Student leaders plead for help from regents president

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Student leaders plead for help from regents president

The Sunflower

The Sunflower

The Sunflower

Student leaders went above the Wichita State administration’s head in hopes of finding interested ears.

In a series of letters sent to the Kansas Board of Regents President Blake Flanders this month, several student government leaders called for help in a “culture of fear” at WSU, one perpetuated by administrators who are “puppets to private business.”

Provided to The Sunflower by an anonymous source, these letters ask Flanders what steps regents are willing to take to help students address several key issues:

—Students, faculty and staff “afraid to speak up” out of fear of retaliation by President Bardo.

—Student Government Association’s faculty advisor, Christine Schneikart-Luebbe, put on temporary leave earlier this month without explanation.

—Provost and Vice President of Student Affairs Anthony Vizzini notified SGA he would appoint a new faculty advisor, which student leaders say violates the WSU’s Student Bill of Rights. Vizzini said he didn’t know about the existence of the Student Bill of Rights, and then appointed a new advisor, Lyston Skerritt, anyway.

—A lack of transparency in decisions being made by the administration.

—Concerns about outside influence on university decisions.

—A lack of coordination with student government on major decisions at the university.

—President John Bardo’s decision to not allow student government to fund renovations of the Interfaith Prayer Space with university funds.

Letters from leaders

October 14, Student Body President Joseph Shepard sent a letter to Flanders detailing his dealings with the administration this year as “a nightmare that (he) cannot seem to wake up from.”

Although Shepard said he has tried to “bridge the gap” between himself and Bardo’s executive team this year, his relationship with the administration has grown worse. He felt “manipulated and taken advantage of” and shut out of discussions about parking, diversity and inclusion, student representation on Bardo’s diversity council and the Interfaith Prayer Space.

Shepard said Bardo’s team “refused to communicate in writing” because they were “adamant about not leaving documented proof of their lack of support or communication with students.”

“I think it is important for you to know that we are living in a culture of fear here at Wichita State University,” Shepard wrote. “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.

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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.”

— Joseph Shepard, Student Body President

“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,” Shepard wrote.

Vice President Taben Azad wrote about the Interfaith Prayer Space and the administration’s response.

“Once again, I am concerned that the opinions of the students are not being heard or considered at this current moment and also quite frequently in the past,” Azad wrote.

Chief of Staff for Student Government Katie Deutsch also noted a “culture of fear” developing at WSU under President Bardo.

“Deans, department directors, administrative assistants, etc., feel increasingly vulnerable in their roles due to fear of backlash by the administration,” Deutsch wrote.

Marilyn Morton, legislative director for student government, said he feels that Provost and Vice President of Student Affairs Anthony Vizzini violated his and other student leaders’ rights, which are guaranteed in the university’s Student Bill of Rights.

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(Vizzini) would ask for drafts of legislation intended for the Student Senate before they were made public, so he could add his own input or the input of the President’s Executive Team.”

— Marilyn Morton, Legislative Director

“(Vizzini) would ask for drafts of legislation intended for the Student Senate before they were made public, so he could add his own input or the input of the President’s Executive Team,” Morton said in his letter.

Morton said after student government made it clear to Vizzini that he could not view documents before they were made public for student senators to review, “he then unfairly tried to use our chosen advisor (Schneikart-Luebbe) to censor resolutions,” including a resolution meant to recognize the importance of honoring Hispanic independence on campus.

The clause said “Hispanic culture is often dismissed in the larger culture on campus,” and was eventually edited out of the resolution. Morton wrote that he thought the clause was removed because of pressure placed on Schneikart-Luebbe by Vizzini because “the President’s Executive Team did not feel the preambulatory clause was fair.”

Vizzini’s ability, and desire, to perform his role as vice president of student affairs is a recurring question in the letters.

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I wonder why they decided to work in Student Affairs, when clearly, on the most rudimentary level, they do not like students.”

— Tracia Banuelos, Senator and Chair of Diversity Task Force

“I wonder why they decided to work in Student Affairs, when clearly, on the most rudimentary level, they do not like students,” wrote Tracia Banuelos, chair of the diversity task force and honors college senator.

Banuelos said SGA has been “tasked with constantly cleaning up the messes made by administration.”

