$12 million oilman donor to receive honorary WSU degree


Brian Hayes

Wayne Woolsey speaks to those in attendance for the announcement of the single largest cash gift to the university. the gift will be used to build a new Wayne and Kay Woolsey Hall, which will house the Barton School of Business.

Wichita State will award an honorary doctorate to the Wichita oilman who made the largest-ever cash donation to WSU in May. It is against Kansas Board of Regents (KBOR) policy to award honorary degrees for “philanthropic activity,” but WSU maintains that Wayne Woolsey’s generosity is not a motivating factor in bestowing the honor upon him.

Woolsey, who will receive his doctorate at Sunday’s fall commencement ceremony, donated $12 million with a lead gift of $10 million towards the construction of a new business school building on Innovation Campus. The building will be named Wayne and Kay Woolsey Hall in honor of the 87-year-old oilman and his wife.

The KBOR policy manual states that an honorary degree “may be conferred only upon persons of notable intellectual, scholarly, professional, or creative achievement, or service to humanity,” and “shall not be awarded for philanthropic activity or service to the University or the State of Kansas.”

Woolsey is founder and chairman of Woolsey Companies, an oil and natural gas exploration and production company that drills in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. He is also an inductee into both the Kansas Oil & Gas Hall of Fame and the Kansas Oil Museum.

President John Bardo’s nomination letter lauds Woolsey’s introduction of large-scale hydraulic fracturing techniques to Kansas. Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” is an effective but controversial practice.

Honorary degree recipients are nominated by university presidents and approved by the Regents. WSU Director of News and Media Relations Joe Kleinsasser said Bardo chose Woolsey because he is an “innovative and entrepreneurial businessman” — not because of his multimillion-dollar donation.

“Mr. Woolsey’s gift to WSU rightfully is not one of the considerations for being awarded an honorary doctorate. Making a generous donation, however, does not eliminate Mr. Woolsey or anyone else from being eligible to receive such an honor,” Kleinsasser wrote in an email.

Regents Director of Communications Matt Keith echoed Kleinsasser’s sentiment.

“While Board policy states that honorary degrees shall not be awarded for donations to a university, there is no prohibition on a donor receiving an honorary degree for other reasons,” Keith wrote in an email.

The Regents approved Woolsey as WSU’s honorary degree recipient at their November meeting.

Bardo nominated Woolsey in an August email to the Regents, writing that “Mr. Wayne Woolsey is an entrepreneur the likes of which Kansas needs more.”

“As an entrepreneur driven to think big, take risks and advance the knowledge of his field, Mr. Woolsey is worthy of the distinction of an honorary doctorate at Wichita State University,” Bardo wrote.

KBOR policy states that honorary degree nominations must include statements or materials demonstrating that “the honorary degree is not sought to recognize the nominee’s philanthropic activity or service to the University or the State of Kansas.” Bardo’s nomination letter does not mention Woolsey’s $12 million donation to WSU.

Bardo writes that Woolsey “is known for being willing to take big risks for potentially big payoffs.”

“This entrepreneurial mindset resulted in one of [Woolsey’s] most significant achievements: being the first in Kansas to apply large-volume hydraulic fracturing to recover huge deposits of natural gas and oil from the Mississippi Formation in south-central Kansas,” Bardo wrote.

“His success with stimulation technology eventually led to it being applied to horizontal wells, which attracted a major oil and gas company to the region for the first time in more than 50 years.”

Fracking is an efficient way to extract resources, but it has a long-lasting negative impact on the surrounding environment. Air pollution and water contamination due to the use of toxic chemicals in the fracking process pose major environmental concerns, and the high pressure required to extract resources may cause earthquakes.

The Woolsey Companies Horizontal Drilling and Hydraulic Fracturing Practices manual disputes the negative environmental impacts of fracking and states that the oil and gas industry “is one of the most heavily regulated in the world and strives to maintain a strong record of environmental protection.”

Neither Wayne nor Kaye Woolsey attended WSU, but their son, Marc, is a graduate of the Barton School of Business.

WSU’s honorary doctorate recipients from the last three years are Dr. Donna Sweet, a leading physician in the AIDS and HIV community, Karla Burns, an opera singer and decorated Broadway actress, and Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College.

WSU did not award award an honorary doctorate between 1989 and 2014.