How threats to The Sunflower’s funding have closely followed coverage of the university, Innovation Campus
February 26, 2018
Wichita State students and community members have raised concerns on social media about our coverage of Friday’s student fees deliberations, where a committee of student government members and university administrators had a closed-door meeting to discuss The Sunflower’s future funding.
It wasn’t an issue for these meetings to be closed in the past, they said. “It doesn’t exactly sound like news.”
So why was it so important for The Sunflower to be allowed in the room during student fee deliberations?
This latest episode is one of many in a pattern of administrative and SGA responses to The Sunflower’s coverage. It’s part of a long pattern of The Sunflower asking important questions no one else will — about Innovation Campus, about backdoor dealings, and about potential conflicts of interest that could put student interests below business interests.
By covering these stories for our readers, our funding has been threatened, our independence has been threatened, and our very existence as the student newspaper at WSU has been threatened.
At The Sunflower, we take these threats very seriously, no matter what twisted shape they take. We’re worried students are being used to carry out the wishes of a few who disagree with our coverage. Here is what has happened so far.
To understand SGA’s role in threatening the paper, you have to understand what happened last year — the year Paige Hungate was elected student body president — and how it relates to her responses to The Sunflower.
The day the headcount padding story printed, Hungate sent me an e-mail about a different story that appeared in that issue, that had a teaser headline on the bottom of page 1: “SGA Drops Livestream,” after student government decided to stop live-streaming senate meetings, citing ADA compliance.
“The connotation of this title makes it seem that there is no reasoning behind it, but rather, that we are attempting to stop the transparency and hide things from the student body. This could not be further from the truth,” Hungate wrote.
Hungate’s tenure as student body president was mired in controversy from the outset. She ran on the promise of repairing strained relationships between student government and the university administration and working with the president’s executive team to achieve its goals.
That put her in immediate opposition to a group of students on campus who felt underrepresented and whose concerns, they said, were not being addressed and that decisions were being forced through SGA by the administration.
Tensions between students and the administration came to a head last spring, after John Tomblin spoke at the open forum portion of the student senate meeting on March 1. Tomblin asked for student government support of a student fees increase to help pay for a 60,000-square-foot facility combining a YMCA-run fitness center with drop-in daycare and a wellness facility on Innovation Campus.
During the open forum, Director of Campus Recreation Eric Maki spoke out, questioned if partnering with the Y would benefit WSU. A week and a day later — after student senate voted down the proposal — Maki resigned. The Sunflower later reported that Maki had signed a non-disparagement agreement and non-disclosure agreement that limited what he could say about his departure.
SGA’s resolution in support of the fee increase to bring a YMCA to campus failed 7-26-2. Tomblin had said: “If you do not want it, we’ll mark it off the master plan and we’ll move on. So I say absolutely, if you don’t want it, then I say move on.”
Hall suggested the vote was merely a suggestion, and that President Bardo still had the ultimate authority to approve the fee increase.
We The Students, a group of students who formed last spring and staged a sit-in protest outside of President Bardo’s office in Morrison Hall soon after the Y vote and Maki’s resignation one day after the vote. Bardo, as has become increasingly common in the past two years, was not available to talk to the group of students. They sat in the hallway, where administrators began to appear from their offices to field questions, as the protesters’ chants rang out in the former library and current administrative office building.
“We the students demand transparency!” they shouted.
Heldman assured students President Bardo had nothing to hide, but said students should expect a delayed response, as Bardo was traveling.
“A considered response is probably a couple weeks away,” Heldman said. “There’s no shortage of answers. We respond to questions all the time.”
The group handed off a list of demands, which included increased transparency by the executive team about major decisions on campus and related to development on Innovation Campus. The group wanted increased student input on key decisions, and said the YMCA decision was the latest “symbol of hypocrisy” that was expected to be voted on with a week of student input after administrators had been in conversation about bringing a YMCA to campus for around 18 months.
Two days after the sit-in, and a written response from President Bardo, We The Students interrupted a student senate meeting and read a resolution calling for Bardo’s resignation.
After a heated debate, the resolution was pared down and amended to reflect a vote of no confidence in Bardo, stating he was “no longer competent to lead.” The resolution passed 20-4-7.
About a month later, Hungate was elected as the student body president. One of her first moves what to arrange a potluck with administrators to help repair relationships.
Things cooled off for a while. Then, at the final student senate meeting of the semester, a new resolution supporting a $90 to $100 fee increase that would pay for a Y membership for every student and bring the Y to campus passed Hungate’s senate, 23-16-2, after a four-hour debate.
The next night, at the annual SGA banquet for incoming and outgoing sessions, an altercation between Hungate’s parents and former-SGA president Joseph Shepard and his parents, led to a criminal investigation of Hungate’s parents for battery and anti-black “fighting words.”
We The Students demanded a statement of apology from Hungate. They stormed the student government offices and delivered a list of demands to Hungate, which included a call for her to temporarily step down from her position while university police investigated.
Hungate said she would not comment on the incident. She later expressed displeasure with The Sunflower for printing her parent’s names in news stories about the altercation that resulted in a criminal investigation.
“Transparency! Transparency! Transparency!” The calls kept coming from protesters, who covered their mouths with duct tape in a gesture symbolizing the feeling of being silenced as marginalized students on campus.
Hungate’s presidency was off to a rocky start — with a live stream constantly in her face — and she said she wanted to be as transparent going forward as possible and that she would strongly consider the list of demands. The protesters disbanded and went home. She and her cabinet took diversity training. The school year ended. The district attorney determined there was not enough evidence to pursue charges against Hungate’s parents.
But transparency was still a sore subject in the fall. Student senate meetings, which had traditionally been live-streamed through SGA’s Facebook page, would no longer be available through Facebook, Hungate announced.
It was news The Sunflower had to report, saying we would instead live-stream the meetings, if SGA would not.
“I highly recommend to you that you do not live stream the senate meetings just because we are not,” Hungate said in her e-mail to me the day of the enrollment story. “We are looking out for you in the event that there would arise a lawsuit. This new policy means that no official WSU entity can live stream. You all are not an exception, just as we are not an exception.”
Hungate followed up on The Sunflower’s coverage of enrollment numbers with a letter to the editor that said: “Too often, students and the media get overly interested in the bad that the good gets lost in the hustle. I write to you today to tell you: There are good things happening. After you read this, I invite you to focus on the good.”
Perception at WSU has gained an increased importance, and The Sunflower was criticized for being “too negative” in its coverage of the university’s decision to include high school students, faculty and staff, and senior citizens taking half-credit-hour courses towards its overall enrollment.
The day after the enrollment story, Lou Heldman, a former publisher at the Wichita Eagle, responded to a concerned alumna who had seen The Sunflower’s coverage online:
“I was a cynical student newspaper editor myself 50 years ago at Ohio State, so I have some empathy for the editors of the Sunflower. With that acknowledgment, I have to say I have been tremendously disappointed the past few years, and especially this year, because the editors seem determined to cast doubt on every university achievement to advance their negative narrative. If you got all of your information from the Sunflower, you’d be pretty poorly informed about what’s going on at WSU.”
Oct. 10, the day after the meeting between Heldman, Moses, and the Sunflower’s reporters, four strange things happened:
- Provost Tony Vizzini sent a signed letter on official university letterhead urging me to remove the previously cited ad from The Sunflower’s website, because anyone using the service advertised would be in violation of the student code of conduct.
- Lou Heldman left a voicemail on my office phone and sent an e-mail asking me to remove a comment on a story about an administrator’s sexuality. (I did)
- David Moses forwarded a records request from Hungate requesting The Sunflower’s information about The Sunflower’s advertising revenue.
- Joe Kleinsasser, a long-time member of the Publication Board who works in strategic communications, resigned from his position on the board.
The pressure was on, and it was obvious The Sunflower needed to update it policies, which I presented at the next publication board meeting.
At that meeting, the first week of November, we had lengthy discussions about online comments, advertisements, and anonymous commenters.
Shelby Rowell, a student senator who Hungate had appointed to the Publication Board with the approval of the student senate, said reading negative stories in The Sunflower made her second-guess coming to Wichita State.
Rowell and Hungate were both concerned with student safety, particularly Hungate’s, and said the anonymity of online commenters made students feel unsafe on campus.
Hungate repeatedly said The Sunflower is “not truly independent” because it receives student fees.
At the end of the meeting, The Sunflower’s faculty adviser, Amy DeVault, asked Hungate directly if there was a plan forming to eliminate The Sunflower’s student fee allocation.
Hungate said she and others had been looking at how other schools handle student fees and college newspapers, to make the funding more equitable. She said they were looking at how much advertising revenue The Sunflower brings in. She mentioned other Kansas universities who bring in around 60 percent of their revenue from advertisements and 40 percent from student fees.
That meeting took place on a Friday. Over the weekend, I sent an email to Teri Hall, Paige Hungate, University Budget Director David Miller, and Amy DeVault saying I wanted to be included in further discussions about The Sunflower’s funding and caught up on past discussions.
“Rumors keep swirling that we will have our funding pulled with the implementation of the new fee structure. I’m writing to inform you that that would be devastating to the future of The Sunflower,” I wrote.
Hall forwarded my e-mail to the president’s executive team, along with a note:
“Paige (Hungate) and I received this message from Chance. I will respond to him later saying that we will meet with him in person. Paige has the pub board conversation taped. I will listen to it tomorrow and get back to you all about our next steps”
John Tomblin quickly responded: “I thought they were an independent newspaper?”
“No they say they are independent of oversight but willingly take student fees,” Hall wrote back.
“I need one of those jobs,” Tomblin wrote.
“Don’t we all!” Hall wrote. “Just one of the many things I’m working on fixing.”
The meeting went as planned and Hall said fees would be about the same level as last year and that she was just looking at ways to make fees more equitable.
Advertising dollars are down for The Sunflower, as Hungate could see from her open records request for The Sunflower’s revenue. Any attempt to tie student fees to advertising — with the expectation that advertising revenue would be the higher number — would be unrealistic for The Sunflower for the foreseeable future, and the result would be devastating for the approximately 40 students a year who get paid, hands-on, applied-learning experience at The Sunflower.
And that’s why it was so important, especially this year, for The Sunflower to be in that meeting room during student fee deliberations.