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Innovation emphasizes the political risks, puts student second

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The Sunflower

The Sunflower

The Sunflower

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Last week, members of the Student Government Association submitted letters to Kansas Board of Regents President Blake Flanders calling for help from a “culture of fear” with the administration.

On Oct. 14, Student Body President Joseph Shepard expressed his relationship with the administration as a “nightmare that (he) cannot seem to wake up from.”

These letters come at a time of increased strain in the relationship between student leaders and the President’s Executive Team. Shepard and Student Body Vice President Taben Azad share the belief that Bardo’s team is so centrally focused on the concept of Innovation Campus and pleasing donors that they’ve forfeited an interest in the students.

“They don’t want any part in anything that could scare away private donors,” Shepard said.

Thursday, Provost and Vice President Tony Vizzini responded to the student leaders’ concerns.

“I can’t say it better than the university’s strategic plan does,” Vizzini said. “Our goal is to ‘empower students to create a campus culture and experience that meets their changing needs.’”

Sunday, Vizzini continued with the same notion of keeping the students at heart.

“We always will continue working — we will always come together,” Vizzini said. “I just want to move forward.”

This has been the continuing theme by administration and members of the President’s Executive Team: to hide behind the mission statement, “student’s come first.”

“We can’t continue to say ‘students come first’ when we refuse to listen to their voices due to a donor threatening to withdraw their money,” Shepard said.

The state of politics overpowers the voice of the student body.

“The PET is far too worried about the political risk,” Shepard said. “Their first concerns are:

— If we do this, how many donors are we going to lose out on?

— How much money could we potentially lose?

— Who of our donors like this? Which don’t?

— How much money are those donors filtering in?”

President Bardo, in his resignation from the position of Chancellor at Western Carolina University called his resignation “not for personal or professional reasons.”

“Actually, [my resignation] is an ethical decision,” Bardo told a reporter in 2011. “It has to do with what I perceive as being responsible to the university.

“When I can’t make a promise I can see through, it’s time for me to step aside and let somebody who can assemble that team and be here to see it through do it.”

In being responsible to WSU, Bardo should consider the “student clientele” that keep the main campus operating. But this responsibility is only upheld when things are going well.

Provost Vizzini addressed this as “an unsettling time. Students question authority, and they are right to do so.”

This statement is less than an invitation.

Students, faculty and staff are afraid to speak up against the privatization of WSU for fears that they could be alienated.

In the last year WSU was shocked by the abrupt resignation of Eric Sexton, former vice president of student affairs. Sexton left the university — one he had been at for 26 years — for undisclosed reasons in the summer.

Before Sexton, Wade Robinson, former vice president of student affairs, left the university when his contract expired. He is suing the university for wrongful termination.

Now stands Christine Schneikart-Luebbe, dean of students, who mysteriously started a 30-day absence from the university earlier this month.

“I think the administration, for a very long time, has tried to set up Christine to fail,” Shepard said. “When I look at how Dr. [Wade] Robinson left our university, I’m seeing very similar things take place with Christine as well.”

Responsibilities and departments were dismissed from Robinson’s control until he ultimately had been stripped of nearly everything. Shepard speculates the same happening with his advisor, Schneikart-Luebbe.

Shepard warns that these examples are only the start of a culture divided against the university president.

“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,” Shepard said.

The student body’s interests are buried in the shadows of the buildings popping up on Innovation Campus.

Inside the PET, Vizzini said it’s the administrators’ job to create an environment that accommodates all views, not one that hushes voices they don’t want to hear.

“I don’t mind somebody disagreeing,” Vizzini said. “I can understand some are fearful, but they shouldn’t be.

“The best ideas come from around the table.”

Vizzini said the perception that the PET always agrees is false, stating “it’s not always my idea that wins, it’s the best idea that wins.

“The university prides itself on the diversity of thought — being able to speak openly and candidly.”

But when others outside the PET bring suggestions, administrators have to temper their ideas to make sure they don’t conflict with the increasing interests of outside donors.

When that is the case, WSU administration have successfully transitioned to puppets for private business.

Emails provided to The Wichita Eagle say the Charles Koch Foundation and WSU have talked about creating an Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise at the Barton School of Business.

Koch has funded similar institutions including Bardo’s former institution, Western Carolina University.

Vizzini stated in an email, “By us being stewards for the (Charles Koch Foundation) we assist them in their mission. They, in return, transform us allowing us to advance in our mission.”

The donations have not always been without controversy.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, an exchange of $1.5 million to fund positions at Florida State University, Koch foundation “representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires.”

At WSU it’s unspecified if the Foundation or others have say in the processes.

The Koch Foundation also is the primary funding of the GoCreate makerspace. By providing up to $3 million for scholarships and fellowships, the Koch Foundation has access to use the makerspace.

Innovation Campus is projected to take 20 years to build — a vision Bardo will likely never see through in his time at the university.

Emily Patterson, associate director of facilities planning at WSU said Kansas public education cutbacks are forcing institutions to change their plans.

“State funding is dwindling, so we have to be innovative in our financing,” Patterson said.

But if we’re only setting out to have private donors, the purpose of WSU as an institution moves away from a public university’s purpose, which is to serve the public at large.

To execute the plans of a “progressing campus,” WSU will have to appease these donors in any way they can. This sometimes means putting the students in the back seat, if not, out the window entirely.

“Sometimes you have to play politics,” Shepard said. “But we still have to stand up for the students. They’re the voice that matters.”

Provost Vizzini said the Innovation Campus is one way of the university “moving forward,” but toward what end? Is blind ambition a good thing?

“We’re trying different things, and that’s part of the innovation,” Vizzini said.

It’s time the university gets back from “trying different things” and gets back to what matters — students first.

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