Wichita State has ‘culture of fear,’ student leaders tell Regents

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Student leaders at Wichita State University wrote to the Kansas Board of Regents this month that university administrators have created a “culture of fear” and are ignoring requests to meet with them, and that their adviser has been bullied by other administrators.

The response from the Board of Regents was that students should work with local administrators regarding their concerns.

“There are students, faculty and staff afraid to speak up because they’re fearful that they will be fired, alienated or unjustly stripped of an opportunity to continue their education,” wrote Joseph Shepard, Student Government Association president, in a letter to Blake Flanders, president of the Kansas Board of Regents.

“It is evident to us, as students, that anyone who speaks out against President Bardo will be let go from their position, or their position will be dissolved for reasons unknown. … This is not a culture that we should take pride in. This is not a culture where students come first.”

WSU Provost Tony Vizzini said in a statement that he respects the students’ opinions. “I’m sorry that any of my actions have led to the perception that I sometimes do not,” he said.

“If I reach a different conclusion than SGA leaders on policy matters, it’s not for lack of respect or because I haven’t listened,” Vizzini said. “It’s because my experience and duties to the university lead me to disagree. It is the responsibility of SGA to represent student views to members of the administration. It is the responsibility of the administration to make the final decisions in behalf of all constituencies of the university, including the people of Kansas, to whom the university belongs.”

Vizzini has been overseeing Student Affairs since the departure of Eric Sexton, the vice president for Student Affairs who stepped down in July.

A letter from Breeze Richardson with the regents to the students said, “Moving forward, it would be most appropriate for you to continue to work through the channels locally available to you to address your university administration.”

I feel guilty for recruiting them to an institution that is going to fail them.

Tracia Banuelos, WSU student government

WSU General Counsel David Moses also replied to the students, saying the regents would direct any future concerns back to university administrators.

Shepard said it was not the response he’d hoped for, and that he would have preferred some kind of mediation between student leaders and administrators by the regents.

James Rhatigan, retired Student Affairs vice president emeritus at WSU, said the university is suffering for not having a strong vice president in that department.

“Since the loss of Wade Robinson, we have not had a viable vice president of Student Affairs,” Rhatigan said.

“The university is suffering for it,” Rhatigan said. “This is a critical omission, which they are trying to correct. … When they get a new vice president of Student Affairs, I think many of these problems will be solved.”

Earlier this year, Robinson sued WSU and Bardo for alleged violations of Title IX – a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination. In the suit, Robinson said that he was retaliated against for voicing concerns about how notification of a rape accusation with a student-athlete was handled and that it eventually cost him his job.

The student letters voiced a variety of concerns, including administrators’ stances on funds for renovations and additions to the university’s interfaith prayer space, and how administrators have handled issues with diversity and inclusion.

“As a Student Ambassador, I have advocated for this school to hundreds of students. However, the time has come where I feel I am letting down those students I worked so hard to recruit,” wrote Tracia Banuelos, diversity task force chair and honors college senator in SGA. “I feel guilty for recruiting them to an institution that is going to fail them.”

The letters also allege bullying of student government adviser Christine Schneikart-Luebbe by other administrators, which Shepard thinks may be retaliation against the student government for its pressure on the administration.

Schneikart-Luebbe went on temporary leave this month. She was not immediately available for comment.

This is not a culture that we should take pride in. This is not a culture where students come first.

Joseph Shepard, WSU student government president

Shepard said that after Schneikart-Luebbe went on leave, Vizzini appointed a new acting adviser for the student government.

That goes against the Wichita State Student Bill of Rights, Shepard said, which allows students to choose their own advisers.

Rhatigan agreed.

“Every student group can pick its own advisers,” Rhatigan said. “This covers all student organizations, not just the ones we want.”

The Student Bill of Rights at Wichita State was passed in 1968 during unrest at universities across the country spurred by the Vietnam War and civil rights movement.

WSU was the first university in the country to have it adopted by the student senate, general faculty and the president of the university, Rhatigan said.

It was based on the Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students, which was passed by several national student and university groups.

Kelsey Ryan: 316-269-6752, @kelsey_ryan