Many Kansas journalists were shocked this weekend when The Sunflower, Wichita State University’s independent student newspaper, released a report on Friday announcing that the Student Fees Committee, part of the Wichita State Student Governing Association, was holding a student fees deliberation that was not open to the public.
Notably, one of the student fees requests scheduled to be discussed at the meeting concerned the budget of The Sunflower and its funding for the upcoming fiscal year.
According to The Sunflower, two of its reporters and a third reporter from the Wichita Eagle were denied entry to the student fees meeting by Teri Hall, Wichita State’s vice president for student affairs. When pressed for an explanation, Hall said the committee would “consult with its attorney before making a decision,” and then she closed the door.
The meeting was briefly halted when the door opened and the committee members exited the room. None of the committee members would respond to The Sunflower’s questions as they swiftly exited the premises.
The committee members returned a short time later, and Hall told The Sunflower that the meeting was closed to the public because it was a decision for SGA members only.
“Student fees aren’t public funds, and … SGA is not a state agency,” Hall said to The Sunflower.
Then, on Monday, The Sunflower reported that one of the recommendations made at Friday’s closed-door meeting was cutting the student newspaper’s budget by approximately 52 percent, dropping the budget for fiscal year 2019 to $55,000.
This is a substantial decrease from $105,000 in fiscal year 2018, and an even more substantial decrease from $158,000 in fiscal year 2014. If the budget recommendation is approved, The Sunflower’s total funding will have decreased by over $100,000 in five years.
Considering the secrecy, it seems that the Student Funds Committee didn’t want The Sunflower to know its budget would be cut in half.
According to The Sunflower, the Student Funds Committee has claimed the substantial budget cuts are to encourage The Sunflower to put more effort into making money through selling advertising space rather than taking student fees. These claims were contested by The Sunflower in a fact-checking report, with the student newspaper finding that most of the claims were false or misleading.
Additional reports from The Sunflower indicate that Wichita State is trying to hide its dirtier secrets from the student newspaper. A paid request for administrative emails containing certain words was heavily redacted by attorneys, and a staff editorial reported that threats to The Sunflower’s funding were closely tied to coverage of the university’s more controversial news.
Student journalists do what we do and write what we write not because of some self-serving notion of fame or riches; rather, we are journalists because we believe at a fundamental level that we have the power, capability and responsibility to serve as a check to overreaching authority and questionable uses of power.
To do our jobs adequately, we cannot operate under the threat of removed funding or censorship. We rely on open and honest administrators to be the most effective channels of information between those in power and those affected by the decisions made by those in power. Threatening to overturn this dynamic borders on despotic and is antithetical to the protections offered by the First Amendment.
As members of a fellow independent student newspaper in the state of Kansas, the editorial board of the Collegian commends The Sunflower for its investigative reporting and perseverance in spite of repeated attempts by Wichita State authorities to silence the hardworking student journalists who work there. The Sunflower is a shining example of the power of the press, and one the editorial board of the Collegian aspires to emulate.