The WSU Board of Trustees should be required to disclose conflicts of interest

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The WSU Board of Trustees should be required to disclose conflicts of interest

The Wichita State Board of Trustees is missing out on an opportunity to prove their commitment to transparency by not requiring board members to disclose their conflicts of interest. It’s the wrong attitude for a board in charge of public money to choose secrecy over transparency when given an option between the two.

A university audit released last year recommends that the Board of Trustees, which is responsible for spending more than $8 million of public money from a local mill levy tax this fiscal year, adopt a conflict of interest policy “similar to the one in place for the University.”

WSU requires faculty and unclassified staff to file conflict of interest disclosure forms annually.

“Potential conflicts of interest should be disclosed for Board of Trustee members, as well as members of their immediate families and should address consulting arrangements, significant financial or managerial interests (holdings greater than $5,000 or 5 percent), or employment by an outside entity,” the audit reads.

As Executive Director of the Board of Trustees Andy Schlapp was quick to point out, the recommendation is not legally binding.

“You guys need to understand you are under no obligation to follow the laws of substantial interest at the state level,” Schlapp told the Trustees during a board meeting. “Which is a good thing because it’s a pain in the butt we have to fill out annually.

“I’m always one who says we shouldn’t voluntarily follow a law you don’t have to,” Schlapp said.

That’s simply the wrong mentality to have when it comes to a public university — particularly one that has lately found itself battling the perception of secrecy.

Taxpayers deserve to know that the board is serving their interests and their interests only. The inconvenience of filing disclosures isn’t a good enough reason to keep that information from them.

After the board meeting, Schlapp said The Sunflower’s reporting on the conflict of interest policy was responsible for stoking public mistrust in the university.

“The Sunflower wrote a story about, none of these people have conflict of interest [forms], and it blew into this really big deal of, oh, look at all the secretive stuff going on,” Schlapp said. “Oh, they’re cheating and they’re stealing and all this stuff, was kind of the public perception. The reality was it was a pretty minor finding (in the audit).”

Members of the Board of Trustees are appointed by the governor and are not paid to serve.

Conflict of interest disclosure should be the standard when public money is being spent — especially at Wichita State, where it’s all the more important to maintain the integrity of the private-sector partnerships actively being sought out by the university.

Faculty Senate President Betty Smith-Campbell expressed this sentiment at last week’s senate meeting.

“I think it’s very important, even though they may not make specific decisions related to the Wichita State [Innovation] Alliance, some of the funds do transfer over there, and there’s for-profits and things going on,” Smith-Campbell said. “So I really think it’s important that they have conflict of interest statements.”

In this case, following the letter of the law isn’t enough. Establishing a culture of transparency at WSU means taking active steps to combat secrecy.

Schlapp also acknowledged the importance of operating in the open. “There is a need from a transparency and openness standpoint to let people know that you’re not making decisions that have conflicts,” Schlapp told the board members.

Requiring Trustees to disclose their conflicts of interest is the solution. Even if it is a pain in the butt.