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Speaking out: Wichita State paid KC law firm to investigate Shepard

Joseph+Shepard+gives+a+speech+during+a+meeting+held+by+the+Black+Student+Union.
Joseph Shepard gives a speech during a meeting held by the Black Student Union.

Joseph Shepard gives a speech during a meeting held by the Black Student Union.

Selena Favela

Selena Favela

Joseph Shepard gives a speech during a meeting held by the Black Student Union.

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Joseph Shepard, who completed his second term as student body president in the spring, isn’t known for holding his tongue. In fact, he’s probably best known for always speaking his mind.

But there are things about his time as student body president that he has kept quiet, that he hasn’t shared, until now.

“It’s time to break my silence,” Shepard said. “So much happened and continues to happen behind closed doors.”

Those things include an investigation of Shepard by an out-of-state law firm in the spring, which found no evidence of a conduct violation, and mistakes made by the university with regard to his residency status that have ended up costing him thousands of dollars.

 

The Investigation

Last spring, Wichita State paid more than $33,000 to a private law firm that investigated whether or not Shepard should be investigated by the university for bullying.

According to documents obtained by The Sunflower through the Kansas Open Records Act, WSU paid Husch Blackwell, a Kansas City, Missouri-based law firm, two separate payments in late spring for services rendered, document production, and travel expenses between Feb. 1 and March 24.

Madeline Deabler
According to documents obtained through the Kansas Open Records Act, WSU paid Husch Blackwell, a Kansas City, Missouri-based law firm, two separate payments in late spring for services rendered, document production, and travel expenses between Feb. 1 and March 24.

Those dates are important because Shepard was investigated for bullying another member of WSU’s student government by an attorney from Husch Blackwell during the same time period, according to student conduct documents provided to The Sunflower by Shepard.

The law firm investigated a complaint made by a student government member against Shepard that alleged he “engaged in bullying conduct” and determined there was “no evidence to support that the respondent’s communications and interactions related to this conflict rose to the level of bullying as contemplated by the Student Code of Conduct,” according to a memo by Husch Blackwell.

The two payments were for $22,861.04, made in April, and $10,790.00, made in May, according to university documents. That’s $33,651.04.

WSU General Counsel David Moses said federal law and university policy prohibit him from discussing the specifics of any student’s “situation,” but confirmed that WSU hired Husch Blackwell to conduct an investigation in the spring.

“I am confident that retaining Husch Blackwell was a prudent decision and an appropriate use of state resources,” Moses said.

According to Husch Blackwell’s summary of its investigation of Shepard, there was “dysfunction” in SGA last fall, and people interviewed about the case “described the overall climate in SGA as toxic and stressful.”

Shepard and several members of his cabinet discussed the SGA climate in October of last year, when they sent letters to the Kansas Board of Regents diagnosing a “culture of fear” at WSU. The letters included a list of concerns they felt weren’t being addressed by WSU’s administration.

Among those concerns were students, faculty, and staff “afraid to speak up” out of fear of retaliation by WSU President John Bardo; student government adviser, Christine Schneikart-Luebbe, being put on leave without explanation; a lack of transparency in decisions being made by university administrators; and concerns about outside influence on university decisions.

“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.

“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.

That was before Director of Campus Recreation Eric Maki, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Christine Schneikart-Luebbe, or Assistant Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life Lyston Skerritt resigned from the university in the spring. Maki and Schneikart-Luebbe’s resignations in the middle of the spring have been questioned repeatedly by students and faculty, but both signed non-disparagement and non-disclosure agreements. Skerritt, who served as SGA adviser in his final months at WSU, said of last year:

“The last year has been interesting and difficult for me personally and professionally resulting in great reflection,” Skerritt said in an email sent out to students when he resigned. “The root of my decision lies in a need to preserve my morals and affirm my ethics amidst an influx of operational culture and decisions made within the department and division.”

About a month after sending letters to the Regents raising concerns about a culture of fear, Shepard said rumors began to circulate among students that he was being privately investigated. Before winter break, Shepard said he was alerted by WSU that there had been a conduct complaint filed against him.

Shepard said he wasn’t told what the complaint was or who had filed it, but was left with the thought of an investigation going into finals week.

Counseling and testing center became a common stop for Shepard, he said. Anxiety attacks, panic attacks, depression — this combination of stresses, Shepard said, led to hospital visits.

“There were days I wasn’t able to show up to work because I was having panic attacks or having anxiety attacks or in the hospital,” Shepard said. “It was very difficult to go through that situation without any answers but then keep doing my job while also dealing with the internal things that were going on in my own life.”

Shepard spent his winter break with family, he said, and didn’t hear back from the university about the status of the investigation until February.

That’s when Shepard said he got a phone call telling him he needed to “come in and meet with an attorney.”

“At that point, I was like, ‘Attorney — what is going on here?’” Shepard said. He found out then the complaint was for bullying and who the student was that filed the complaint.

WSU’s attorney, David Moses, said in an email, “as a general matter, factors that could lead a university to retain an outside investigator for a given case include the complexities of a case (both legal and factual) and the unavailability of university investigators because of actual or perceived conflicts of interest.”

Shepard said he thinks an outside investigator was chosen because of a perceived conflict of interest and a perceived positive relationship he had with an official in the student conduct office, but that there were other employees in that office who could have conducted the investigation if that was a concern.

In short, Shepard said the investigation should have been handled internally, like any other student conduct case. Instead, it was handled by Elizabeth Samples of Husch Blackwell.

Moses confirmed that, in general, “the university’s default is to conduct investigations using internal investigators.”

“Whether the university retains outside investigators in future cases will depend on the circumstances of the cases we might face,” Moses said.

Shepard said the investigation was overly intrusive and included showing Samples his emails and letting her look through his cell phone.

“She saw things that, in my opinion, she should have never seen,” Shepard said.

“This wasn’t some minimal investigation. This was hardcore, extensive — they wanted to know everything. And to me it was just an invasion of my privacy of my personal life and an invasion of my professional life as well. All because of, in my opinion, false allegations and claims.”

The Sunflower reached out, through a Saturday email, to WSU President Bardo, Assistant Vice President for Student Advocacy, Intervention and Accountability Mandy Hambleton, Director of News and Media Relations Joe Kleinsasser, Vice President for Strategic Communications Lou Heldman, Vice President for Student Affairs Teri Hall, Student Body President Paige Hungate, Student Body Vice President Breck Towner, Student Advocate Rheanna Pierce, Title IX Coordinator Natasha Stephens, Faculty Senate President Carolyn Shaw, and Moses, alerting them of The Sunflower’s findings and asking, among other things, whether the investigation was morally right.

Only Moses responded.

 

Payments

Shepard is from California, but he has been in Wichita for six years. During his four years of undergraduate studies, he paid out-of-state tuition. But last year, when he was admitted to graduate school at WSU, his acceptance letter said he was “classified as a resident of the State of Kansas for tuition purposes.” So, he paid in-state tuition.

March 30, he received an email from WSU financial operations telling him there had been a “fee assessment error,” on top of an error in his residency status, that resulted in him owing $12,156.50 for back payment on retroactively-assessed out-of-state tuition for his first year of graduate school and out-of-state tuition for the fall.

Shepard said he thinks these mistakes weren’t accidental, that they were a way to deter him from returning to WSU after a year where he questioned the WSU administration.

“I believe that this administration is very intimidated by anyone who is willing to stand up to their actions — against their unethical practices,” Shepard said.

“And so, long story short, unfortunately, I think that this administration sees me as a threat. Anyone who is willing to say ‘I’m not going to allow this to happen and I’m going to continue to fight against this’ — they want you out of here,” Shepard said.

But Shepard said he is determined to finish out at WSU, to set an example for those students who may feel the same way as him and may wish to follow in his footsteps.

“If I don’t speak up, then this same thing could happen to someone else and I don’t want anyone to ever deal with this nightmare. It’s discouraging, disheartening and hurtful. Luckily, my resilience and faith in God won’t allow me to let these things or them get in the way of fulfilling my purpose in life.”

——— ——— ———
View documents related to this story here: Husch V1717781_Redacted, Husch V1715947_Redacted.

30 Comments
  • My God

    If this isn’t intimidation and harassment I don’t know what is. Great use of $33,000 dollars. A conduct investigation has timelines and deadlines involved. This did not. It drug out for months and done mostly in secret. All to find NOTHING.

    Systematic oppression like we see so much of today.

    It appears that nothing will move the campus or community to action. We again get to see silence and lack of transparency. Joseph, keep plugging along and holding them accountable.

    Another great job by the Sunflower. Who knows what is next.

    [Reply]

  • Tweet Time

    Time for Bardo to tweet a picture of a WSU football helmet and marching band uniform. Use the distraction to keep the dream alive!

    [Reply]

    Anna Reply:

    Bread and circuses

    [Reply]

    Tex Reply:

    A circus like the Shepard and Azad Student Government Circus that ended last year? I guess they were imitating the University Administration and clowning it up.

    [Reply]

  • Steve

    So the Bardo administration decided to spend more than 30k of taxpayer money trying to dig up dirt on the former SGA President. WTF!!!

    No wonder the incident with Paige’s parents was swept under the rug and ignored.

    [Reply]

  • Ronald Reagan

    FAKE news!!!!

    [Reply]

  • Sue them together.

    What in the world does the administration do aside from NOT their job?

    I think Wade Robinson, Taben, Joseph, Christine Schneikert-Leubbe, Eric Maki, The cases of mishandling of sexual assault, stalking cases could have strongly come together with a class action lawsuit.

    I also believe that David Moses and WSU administration know that, hence why Christine and Eric were manipulated into non-disparagement, non-disclosure agreements. They know that if people get together that they are going to have a MAJOR lawsuit on their hands.

    I suggest you all find one another.

    [Reply]

    Nope Reply:

    The Non-Disparagement agreements prohibit those individuals from filing lawsuits or suing WSU and prevents them from saying anything WSU perceives as harmful to their great reputation. While you may ask what more could hurt the WSU reputation, Moses and Bardo will create something.

    [Reply]

    Sue them Reply:

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear. My point was Eric and Christine couldn’t, but the others could.

    My point was that the 2 individuals couldn’t because they knew bad things would come for WSU if them they didn’t duct tape their mouths.

    [Reply]

  • Steve

    I wonder if these types of shenanigans are what led to the previous General Counsel and the Associate General Counsel resigning?

    [Reply]

    Nope Reply:

    The integrity of Ted Ayres and unwillingness to engage in this behavior is what got Ted retired. He is on phased retirement now and works with community engagement. A great General Counsel who was excluded from many issues because he would not compromise his integrity.

    [Reply]

  • WSU Student Who Wants Joseph to Go Away

    Sure, lurch to Joseph’s defense. But, let’s keep in mind that Joseph was not necessarily found “innocent” as much as it was not a clear cut case of bullying. His behavior as SBP was abhorrent, infantile, ridiculous, trivial, and ineffective. He created the situation that led to this investigation. Had he built good working relationships with all of his SGA peers, at the very least respectful, then no accusation would have been made. Had it not been for his crazy behavior toward the administration, an outside investigator would not have been necessary. There was really nothing the administration could do once the allegation had been made. An investigation had to happen and it had to be viewed as objective. So, really Joseph is the reason the University wasted our student funds. Joseph needs to GO AWAY. He is not important enough for all this attention. Joseph is not respected by the vast majority of this student body. Only his victimized inner circle seems to give a damn about any of it. Joseph is just a horses ass.

    [Reply]

    You is smaht Reply:

    You sound intelligent and level-headed. Taking you seriously is what’s happening.

    [Reply]

    Nope Reply:

    Couldn’t even meet the burden of proof level “preponderance of the evidence” which is used in Conduct cases. Nothing. That is what $33,000 got you and Kansas taxpayers. Nothing but harassment. If only Joseph had these alleged meetings recorded……

    [Reply]

    Most Students Reply:

    Most students are not black and have no idea how minority students are treated. Go read the Campus Climate Survey to see that. It is there if people cared to look at the details.

    [Reply]

    Climate Survey Reply:

    The climate survey didn’t specifically ask about racial discrimination, only discrimination felt on campus. Is it possible that conservative students have felt discriminated against by their professors for their views? As a conservative student who took the survey, I responded in that way, and I’d imagine most did as well. What mistreatment have minority students suffered at WSU? I’m yet to get a clear answer on that.

    [Reply]

    Agreed, but... Reply:

    Although Joseph was the voice of the administration, they should have investigated Taben instead, and still should. He had far more of a hand to play in SGA’s downfall than Joseph, and likely influenced Joseph to these shenanigans. Neither of them can live without the limelight though, and neither can own up to their failures and divisiveness.

    [Reply]

  • Craig Young

    These revelations cast a shadow over this administration. As an alum (‘73) I have less and less confidence in the WSU administration as the facts come out.

    [Reply]

  • Pete

    Joseph was a big bully. WSU was probably afraid to do anything to him though for fear of his continued play of the race card and whatever else he has to do to make WSU look bad.

    [Reply]

  • Shocker Alum

    Get rid of this neoliberal administration. Alums, when you get that call for money, advise them you aint paying for this garbage and silly “flats” on a small commuter campus. Bardo is selling WSU to the highest bidder. Stop giving them your hard earned money.

    [Reply]

  • Hmmm

    I wonder how Grace Sirois feels now that this is public.

    [Reply]

  • Richard reed

    He came in here with a chip on his shoulder bias against kansas and an agenda from day one. We have had diversity at WSU for decades. SGA had a women Prsident in the 1920s. A hispanic president 18 years ago. International students have held leadership positions. Weve had International faculty for decades. Your work ethic is the only concern the WSU had used as a means of meaurement. Shepard was a hammer looking for a nail. WSU is a university not an activists rally. He showed up after plans had been developed and were being executed. Then demanded to have his and others personal input. If you dont like a place you leave you dont demand your way and then throw a fit.

    [Reply]

  • Richard reed

    He came in here with a chip on his shoulder bias against kansas and an agenda from day one. We have had diversity at WSU for decades. SGA had a women Prsident in the 1920s. A hispanic president 18 years ago. International students have held leadership positions. Weve had International faculty for decades. Your work ethic is the only thing WSU had used as a means of meaurement. Shepard was a hammer looking for a nail. WSU is a university not an activists rally. He showed up after plans had been developed and were being executed. Then demanded to have his and others personal input. If you dont like a place you leave you dont demand your way and then throw a fit.

    [Reply]

  • WSU has a huge problem!

    The Sunflower is doing an outstanding job holding this suspect administration accountable for all its shady dealings. When will faculty start to stand up and hold this administration accountable too?

    Intimidating a student with a $30,000 investigation? Padding enrollment numbers with an obvious scheme? Suspicious firings and forced silence? It seems every week there is another revelation.

    From all reports, it seems the administration intimidates, bullies, or threatens critics into silence, and most are afraid to speak out. This is so hostile and antithetical to the foundations of a healthy academic community. It is time for all WSU faculty, students, and staff to organize and force this administration to be ethical, transparent, and honest.

    [Reply]

  • @TheYoung_Stag

    Spent 30k on bullying… can we all take a step back and look how pathetic this actually is #theyoungstag

    [Reply]

    touché Reply:

    the young stag brings up a good point…it’s pretty funny/sad the great lengths that WSU took…for what?

    [Reply]

  • Fake Joseph Shepard

    A huge thank you to the Sunflower for telling my side of the story and only my side! Even though I bullied several people to the point they felt it necessary to file a Student Code of Conduct complaint and one even completely dropped out of Wichita State University because of how I treated her, it probably was not necessary to try to get the part of the story that explains why I was being investigated in the first place. It makes it easier for me to make the Administration look like they are on a witch hunt instead of investigating actual, tangible student concerns and complaints. And actually, my dear Sunflower, if you could not look into why I was being investigated in the first place that would be great. I have a feeling if you started digging around and asking those students why they filed those complaints it would make me look less like a victim and more like, well, a bully.

    As always, the evil Administration is out to get me! And I need to be the champion of the people to be their voice and save them!

    #SaviorComplex #IStandWithFakeShepard #AdministrationIsEvil

    Regards,

    Fake Joseph Shepard, Fake Student Body President, Emeritus, Wichita State University

    [Reply]

    @TheYoung_Stag Reply:

    This proves society is soft. Going to the university about bullying is ridiculous. If you are so mad about Joesph Shepherd bullying people why don’t you tell him to his face. This is the problem everyone Joeseph Shepherd, the people bullied all want to be victims. When someone bullies you, have what it takes to stand up to them look them in the eye and say “quit” or be the bigger person and ignore him. Don’t be a victim. #theyoungstag

    [Reply]

    Cosignor Fake Taben Azad Reply:

    I cosign this letter from the Fake Joseph Sheppard. Let me add my own fake outrage over this incident that originated from the actions of my brother in social justice and hateful activism, the Fake Jospeph Shepard. I encourage the Sunflower to not follow the truth of the story. Please do not start now to take on the bully in this situation because we know you will get blasted by all of my social justice friends and We the Students for going after a black man. We certainly don’t expect you to be color blind in your reporting of bullying tactics of student leaders. Please, by all means, leave all stones unturned.

    In Solidarity with Joseph,

    Fake Taben Azad

    [Reply]

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