After deliberating in a closed meeting, the Student Fees Committee recommended cutting The Sunflower’s funding nearly in half, a clear attempt to censor the student newspaper for critical coverage by threatening its ability to function. Then, President John Bardo made the right decision by calling for the committee to reconvene in public later this week for a re-do. But the damage was already done.
The question now is where do we go from here? To even consider cutting the paper’s budget in half was an intimidation tactic. It sent a clear message to all current and future Sunflower staffers and the university community at large: if you question university decisions in public, you will be punished behind closed doors.
But the chilling effect of such blatantly retaliatory stunts melts under enough heat and light.
In a last-minute decision before the student senate could have a first reading of the student fee budget, Bardo recommended the fees committee “holds its deliberations in public, so that the campus and community know we are committed to the First Amendment and the freedom of speech required in a first-class university.” In the same statement, he said he believed the committee “acted within the rules of the Kansas Open Meetings Act” by having a closed meeting. Clearly, the “First Amendment questions” were not related to the meeting being closed.
Let’s not ignore the real problem. The First Amendment question arises because The Sunflower’s funding was inequitably cut. The total budget for fixed-line items, like The Sunflower, has increased by 5 percent in the last five years. In that same time, the paper’s funding — even without the $50,000 cut proposed in secret — has been slashed to bits compared to other organizations. That’s wrong, plain and simple.
Two years ago, The Sunflower took a $53,000 cut — a third of its allocation — when the total amount for fixed-line items fell $179,566. A member of that year’s fees committee sent a letter to the editor last week explaining that cut was “intended to be a temporary reduction for one fiscal year only, and to restore funding to the necessary level of $158,000 the following year.”
That didn’t happen, despite the fact fixed-line-item allocations increased last year by $369,398 — more than enough to restore the newspaper’s funding.
So where is all of this extra money going?
In the past five years, including the behind-closed-doors recommendation, Student Affairs’ funding would increase by 47 percent, or $913,961.
Not counting the Collegiate Readership Program, a program that brought local and national newspapers to campus that SGA chose to end in January, student government’s other funding would increase by $39,600 from this year to next year.
These increases aren’t surprising if you’re familiar with the composition of the Student Fees Committee. Vice President of Student Affairs, Teri Hall, is the Student Fee Committee chair. Her associate vice president is also on the committee. All of the students on the committee are SGA members.
According to the minutes from the closed deliberation meeting, all Student Affairs services were “deemed vital,” including $200,000 for “VP for Student Affairs initiatives.” The recommendations included increased spending for non-student salaries. SGA’s office expenditures are increasing “due to personnel, scholarships, election increase, etc.,” and a salary increase for the student advocate was recommended along with money to advertise.
It’s interesting how that works. The very organizations entrusted to equitably distribute student fees decided their own organizations deserved more money than those who had no say in the matter and weren’t even allowed to witness the deliberations. The only organization with a platform to question that decision was recommended a massive, intentionally-destructive cut.
Can you say self serving?
Some student senators have asked if students would be willing to pay more in student fees to adequately fund The Sunflower, but that’s based on a false assumption. If student fees increase for next year, it will be to fund organizations like Student Affairs and SGA whose budgets are bloated, not The Sunflower having its funding restored.
If cuts need to be made, they shouldn’t come from the group that already took a one-third cut. They shouldn’t come from great recruiting tools and fun student groups that already operate on shoestring budgets. Cuts should come from administrative organizations that can afford to take a cut while still serving their roles on campus, which include figuring out how to help distribute student fees, not pocket them.
But the truth is, no cuts need to be made from fixed-line items. That budget is projected to increase. Certain organizations just need to not increase by as much.
It’s easy to be self serving in a secret meeting. But Friday will be different. Light is the ultimate disinfectant. With an audience, Student Affairs and SGA should re-affirm their commitment to the students they serve and set an example for future leaders in their positions. When they put together next year’s student fees allocations, they should forego funding increases for their own organizations until the other vital organizations receive the funding they need to thrive.
It would show true leadership and integrity, at a time when both are in short supply. It would also aid Student Affairs in its goal to “Connect Every Student” through something other than frustration, at a time when anyone outside of Bardo’s latest in-crowd is treated like a second-class citizen.
Connecting students is not accomplished through student affairs initiatives or salary increases for non-students or fee increases so administrators can yuck it up in bigger cities for road games or a mandatory membership to an off-campus gym or extra travel funding so SGA leaders can hobnob in Topeka. If the university truly wants to connect every student, it should start by adequately supporting with student fees the student-run organizations that already exist.
Moving increases from Student Affairs and SGA to the groups that have established themselves as vital to Wichita State’s community would truly put students first. And that’s the real test of a first-class university.