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Staff Editorial: Now is the time to stand up for academic freedom

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Wichita State Provost and Senior Vice President Tony Vizzini said it all last fall.

It was at a meeting about budget cuts, and a professor had asked about the future of liberal arts and sciences at WSU.

Vizzini’s answer, as usual, was candid, but it was unexpected in its revelation of something most administrators wouldn’t just come out and say.

“We’re becoming less and less dependent on the state. Therefore, we see ourselves more as a private university,” Vizzini said.

What does that mean for the future of the university as a whole?

In many ways, WSU is in the eye of a perfect storm: a cash-strapped university with a debt problem in a state governed by a group hell-bent on the privatization of essential state services, including higher education. Mix in hyper-regulation, nationwide dips in enrollment, and compliance issues with increased cash demands, and there’s a lot to be concerned about.

Chief among those concerns, what deserves preservation through the stormy transition to privatization of Kansas’s higher education, is academic freedom.

A new policy developed by the Office of Human Resources for university employees, including tenured faculty, threatens the very nature of academic freedom.

The proposed policy for “Investigative Leave” allows the university to remove professors from their classrooms, access to their offices, and e-mail accounts while the university conducts an “internal fact-finding investigation” of alleged behaviors and/or actions that “may violate” WSU policy, rules, and/or employment expectations outside of the already wide reach of the Title IX Office.

The policy demands confidentiality of employees involved in an investigation.

With vague definitions of what constitutes grounds for investigation, faculty will no doubt be even more on-edge at the heads of their classrooms.

Such policies are, in theory, not bad ideas. There needs to be a policy for such situations. But without any way of knowing the frequency or application of such a policy, it could easily be abused.

Furthermore, the timing of the policy is decidedly bad. On a campus that already has some serious unanswered questions and allegations of retaliation, this policy raises further questions about personnel matters.

In the past year, The Sunflower has encountered an increasing number of students, faculty, and staff afraid to publicly voice their concerns with the direction the university is going for fear of retaliation.

Since last October, WSU has paid out at least $914,000 to at least 12 employees for undisclosed reasons from its general use funds — a combination of taxpayer money and student tuition dollars — two of which settled two separate lawsuits against the university citing discrimination and wrongful termination. Two others who signed the agreements were Dean of Students Christine Schneikart-Luebbe and Director of Campus Recreation Eric Maki, whose mid-semester resignations prompted concerns from student leaders that the resignations were forced.

Wichita State spent more than $33,000 on a private, out-of-state attorney to investigate its student body president for bullying last spring after he raised concerns about a culture of fear at the university. He said the investigation was retaliation for speaking out against the administration.

The chilling effect of this combination of circumstances is real, and that’s why The Sunflower is asking faculty, staff, and students to continue to demand that WSU maintain its integrity and the principles of academic freedom in its transition into whatever it’s to become.

Rather than work to preserve and reaffirm the existential necessity of public universities, so far Wichita State has seemed to embrace the move towards privatization of higher education in Kansas, offering itself up as “the model” achieving its goals through “industry partnership.” So far, this move has centered largely around infrastructure on Innovation Campus and funding for NIAR.

But, inevitably, the effects of privatization are creeping into the classroom, and threatening the principle at the core of our institution: academic freedom.

A prime example of this is the Institute for the Study of Economic Growth, a Koch-funded institute expected to “play a transformative role in advancing the teaching, research and application of innovative and entrepreneurial activities in a free enterprise economy to enhance societal prosperity through economic growth.”

The institute will be housed in the Barton School of Business, and a $3.64 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation will fund the salaries of the institute’s executive director, two faculty members, additional lecturers, and graduate student fellowships and assistantships for five years. After five years, the institute will be expected to seek additional external funding to pay for the employees from then on (WSU is covering employee benefits).

Because of certain protections, such as tenure and a requirement that public agencies allow freedom of speech, state funding allows for the freedom of academic inquiry, governed by truth — not a political agenda.

Although WSU has said the creation of the Koch-funded institute will not infringe on academic freedom, the fact that faculty positions are reliant on external funding could lead to external-agenda-driven teaching and research.

WSU should continue to be transparent and uphold academic freedom with regard to the Koch-funded institute.

The integrity of the institution as an independent body deserves to be preserved, and unpopular opinions — even dissent — should be protected.

Wichita State is in the process of a cutting its budget by 3.5 percent through the “internal reallocation of resources to fund strategic priorities of the university,” according to a tuition and fees proposal submitted to the board of regents in June. Removal of university employees who don’t toe the line seems like a convenient solution.

The new HR policies are vague and, if applied, could seriously threaten the rights and reputations of faculty members without public scrutiny.

It is The Sunflower’s opinion that WSU should be mindful of the message and effect created by the introduction of vaguely worded policies during a time of dwindling confidence in the current administration.

WSU should exercise heightened sensitivity until confidence is restored in the administration and take steps to repair relationships with faculty and staff so that they don’t feel their careers are constantly on the line if they say the wrong thing.

1 Comment
  • lonnytheplumber

    Very well written. I’d like to know the author’s name.

    [Reply]

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