Banuelos, who went to Wichita East High School and graduated with honors from the International Baccalaureate program, said she does not regret coming to WSU. As a student ambassador, she said she has recruited hundreds of students to the university. But the direction the university has taken under President Bardo has made her feel guilty for recruiting students “to an institution that is going to fail them because the people in charge (are) not actual people, but puppets to private business.”

Students, Banuelos wrote, have been cast aside and used as a tool to improve the interests of administrators, and she doesn’t understand the “blatant disrespect … administration has for the student voice.”

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They use our accomplishments to brag to the Higher Learning Commission … but hardly ever provide support.”

— Tracia Banuelos, Senator and Chair of Diversity Task Force

“(Administrators) used our development as a facade for their own personal agendas for prominence and making a name for themselves. They use our accomplishments to brag to the Higher Learning Commission … but hardly ever provide support.”

Campus Issues Chair Grace Sirois wrote that interactions between students and Andy Schlapp, Director of Government Relations, contributed to “the recurring theme of students not coming first and an atmosphere of exclusion, as well as a clear lack of communication from the administration.”

Misha Nazir, director of public relations for student government, echoed the idea that the university administrators are too focused on outside interests.

“It has become apparent that the focus of the administration is to maintain the pool of donors that the university has acquired rather than accommodating the needs of its reputable diverse student body and enhancing their college experience.”

Student Advocate Zane May wrote that he is concerned about a lack of transparency by the administration, that students are not often invited to participate in the decision making process at WSU. He said that the current administration does not meet its own ideals set out in the strategic plan, which include “teamwork” and “success for all stakeholders.”

Students do not feel empowered; students feel disenfranchised.”

— Zane May, Student Advocate

“The student body is the largest population of stakeholders,” May wrote, “and yet we have the smallest representation on University planning committees … . Students do not feel empowered; students feel disenfranchised.”

Regents’ response

Board of regents spokesperson Breeze Richardson responded Thursday afternoon to requests to speak to Flanders through email.

“A response was provided to Student Body President Joseph Shepard on Monday, October 17, which addressed three concerns he had outlined,” Richardson said. Those three concerns were parking, a diversity task force and the interfaith prayer space.

Moving forward, it would be most effective for the Student Government to continue to work through the channels available to SGA at WSU … ”

— Breeze Richardson, Spokesperson for Kansas Board of Regents

“Also in the response it was underscored that, moving forward, it would be most effective for the Student Government to continue to work through the channels available to SGA at WSU to address the university administration regarding initiatives and improvements the Student Government Association would like to advance,” Richardson said in her email.

Richardson also stressed the importance of SGA getting along with administration.

“It might be valuable to know,” Richardson wrote, “each state university Chief Executive Officer is evaluated annually, and any campus concerns that are raised to the Board are taken into consideration through that process.”

The board of regents responded to concerns about private involvement at WSU, a public university, as “something the Board is in strong support of and encouraging across the state.”

“The involvement of employers in our higher education system is pivotal to increasing the alignment of the system to the workforce needs of our state, a key goal of Foresight 2020, the strategic plan for the state’s public higher education system,” Richardson said.

“Engagement with private business is valuable and important, and does not automatically imply the university has somehow lost oversight or management of an institution because of such partnerships.”

University response

Provost and Vice President Vizzini also responded to The Sunflower’s requests for a response to the student leaders’ concerns through email Thursday.

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

Vizzini said he respects students’ opinions and that if he reaches different policy conclusions than student government, it’s not for lack of respect or because he hasn’t been listening.

“It’s because my experience and duties to the university lead me to disagree,” Vizzini wrote.

This is an unsettling time. Students question authority, and they are right to do so.”

— Anthony Vizzini, Provost, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Student Affairs

“It is inevitable that the conflicts we see on a national level find their way to campus,” Vizzini said in his email. “This is an unsettling time. Students question authority, and they are right to do so.”

When things are going well, Vizzini said, student leadership and administration “work together as trusted partners in pursuing that goal.”

“But even when our partnership with SGA leaders isn’t ideal, the administration can still listen to and work well with dozens of other student organizations and thousands of individual students,” Vizzini wrote.

“It is the responsibility of SGA to represent student views to members of the administration,” Vizzini wrote. “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 said his outlook on the university is still positive.

“Our Student Affairs staff and I will continue working closely to build good relationships with current and future student leaders and empower them to create a campus culture and experience that meets the changing needs of students.”

 

Student government shared a response letter on Facebook. Find that here: