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Carrie Rengers

Wichita erupts over Ivanka Trump, big WSU donors and the school president’s future


UPDATED — Wichita continues to reel over the fallout from Ivanka Trump’s selection and subsequent cancellation as the speaker for WSU Tech’s commencement this year.

The Eagle on Wednesday reported that Wichita State University donors are threatening to cut ties and pull support from the university if the Kansas Board of Regents doesn’t fire WSU president Jay Golden over the issue.

Pressure was put on the Wichita State administration after Jennifer Ray, WSU associate professor of photo media, authored a scathing open letter asking the university to cancel Trump.

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It circulated on social media quickly earlier this month and had an immediate 487 signatures from concerned faculty, students and alumni.

As the Kansas Board of Regents called a special meeting Wednesday afternoon to reportedly decide Golden’s future, social media and other channels exploded with wide-ranging opinions on the subject, which seemed to strike a collective nerve.

So many people e-mailed the Board of Regents office, e-mails started bouncing back. Phone lines were tied up as well.

Here are a few Wichitans who agreed to share some of their diverse opinions.

Lynn Stephan

Stephan has two degrees from WSU and is a lifetime member of the President’s Club, which includes donors who give $100,000 to $249,999 to the school over a lifetime.

Lynn Stephan Courtesy photo

“I have been very impressed with Jay Golden from the beginning,” she said. “I was impressed that he listened to the 500 or so people who responded about Ivanka Trump . . . and asked why she was a role model for the students who were graduating. And he listened. I’m very distressed, frankly, to learn that a couple of extraordinarily rich people could change what the public expressed.”

Stephan said Golden is a “terrific asset” to WSU and actually cares about students, which she thinks sets him apart.

“It’s apparent he cares about them in ways that other presidents didn’t necessarily.”

She said certain donations are about one thing.

“Power. It’s who controls the decision-making out there.”

Stephan said that’s not how it should be.

“The people of Wichita have poured millions into Wichita State — far more than the Kochs and far more than Steve Clark or any individual contributors. And, indeed, we are the public in public university, and we deserve to be listened to just like those two or however many it is.”

John Todd

Todd is a well-known Wichita conservative, but he said, “It doesn’t make a difference which political party you’re involved with, left or right. When someone comes to town and you invite them to be with you . . . then you need to follow through.”

John Todd File photo Wichita Eagle

Todd said he’s “not interested in just throwing sour grapes at” Golden.

“He made a political mistake, and it involves freedom of speech. . . . Whether he should be removed from office, I don’t know about that.”

Todd said Golden should have had someone helping advise him because federal money potentially is at stake.

“Having the good relationship and being in a position where you can have positive influence for the university . . . through the federal government . . . I think outweighs absolutely being politically correct,” he said.

“We’ve blown that basically.”

Brandon Johnson

The Wichita City Council member is not surprised by the furor at WSU.

Wichita City Council member Brandon Johnson The Wichita Eagle

When Trump visited WSU Tech earlier this year, he said he did not take issue “even though I disagree with this administration.”

Now, though, “In today’s climate with everything going on and that she is an active member of this administration that is encouraging shooting at looters . . . and has been very proactive on Twitter to encourage more enforcement . . . and since she is a representative of that, I also understood that there would be great pushback.”

Johnson didn’t agree with Trump’s selection to be the commencement speaker, but he said he wasn’t “going to make a big deal out of” it.

“I didn’t have a whole lot of energy to put toward her being here. I just thought it wasn’t a good look at the time for the university.”

When Trump was uninvited as the keynote speaker, Johnson said her comments were still included in a package of celebratory congratulations from various people, including him.

“She wasn’t silenced.”

Now, via social media, Johnson has publicly written, “#ISupportDrGolden.”

“If they truly care about education, the university, students, faculty and staff and having a president that actually listens to these people . . . then Dr. Golden did exactly the right thing. Then this president was listening to those individuals and what they asked of him. That’s what you want out of a president. . . . If you just want someone who is going to be responsive to donors, then he did the wrong thing.”

Johnson said he 1,000% believes Golden did the right thing.

Lonny Wright

Wright is well known for frequently attending county, city and other community meetings and being an engaged citizen.

