WSU committee bars public from student-fee discussion

The campus of Wichita State University.
The campus of Wichita State University. The Wichita Eagle

A committee charged with recommending how Wichita State University allocates student fees did not allow reporters to observe its deliberations Friday, arguing that the group was not subject to open meetings laws.

The student fees committee, a group of university students and administrators, was scheduled to meet at noon in the Rhatigan Student Center at WSU.

Teri Hall, vice president for student affairs, said reporters and members of the public would not be allowed into the meeting because “these deliberations have always been closed.”

The committee recommends allocations for campus organizations, including The Sunflower student newspaper, which receive student fees as part of their annual budgets.

Its proposal will be presented next week to WSU’s Student Government Association, which is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the student fees budget.

Challenged by reporters over the private meeting, Paige Hungate, WSU’s student body president, said she consulted with the university’s general counsel’s office, which advised her that “student fees aren’t public funds, and … SGA is not a state agency.”

“We talked to them about what we were doing and came to this conclusion,” Hungate said. “The meeting will be open next Wednesday.”

Chance Swaim, editor of The Sunflower, called the decision “terrible” and said the student newspaper planned to consult with an attorney.

“I think this goes against everything we believe in as American citizens, that government business is conducted in the light of the public,” Swaim said.

“This is student money being talked about, so for them to not let students in … I think it shows that they may have something to hide.”

Student fees are collected by Wichita State, a public institution, and are mandatory for students enrolled at the university.

Shortly before the committee’s private meeting, Swaim presented his funding proposal for The Sunflower next year. The student newspaper has lost about a third of its student-fees funding since 2014 and has had to cut back on staff, printing and coverage, he said.

The paper requested $158,000 from student fees, a $58,000 increase from current funding.

“Our reserves are now to a point where we don’t have a full year of budget left to operate with,” Swaim told the committee. “If we did get cut completely … it would destroy the newspaper.”

The Sunflower is funded by student fees and advertising revenue, but it operates independent of the university, and students make all editorial decisions.

Max Kautsch, an attorney for the Kansas Press Association, said the student government’s decision to meet in private violates the spirit of the open meetings law and the need for transparency.

“Anytime money is being collected by a state agency and then spent to benefit that state agency, the public benefits from knowing how those decisions are made,” Kautsch said.

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