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Regents Take No Action In Flap Involving WSU President And Ivanka Trump Commencement Speech

Stephan Bisaha

The Kansas Board of Regents met with Wichita State University President Jay Golden on Wednesday, but took no action over the furor caused by Golden removing a prerecorded message by Ivanka Trump from WSU Tech’s commencement ceremony.

The Regents spent more than four hours in executive session with Golden. They then adjourned and directed people watching the virtual meeting to a statement.

The statement read:

"The Kansas Board of Regents is committed to working with all our universities and colleges to support and promote freedom of speech and diversity and inclusion. During these unprecedented times, our universities have been forced to make quick decisions and act swiftly without the normal process of including all our stakeholders in decision making. We appreciate your patience and understanding as we work to improve communications during times of crisis. We look forward to strengthening relationships with students, alumni and friends. It is vital that all stakeholders join us in this effort."

Later Wednesday evening, Golden released his own statement:

"I stand with the Kansas Board of Regents in its support for freedom of speech and for diversity and inclusion. I look forward to continuing our efforts in advancing the mission and vision of Wichita State University for all of Shocker Nation."

According to the Wichita Eagle, some WSU donors were pushing the Regents to fire Golden because of his handling of Trump's speech and threatened to cut ties with the university

Steve Clark, the former regent seeking Golden's ouster, sent a letter to board members saying Golden's decision to cancel the speech by President Donald Trump's daughter threatens a multimillion-dollar relationship with Koch Industries, the vast conglomerate led by billionaire and conservative political donor Charles Koch. 

A Koch Industries spokeswoman said Wednesday that financial commitments to the university are being honored and, while it opposes canceling speakers, it doesn't tie funding to university employment actions.

Before the Regents vote, students gathered on the WSU campus to demonstrate their support for Golden. A change.org petition had more than 6,500 virtual signatures in favor of keeping Golden as president before the Regents' final decision. 

"Nothing is innovative about firing a president who has done nothing but support students in every way possible," said Neiman Thompson, a WSU junior who spoke at the rally. 

Brandon Eckerman, a WSU graduate, was on the search committee last year that recomended Golden as the school's new president. He said Golden was their unanimous choice because he showed that he cared for all university stakeholders, including students. 

"He’s advocated for us, and so we want to advocate for him," Erckerman said. 

Golden became president in January after a seven-month search by the Regents. He replaced former president John Bardo, who died in March 2019.

Before coming to Wichita, Golden was the vice chancellor of research, economic development and engagement at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. He also served as a police officer in Arizona and started an engineering services company in the state.

Controversy begins

WSU Tech President Sheree Utash extended an invitation in February to Ivanka Trump to speak at the school’s virtual graduation ceremony last Saturday.

Trump is co-chair of the American Workforce Policy Board; Utash is a board member. The board advises the federal government on how to improve the education, training and retraining for American workers.

After the invitation was announced last Thursday by WSU Tech, it received withering criticism on social media from some WSU staff, faculty, students and alumni.

Late Thursday night, Utash and Golden released a statement saying Trump would no longer be the featured speaker. Instead, her recorded comments would be made available to watch after the ceremony, along with messages from others, including Golden.

Rebecca Zinabu, a practical nursing graduate, was the only speaker during the ceremony.

“I respect and understand the sharply divided reaction to today’s announcement,” Utash said in a statement after the change was made.

“The college stands with those who fight injustice and advocate for social equity, and we’re profoundly proud of the diversity and social change being brought forth by our students, alumni, faculty, and staff.”

Golden said during a town hall Monday with WSU faculty and staff that it was his decision to remove Trump’s speech from the ceremony.

“Politics set aside, we will – and I will – not do things intentionally to distract from a celebration, which should be a celebration experience for the students and their families,” he said.

He also said there needed to be better communication between WSU and WSU Tech, which became affiliated with the university in 2017.

Trump criticized the decision to remove her as the featured speaker. Her 9 minute, 24 second video on YouTube video has been watched more than 50,000 times.

“Our nation’s campuses should be bastions of free speech,” Trump said in a tweet. “Cancel culture and viewpoint discrimination are antithetical to academia. Listening to one another is important now more than ever!”

Golden’s decision also was criticized by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He accompanied Trump to Wichita last October for a roundtable discussion about the importance of acquiring more skilled workers for the aviation industry. They also toured the National Center for Aviation Training, which is run by WSU Tech.

“The losers here are freedom of thought, the students and the central idea of universities as places of tolerance and learning,” said Pompeo, who previously represented the Wichita area in Congress.

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @stevebisaha.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.