Wichita State University’s administration is made up of highly educated men and women who advanced in their careers, presumably, by recognizing the value of leadership in a college setting.
So why are they having such a hard time understanding recent actions have caused accountability concerns among university supporters and others?
It’s as if president John Bardo and members of his executive team don’t think they’re accountable to those they serve. It’s as if they don’t realize how important it is for public officials who are in the care of public dollars and publicly owned property to avoid what may be perceived as conflicts of interest.
The most recent example came in Sunday’s Eagle, with Suzanne Tobias’ story about how the university leased its former print shop building to a new private school led by Zach Lahn and Annie Koch, daughter-in-law of Koch Industries chairman Charles Koch, a longtime university benefactor.
WSU leased the building first to the Wichita State Innovation Alliance, a nonprofit incorporated three years ago to maintain university relationships with private companies on campus.
On the same day, Dec. 19, the Innovation Alliance subleased the building to the school, known as Wonder Inc.
That extra step involving the Innovation Alliance – a board made up of Bardo and 10 others, including four also on the president’s executive team – meant the lease to a private group didn’t have to be reviewed by the Board of Regents, the board that oversees public higher education in Kansas. It allowed the university to avoid a public bid process for the property.
A building on WSU’s campus, but not on the Innovation Campus, was leased with a workaround that makes some – including at least one state senator – wonder if there should be more oversight of these kinds of deals.
Absolutely, there’s more oversight needed. A sub-lease from the Innovation Alliance would, in theory, mean another prospective tenant could offer double the rent of Wonder Inc. and still not win the bid.
That’s not the way a public university should conduct business.
It’s the first time WSU has leased a building to the Innovation Alliance and it has sub-leased it to a private company. But there are indications it will happen again. Vice president for strategic communications Lou Heldman said as much last week, and an advertisement in the Kansas Register said WSU “intends to lease available land and building space.”
“Innovation Campus has transformed into a mindset as well as a physical place,” Heldman told Tobias.
Let’s hope there’s a mindset of oversight coming. Wichita State is acting as if it’s in the leasing business, and the now-empty Fairmount Towers dormitory northwest of 21st and Hillside may be on the market.
Sub-leases without oversight are the latest on a now-lengthy list of items that have caused observers to wonder whether Bardo and his top vice presidents realize they must hold themselves and the dealings of the university above even the appearance of a conflict of interest. Their defensive reactions to challenging questions make some wonder if they realize that as public officials it is perfectly reasonable that their actions are scrutinized by students, faculty and the community.
First there was failure to follow 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 Fairmount Towers. One of its developers, David Murfin, is chairman of the Board of Regents.
Then there was achieving its state-highest enrollment increase by counting high school students and senior citizens who took free, half-credit hour courses.
And recently, allowing a student fees committee, including a university vice president, to conduct closed deliberations on budget allocations. What resulted was a 48-percent cut in student newspaper funding that appeared punitive to anyone who noticed the critical reporting the Sunflower has achieved in recent years and the university’s reaction to that reporting.
Bardo asked committee deliberations to be held again, in an open meeting. We’ll see if anything changes.
Bardo came to WSU in 2012 with innovation on his mind. He promised to sustain and further the relationships with business and industry championed by previous president Don Beggs.
He delivered, too. Bolstered by the feel-good story of the men’s basketball team reaching the 2013 NCAA Final Four, Bardo announced his vision in 2014 for the Innovation Campus, a series of new buildings and business partnerships that took over the 93-year-old Braeburn Golf Course.
Four years later, the east side of the campus is transforming with new buildings and more to come. But along with progress have come questions of whether WSU is being accountable and transparent in its work.
Two bodies have the power to answer the question. The Board of Regents should act first, telling WSU and its Innovation Alliance that any future leases of land or property need to undergo an open bid process. The university should not be getting around Regent oversight.
In addition, south-central Kansas lawmakers should look closely at future lease deals. With Wichita State as a major public player in the region, legislators have the responsibility to make sure it is being accountable and fair across campus.
Wichita State’s accountability problem can be solved, but it will take an administration that can’t be offended when reporters and others take critical looks at business dealings.
We are in full support of the Innovation Campus and the vision behind it. But the Wichita State administration must be careful not to discard its credibility and the public’s trust in making that vision a reality.