Editor at Wichita State University’s The Sunflower says funding “compromise” offered by a student government committee will kill the paper
UPDATE: Wichita State University’s Student Fee Committee proposed an $80,000 fee allocation for the school’s student newspaper, The Sunflower. The proposal would cut almost a quarter from the paper’s current fee allocation. The paper’s editor says the “compromise” is still a death knell.
Of the total allocation, $75,000 would be for the newspaper’s operating expenses. The additional $5,000 would be for the equipment reserve. The SFC’s original proposal was $50,000 for general operations with the same $5,000 for equipment.
The SFC’s proposal, made on March 9, came after a number of the paper’s supporters spoke to the Student Government Association Senate about the importance of funding the outlet. SGA President Paige Hungate said she supports the allocation, though the The Sunflower’s Editor-in-Chief, Chance Swaim, said the proposal could still kill the newspaper.
“I think it's shameful,” Swaim said. “It's the difference between being drowned in 6 inches of water instead of a foot of water. The outcome is the same.”
Hungate said The Sunflower has about $225,000 in its reserve account, though Swaim puts that number at about $188,575. He said the annual budget is around $196,000. If the paper spends its planned budget next year, it would have to spend around $81,000 of its reserves, Swaim said.
The newspaper originally requested $158,000 in student fees for 2018-2019 school year. It currently gets $105,000.
If the SFC decides that the $80,000 allocation hurt the paper, it could decide to increase the allocation next year, Hungate said.
“They have enough money to at least operate for this next year, and then try to figure out what the plan should be for budgeting and moving forward for the next year,” she said.
The 44-person Senate can’t change the allocation, but it can vote down the budget as a whole. If that happens, it will go back to the SFC. If the Senate approves the budget, it will need to be approved by the university president and the Board of Regents.
Swaim said he thinks the public support for the newspaper will push the Senate to vote against the proposal. The budget will be introduced during the Senate’s meeting on Wednesday, which will be followed by the public forum.
“The Sunflower has received a huge outpouring of support,” Swaim said. “From comments in passing, to faculty senate drafting a statement of support, to students buying T-shirts, to classified ads, to a full-page ad from former editors — it turns out, despite reckless single-mindedness of the student fees committee, there are still a great number of people at Wichita State who care about the First Amendment.”
KANSAS—Wichita State University's The Sunflower has published multiple investigative articles last semester which were critical of the university. Now, the student newspaper is facing what some have called retaliatory cuts to their funding. The proposed cuts would decrease the newspaper's funding by almost 50 percent.
The Sunflower's battle with WSU's administration dates back to meetings starting last summer. Tensions also arose with the student government president last fall.
A series of sit-downs
On July 24, 2017, The Sunflower's Editor-in-Chief Chance Swaim held a meeting with three WSU administrators: VP of Communications Lou Heldman, Attorney David Moses, and Executive Director for Governmental Relations Andy Schlapp. Swaim interviewed them about WSU President John Bardo's potential conflicts of interest.
According to the Feb. 26 written account by Swaim, all three administrators denied conflict of interest. Moses told Swaim he was "treading on very thin ice."
"It felt like I was getting ganged up on. It felt like an intimidation tactic. It was three very high level administrators," Swaim said. "I would ask one question, and two other people could jump on top of that."
According to Swaim, things soon "cooled off" once the semester started. But The Sunflower released an investigative article about the university's enrollment numbers on Oct. 2, 2017 that again got the attention of administrators. The article detailed how WSU was "padding" their enrollment numbers by including senior citizens and high school students who enroll in free, "self-directed" courses that are ungraded.
"The heat really turned up at that point," Swaim said.
Administrators called for another meeting with Swaim on Oct. 9. Heldman and Moses both said they were disappointed in The Sunflower's coverage, and that the paper only chooses stories that make the university look bad.
In November, Swaim met with Student Government Association President Paige Hungate, where she said she wanted to cut The Sunflower funding to reduce student activity fees.
Swaim questions Hungate's motives. He says she has criticized The Sunflower's writing on multiple occasions, including the decision to include her parent's names in a story about an altercation between Hungate's parents and a former student body president.
"This will crush us"
Amidst this criticism the Student Fee Committee (SFC)—a group made up of students and administrators—denied media access to a meeting where they recommended slashing student fee allocations for the newspaper from $105,000 to $55,000.
On Feb. 23, Swaim and his newspaper presented their 2018-19 funding proposal for $158,000 to the SFC. Soon after, the Committee went into a closed session. VP of Student Affairs Teri Hall denied Swaim and other members of the press, including Wichita Eagle reporter Suzanne Tobias, access as they deliberated and finalized their allocation recommendations.
In past years, this meeting had been open. When Swaim confronted the committee about it, members consulted with WSU attorney David Moses. They then informed Swaim that their meeting was not subject to the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
Legal experts disagree on the legality of the closed-door meeting.
"The general rule is that if you have a government body that is part of the chain of decision-making in allocating money, that becomes an open meeting," said Frank LoMonte senior legal fellow for the Student Press Law Center. "Kansas law, like most state laws, says that if you have any role in the decision making process for allocating public money, then you are a public body. A student fee committee must open its meetings."
Kansas Press Association Executive Director Doug Anstaett said the KPA attorney "wasn't totally convinced [the meeting] should be open."
Hungate cited a 1977 decision by the then Kansas Attorney General Curt Schneider that said "Kansas State University's student government was not subject to the Open Meetings Law because the law requires that a body be either an administrative or legislative body of the state or a subordinate entity and it must be supported in whole or in part by public funds." The Attorney General's opinion remains unchallenged.
On the morning of Feb. 26, Swaim published a story about the closed-door incident. Later that day, The Sunflower finally learned of the proposed cuts.
"We are already operating at a loss," Swaim said. "This will crush us."
The recommendation is not final. It has to be approved by the full SGA and Bardo to go into effect.
"Fingerprints of censorship"
The proposed funding cuts have been criticized by multiple journalism advocates in the state and legal experts.
"My first reaction was it certainly didn't pass the smell test. The defunding of the paper in my view has all the fingerprints of censorship on it," said Anstaett, who heads the state’s press association. "It's punishment. It's retaliatory."
SPLC’s Frank LoMonte agreed.
"You have some unusually excellent investigative reporting," LoMonte said. "There has been an ongoing campaign by administrators to pressure [The Sunflower] to lay off of their reporting."
"There's no way this will end well for Wichita State," LoMonte said.
Hungate is quick to dispute the idea censorship is behind the cuts.
"I want to make this clear. This has nothing to with content or coverage, or the way [The Sunflower] writes. It is about ad revenue and funding," Hungate said. She cites that the SFC also recommended cuts to two engineering competitions.
Teri Hall, the administration official who denied Swaim access, shares Hungate's sentiments. "What I want to say, this isn't about freedom of the press," Hall said. She said her primary concern was lowering student fees.
Hall also claimed that deliberations for student fees have always been closed at WSU. Both former VP's of Student Affairs Ron Kopita and Wade Robinson said this was not true during their tenures.
After the SFC's Feb. 26 decision to reduce The Sunflower's funding, the recommendations were given to the SGA. The SGA did not forward the recommendations to President Bardo, but instead referred them back to the Committee. On Feb. 28, President Bardo made a public statement calling for the Committee to hold public meetings regarding funding.
"I think [the SGA's] recommendation will have more credibility if the fee committee reconvenes and 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," President Bardo said.
Swaim is not convinced the second set of meetings will result in a different decision. "I'm not sure what they're even going to discuss," Swaim said. "We're not allowed to present again. They're working with the same info."
Swaim is writing letters to SGA senators in hopes that they will vote against the SFC's recommendations for reduced funding. While unsure how the SGA will respond, Swaim is thankful for the "outpouring of support" he has received from community members and local press.
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