dehner, a faculty observer for the WSU election commission, asked why he wasn’t included in the discussion about potential bias in elections.
“We’ll make sure that we get your opinion as we move forward,” Hall said.
“The horse has left the barn,” Dehner responded.
“No it’s not. It’s not left the barn,” Hall replied.
“Is the person the electoral commissioner anymore?” Dehner asked.
“Pending an investigation,” Hall answered.
‘We’re just one stakeholder’
Azad said students want “shared governance” with the administration.
“We don’t just want to be an entity that’s talked to,” Azad said later. “We want to be some place to have a discussion and collaboration and find some way that we can work together.”
“It’s not a good relationship in terms of being given a fair chance to be heard,” he added.
Glasscock said some students think SGA has overstepped its bounds on occasion with an “our way or the highway” attitude. He said the administration needs to gather input from alumni, donors and other groups.
We’re just one stakeholder of the organization.
Dalton Glasscock, WSU senior and former SGA senator
“We’re just one stakeholder of the organization,” he said.
But Azad said he hopes future SGA leaders ask administrators tough questions and stand in opposition to proposals when needed.
“The concerns that we have cannot be solved overnight,” he said.