He said he’s looking at the WSU situation from a jobs standpoint.

Lonny Wright Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

“I feel that a living-wage job is the most important thing in a person’s life, and I have a strong bias in favor of jobs. . . . It was a big value for us to get Ivanka to visit us previously with Secretary Pompeo, that it resulted in a lot of good marketing and recognition of WSU Tech’s program. I feel people were wrong to use their political bias to object to her returning to Wichita.”

While Wright said he thinks “all donors to an organization should have a voice in how it’s run,” he feels major donors should “have a big say in who is running those organizations and how they’re being run. I don’t think WSU is unique in that situation.”

Wright has been vocal about his opinions on this, and he’s taking some heat for it.

“I’m a Democrat, and I’m getting a lot of s___.”

Anna Anderson

Anderson has two degrees from WSU and, like Stephan, is a member of the President’s Club.

When she saw The Eagle’s Wednesday story on Golden’s job being on the line, she said she was appalled.

“I said over and over to myself, is this the university from which I graduated? Is this the university that we want it to be or are we just handing . . . it over to outside influence?”

Anderson is a Golden fan.

“You have so many people who work hard, so many members of faculty who are finally now coming back into a period of trust because under (former president John) Bardo they were bullied and intimidated, and it was just a terrible time. Now we have a decent president who stood up against having a political speaker at a commencement exercise knowing this would be a terrible time.”

The timing is a problem because of the death of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who died after being pinned to the ground with a police officer’s knee on his neck for several minutes. The officer has been fired and charged with murder.

Anderson said so many people, including herself and her friends, are in mourning “that this tragedy has happened and it takes protests to call it someone’s attention.”

She said Golden made the right call.

“He stood up, and he took accountability for it. That wouldn’t have happened under Bardo. That wouldn’t have happened under a lesser president.”

Anderson said Trump was too political to invite in the first place, and she also questions a board of governance that “would be willing to fire someone over a single decision over a single speaker.”

Anderson said that what Jennifer Ray did also was “absolutely the right thing.”

“I am very, very proud of Jennifer Ray.”

Tara Czepiel

Czepiel, who calls herself a “hard-core independent,” has a son who graduated from WSU this year.

Tara Czepiel Courtesy photo

Though she said she does not have anything against Ivanka Trump, Czepiel said she really doesn’t think she was the right choice for a commencement speech.

“It would have been better to have somebody who had achieved . . . even though they didn’t have everything handed to them. They had to work hard. . . . I would have rather had somebody that had real experience in the work force.

“I don’t want to be tacky towards their family. I just think it really took the shine away from the people who worked really, really hard. . . . Do you know how hard it is to go a nontraditional route? These people should be applauded and celebrated.”

Czepiel said she thinks Golden “made the right decision to protect the integrity and dignity of the students who worked so hard and (that he) kept it from being hijacked.”

She said she thinks he headed off an even bigger “hot, ugly mess.”

Czepiel said she is an “incredible freedom of speech, Bill of Rights supporter” and that Trump “has every right to speak.”

“But during all this turmoil, sometimes the bigger picture has to be looked at. I don’t think the WSU Tech students should be caught in the middle of all this. What we have lost is the dignity of the students and the dignity of the ceremony when we let it get hijacked as a sideshow. Ivanka’s dignity is also being hijacked. . . . In a way, she’s kind of being used as a pawn on both sides.”

Czepiel said she feels “bad for her as well being caught up in all of this. That’s why we need to stop politicizing commencement.”

And she’s says it’s not just commencement.

“I wish we could stop politicizing things. . . . But good luck with that.”

Aaron Daney

Daney used to teach at WSU Tech and now is in the nursing program at WSU.

“Fixing one bad with another bad just equals another bad,” he said.

Daney thinks Golden and WSU Tech president Sheree Utash made a mistake canceling Trump.

“Maybe they should have considered giving people additional voices instead of eliminating a voice,” he said. “More information is better.”

He pointed out that “none of this is irreversible.”

“It’s fixable by giving people on both sides more voices.”

Daney also asked, “If we’re going to start canceling WSU people, where does it stop?”

He said if people agree Golden has to go, then so does Utash.

“It’s just a good example of the rabbit hole that this type of mentality goes down, and it’s not productive.”

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