Guest Commentary

There must be separation between universities, businesses

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A recent Eagle article about the search for a new Wichita State president reported a clear view of what the Board of Regents, the Board of Trustees, chosen business representatives and the private for-profit agency seeking “the best” recruits for the job are looking for. The new president will be chosen in a search closed to faculty, staff, students and the community. Wichita State’s chief of staff told WSU’s Board of Trustees that “The business community told us, ‘These are the things that you need to do to help us grow,’ and we committed to doing that.”

Just as the U.S. Constitution mandates separation of the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government, so there must be separation between public universities and business organizations.

In both cases independence is required to maintain clarity of purposes and eliminate conflicts of interest. The purposes, goals and methods of public educational institutions, which are nonprofit, are different and often inconsistent with the purposes, goals and methods of business. It is shocking that members of the search committee do not know this fundamental principle of all education.

Wichita State University always understood this until John Bardo came back as president and, as an urban sociologist, was eager to bring the city together with the University. Until then it was absolutely forbidden to display even the name of any private business on any classroom wall. The Campus Activities Center/Rhatigan Student Center was an exception. When this clear rule was breached with a Coke name on the sign announcing WSU games, protests removed the Coke name. There are a few other instances, but few. Why is this?

While business and university may learn from each other, and the university has for decades arranged internships for students in for-profit and nonprofit organizations, the university must be free from any “entangled alliances” with business. Independent research may or may not serve the immediate needs of Wichita businesses.

Why do you suppose there are no solar panels on the “innovation campus”? The blatant announcement that the chair of the search committee for the new president is the real estate developer who will have his name on the new YMCA is a case in point: the building of the YMCA was vigorously protested by the WSU student body, who will have to pay for it. WSU should have been serving the interests of the students, not of some local businessman.

We are told that we will have “synergy” with all those businesses making “deals” on campus. A few examples from a single department may illustrate the “synergy” formerly provided in an academically controlled university. Anthropology has an alumnus that was director of the threatened Baghdad Museum for several years as the war continued. Another graduate worked in Mali and Guinea and Ireland helping refugees in various ways. Another student did research in New Zealand that helped indigenous people and European settlers work together on a cooperative conservation project. One woman has served in the Geneva office of the World Health Organization for ten years, after she had led five educational tours to Cuba. Wichita has greatly benefited from the presence and work of many students from other countries, and it is good that many Wichita natives have taken their knowledge and energy elsewhere.

If Kansas and every other state in poor little America needs money, let us reduce expenditures on more buildings and technical equipment instead of on the central purpose of a university: learning unfettered by commercial goals. Without that, there is no university.

A student forum participant was right when she said: “I don’t feel like I’m at a university.” How true, and how sad.

Dorothy K. Billings is professor emerita of Wichita State University’s Anthropology Department