Wichita State University’s independent student newspaper, the Sunflower, has been a pain in the neck to top university administrators over the past year. Reporters’ aggressive, beyond-their-years journalism has called into question many decisions made by top officials.
Those administrators haven’t taken the newspaper’s efforts well, and now it’s reached a point that should alarm all of us — the university on the verge of cutting the newspaper’s funding by almost half.
Among the stories the Sunflower has spent the school year doggedly reporting:
▪ WSU administrators not following procedures in getting Board of Regents approval for a leasing structure for the Flats, the new on-campus private housing that was headed for a low occupancy rate until WSU decided to close 50-year-old Fairmount Towers.
▪ The connection between the Flats and one of its developers, David Murfin, who is the chairman of the Board of Regents.
▪ How WSU achieved the highest enrollment increase among state schools last fall by counting high school students, senior citizens and faculty who took free courses worth a half-credit hour.
But what did it get them? A proposed reduction in student fee money next year from $105,000 to $55,000. A Student Government Association fees committee – six students, three administrators – determined the lower figure, which will be voted on by the student senate March 7 as part of a larger budget recommendation to president John Bardo.
The nearly 50-percent reduction seems punitive, a whack to the kneecaps of the First Amendment by university leaders and an obliging student committee. University officials have criticized Sunflower coverage as unfair and negative, and the Sunflower has written about meetings with administrators in which staffers felt the paper’s future was being threatened.
The saga became more intense last week as the Sunflower made its funding case.
After Sunflower staff presented its case for $158,000 in 2018-19 funding, vice president for student affairs Teri Hall closed the meeting.
When Eagle and Sunflower reporters protested, SGA president Paige Hungate said she consulted the university’s general counsel’s office, which advised that “student fees aren’t public funds, and … SGA is not a state agency.”
Look past the fact that student fees are mandatory charges to students that must be paid before that student can attend a public university. And look past the fact that the fees committee is made up of students and publicly paid administrators.
The fees committee decided that discussion about Sunflower funding should be held in private, outside public view and against what a public university – and a student government representing 15,000 peers – should be about.
Administrators on the committee did nothing to stop it. Closing a fees meeting was OK by them. It had been done before, they argued – which doesn’t mean it’s right.
Even if legal – and it would probably take a court challenge to make a determination – closing the meeting is the most inappropriate thing university leaders could do. Discussions about spending student money should always be open and transparent. Closed doors are an open invitation to backdoor dealings or pressure from within the committee.
The Sunflower staff has much to be proud of. It has aggressively covered topics that spotlight the administration’s work for the Innovation Campus, the bold strategy by Bardo to reinvent WSU through partnerships with businesses.
Innovation Campus is a benefit to those companies and the Wichita economy, while also creating an on-campus laboratory for students in many fields.
An independent student newspaper, meanwhile, is applied learning at its best. Students get practical, hands-on experience in reporting and writing while representing an entire student body as watchdog for the campus.
That’s being lost by university administrators who disagree with the Sunflower’s reporting or editorials. Possibly trimming the Sunflower’s budget by 48 percent and effectively advising its staff to sell more advertising, WSU’s administration and student fees committee are telling students that a campus voice with a watchdog mentality is no longer wanted – or should be reduced to a bland, rewrite-the-press-releases product.
That’s a sad statement for a university that espouses a hands-on, on-campus educational experience.