The Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government has presented a number of awards over the years in two categories, “Friend of Open Government” and “Above And Beyond” for persons and entities, which have gone the extra mile to promote open government in Kansas.
The Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government presented its 2018 “Above and Beyond” awards to two state university student newspapers in presentations 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 their 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.
The Bulletin’s award was presented by Sunshine Coalition Board Member Max Kautsch. 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 was 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 Sunshine Coalition award program began in 2004 and have included the following recipients:
- 2018 — Emporia State University Bulleting “Above and Beyond Award” for their coverage and fallout of a longtime faculty member’s disciplinary proceedings involving allegations of sexual harassment.
- 2018 — Wichita State University Sunflower “Above and Beyond Award” for courageous reporting on a series of administrative problems at WSU.
- 2017 — Richard Gannon, Retired Legislative Affairs Director, Kansas Press Assn. “Above and Beyond Award” for his many years of service working promoting open government legislation.
- 2014 — Mike Merriam, “Above and Beyond Award” for lifetime achievement in defense of open government; Randy Brown, “Above and Beyond Award” for 2014, in appreciation of his support for open government in Kansas.
- 2014 — “Friend of Open Government Awards” to Karen Dillon, at the time a producer with KSHB TV in Kansas City, and Robert and Adlynn Harte, Leawood, whose home was raided by law enforcement and fought to get access to the records; Rep. John Rubin, for his work on probable cause affidavits.
- 2011 — Amy Houston was presented with the “Above and Beyond Award” for her work at the Mount Hope Clarion. Houston fought hard to get documents and other information from the city council.
- 2009 — Topeka Capital-Journal, “Above and Beyond Award” for taking on Schools for Fair Funding in an open records dispute. The 2007 settlement won by Topeka attorney Mike Merriam of $12,500 was donated to the Sunshine Coalition for public education on open government.
- 2007 — Wichita Eagle, “Above and Beyond Award” for its “You Oughta Know” feature on public records access.
- 2006 — Lawrence Journal-World, “Above and Beyond Award” for work on a lawsuit to get access to all compensation of public officials, including coaches and athletic directors at public universities, which led to a change in the Kansas Open Records Act on the personnel exception.
- 2005 — Sens. Kay O’Connor, Anthony Hensley and Tim Huelskamp “Friend of Open Government Award” for their work in the Kansas Legislature.
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