The Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government presented its 2018 “Above and Beyond” awards to two state university student newspapers in presentations Friday in Wichita and Emporia.
Recipients were Wichita State University’s Sunflower newspaper, and Emporia State University’s student newspaper, the Bulletin.
The WSU Sunflower staff was recognized for its courageous reporting, which took place despite heavy hostility from, and a lack of transparency, by university and student leaders. The Coalition award was presented by Sunshine Coalition Board Member Nickie Flynn at the Elliott school’s annual awards luncheon April 27.
The Bulletin’s award was presented by Sunshine Coalition board member Max Kautsch April 27 in ESU’s Memorial Union in Emporia. The paper was recognized for its coverage and subsequent fallout of an international student’s struggles to cope with a university investigation of a longtime ESU professor.
Staffs at both newspapers were cited for outstanding open government reporting that has gone above excellence in news coverage about administrative problems at their universities.
“This is the first time student newspaper staffs have been picked to receive the Sunshine Coalition’s “Above and Beyond” award,” said Ron Keefover, Coalition president. “Their coverage show tenacious, uncompromising search for the truth despite many strong efforts to keep the university communities and the public in the dark. The student journalists continually used the state’s open meetings and open records laws to uncover previously secret documents and decisions that had been made behind closed doors."
At Wichita State, among many other things, the Sunflower revealed that:
• The university has spent more than $1 million to get multiple high-level former employees to sign non-disclosure agreements on the way out. The Sunflower, following a series of suspicious resignations, obtained non-disclosure agreements handed down by the university as a condition of settlement payments. The student journalists reported on lawsuits filed against the university by some employees who claim they were forced out of their jobs.
• The paper reported that Wichita State’s campus size is doubling to make space for public-private partnerships, with handshake deals committing student fees and behind-closed-doors agreements rife with conflicts of interests. The Sunflower obtained lease agreements, conflict of interest disclosures, statements of substantial interests, and emails between administrators to shine light on the deals. They wrote multiple stories and editorials focusing on, among other things, a multi-million dollar YMCA deal raising student fees, a controversial agreement to allow members of the Koch family to create and lease a private K-12 school on campus, a decision involving a Regents board member who stands to benefit from the construction of a new student housing project, and many more.
• The paper reported that the university used free, ½-credit-hour courses to pad its headcount and increase the 20th day enrollment numbers it reported to the Board of Regents. The Sunflower obtained contracts between the university and an enrollment consultant and pre-20-day enrollment numbers to report the university’s unusual approach to enrollment growth.
• The Sunflower also reported on Wichita State’s former student body president, who sent a letter to the Kansas Board of Regents outlining concerns not being addressed by the university administration. Then
he was investigated by an out-of-state attorney for bullying. The Sunflower cross-referenced a Facebook post and invoices obtained through open records requests to reveal the harassment and find out the five-figure sum paid to the attorney.
• The Sunflower aggressively covered student fees committee deliberations, which took place behind closed doors, where the committee recommended cutting the paper’s student fee allocation in half. After pushback from the Sunflower, three business days later the university president said that in light of First Amendment questions, the fee committee should reconvene and hold deliberations in a meeting open to the public.
The ESU Bulletin is being recognized for its coverage of an international student’s struggles to cope with a university investigation of longtime professor Brian Schrader. In addition to detailing the underlying facts that led to the student’s allegations, the article reported how the administration ignored recommendations to terminate the employment of the professor, and included a sidebar detailing how the University forces students alleging sexual misconduct to sign nondisclosure agreements before the University investigates the claims.
The Bulletin’s work exposing the misconduct of the professor and the university’s reluctance to discipline him directly led to change at the University. As The Bulletin reported on April 5, 2018, Schrader was placed on administrative leave as of March 28, 2018. However, that issue also included a front page article related to the University student government organization’s announcement that it was considering a 12% cut for The Bulletin’s funding each year over the next four years.
Despite these challenges, the paper’s call for the administration to be held accountable is inspirational for journalists and members of the public everywhere. Editor-in-Chief Rayna Karst, former editor-in-chief Sarah Spoon (who authored the original February 15, 2018, article about the student’s struggles), and reporter Allie Crome, along with faculty advisor Max McCoy, have been instrumental in publishing these stories.
The Bulletin’s award will be presented by Sunshine Coalition Board Member Max Kautsch at 2 p.m. Friday (April 27) in Room 250F, Xi Phi, in ESU’s Memorial Union in Emporia. The Bulletin staff, their friends and colleagues, and their adviser have been invited to the brief ceremony.
The Sunshine Coalition is a statewide organization of journalism and law professors, members of the news media and other private citizens committed to promoting open government in Kansas. It was founded at WSU in 2000.