Education

Before guns come to campus, this WSU professor is leaving

Deborah Ballard-Reisch, professor of communication at Wichita State University
Deborah Ballard-Reisch, professor of communication at Wichita State University Courtesy photo

A communications professor at Wichita State University says she is resigning because a law allowing concealed weapons on campus is “in opposition to the values of higher education.”

Deborah Ballard-Reisch, a tenured professor in WSU’s Elliott School of Communication, submitted a letter to WSU president John Bardo this week saying she plans to retire July 1, the day the law is set to go into effect.

“Clear, open, critical discussion cannot take place in an environment of threat and fear,” Ballard-Reisch wrote. “As someone who has experienced gun violence personally, I do not feel safe with guns in the classroom.”

Under current law, public colleges in Kansas will have to open their campuses to concealed firearms starting this summer.

Kansas passed a law in 2013 that enabled people to bring guns into public buildings. Public universities and community colleges were given a four-year extension to comply.

Two years ago, Kansas removed the requirement that anyone who carries a concealed handgun obtain a permit, acquired by paying a licensing fee and completing an eight-hour training course.

Ballard-Reisch, 59, has worked at WSU for a decade, teaching classes in crisis communication, research methods and health communication as the Kansas Health Foundation Distinguished Chair in Strategic Communication.

She says she chose to retire and to make her resignation letter public to send a message to state lawmakers and others who support the campus-carry measure.

“I’ve heard several legislators say this isn’t a big deal, that nobody cared and nobody was going to quit over this. And I thought, ‘No, I really am,’ ” she said Tuesday.

“They may not care, but I think other people in this state who hold beliefs similar to mine will take some solace from the reality that somebody stood up and said, ‘No, I’m not working in this environment. …This is not OK.’ ”

‘I don’t feel safer’

Ten states have provisions allowing concealed weapons on public college campuses: Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.

Tennessee allows faculty members with licenses to carry weapons on campus, but its law does not extend to students or the public.

An attempt to roll back the Kansas law was derailed earlier this year when moderate Republicans sided with conservatives to prevent a debate on the issue from reaching the House floor.

Cale Ostby, president of the WSU chapter of Students for Concealed Carry, which formed last semester, called Ballard-Reisch’s decision “really unfortunate.”

“I imagine she probably hasn’t had many conversations with anyone who is planning on carrying or knows much of the argument about why we’re in support of it,” said Ostby, 27, a senior majoring in business.

“We have the constitutional right, if you’re over the age of 21, to carry everywhere else that we go. So we feel we should also be reserved the right to carry discreetly on campus as well.”

Ballard-Reisch isn’t the first Kansas professor to resign in protest of the concealed-carry law. Last month Jacob Dorman, an associate professor of history and American studies at the University of Kansas, submitted his letter of resignation and shared it online and in area newspapers.

“Kansas will never secure the future that it deserves if it weakens its institutions of higher learning by driving off faculty members or applicants who feel as I do that there is no place for firearms in classrooms,” Dorman wrote. “Kansas can have great universities, or it can have concealed carry in classrooms, but it cannot have both.”

Ballard-Reisch, the WSU professor, said she grew up around hunters and has a “pretty healthy respect for guns.” But she is concerned that people without a license or any gun safety training will be allowed to carry weapons into classrooms and elsewhere on campus.

“If I see you walking down the street with a gun, if I see a gun in your bag, I don’t feel safer because I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what your intentions are,” she said.

“You can kill me, so it’s in my best interest to assume that if you have a gun, you are a threat. And knowing that, I don’t feel that I can do my best in the classroom anymore or make a safe space for students.”

‘Nobody will even notice’

Ballard-Reisch said she and her adult son were robbed at gunpoint during a home invasion in 2014.

She said other victims of gun violence, including students, have told administrators they feel “terrified about what could happen” with more guns on campus.

“I don’t feel that the Legislature or the governor are hearing the voices of students,” she said. “My belief is that the people who have made this decision truly do not care what anyone else thinks.”

Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, a gun rights advocate, pointed to more than 100 college campuses that have embraced concealed-carry in recent years without incident.

“There’s a lot of fear and there’s a lot of stress, but the facts don’t match that,” he said.

Whitmer said people had similar fears when the state first allowed concealed-carry without a license.

“People thought there would be gunfights in the streets, and we haven’t seen it,” he said. “Once the policy goes into effect – six months, nine months, 12 months down the road – nobody will even notice it’s there.”

Ballard-Reisch said she doesn’t plan on sticking around to find out.

“I just realized that a very loud voice needs to come from a very credible position in the academy to say to legislators and the governor: ‘You have not thought this out. You have not considered the ramifications and implications of this choice, and you have refused to hear alternative voices.’

“This is an ill-informed, ill-advised decision, and I’m in a position to be able to say that, so I want to say that.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias

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