Emporia State University president defends performance bonuses for ‘high-performing faculty’

By: - April 11, 2023 5:34 pm
Emporia State University president Ken Hush appears at his office desk

Emporia State University president Ken Hush, seen during a Dec. 6, 2021, interview in his campus office, says the university plans to continue to award performance bonuses to faculty members. (Margaret Mellott for Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Emporia State University president Ken Hush defended the decision to award performance bonuses to select faculty members, complained about Kansas Reflector reporting and said the Emporia mayor’s comments about the university “cannot be tolerated” in an “open letter” published Tuesday by the Emporia Gazette.

Kansas Reflector revealed last week that the university awarded $137,741 in performance bonuses to 68 faculty members six weeks after firing tenured professors in a cost-saving move. Hush’s administration declined to respond to Kansas Reflector questions for that story.

Hush’s letter answers his own questions about the bonuses but leaves other questions unresolved.

“Did ESU award stipends to recognize high-performing faculty? Absolutely,” Hush wrote. “This is not the first time, and we are absolutely going to do it again — talent and value recognition are part of our new model. Rewarding and retaining high performers is our path forward at ESU.”

Hush doesn’t say how faculty members were chosen for a bonus or how dollar amounts, which varied for each individual, were determined. It also isn’t clear when the university has previously given this specific type of reward to professors.

The payments were made against the backdrop of controversy surrounding the university’s “realignment” plans, which involved firing 33 faculty members, including tenured professors, under an emergency pandemic policy the Kansas Board of Regents unanimously approved. The university eliminated multiple programs and invested in new ones without disclosing research to support the decisions.

In addition to rewarding university professors, the administration gave bonuses to lecturers, instructors, assistant professors, associate professors, a visiting professor and a visiting assistant professor.

In his letter, Hush said the university chose to “reward high performers” because it is the right thing to do. He praised “certain faculty” who voluntarily accepted additional work.

“The old processes and policies failed to allow academic leadership to reward faculty for above and beyond performance,” Hush wrote. “To imply that faculty received stipends for any other reason than because of their hard work and for the value they add to the university is disgusting.”

Kansas Reflector’s report included comments from Emporia Mayor Susan Brinkman, who was critical of the university’s lack of transparency.

Brinkman, a former ESU faculty member whose job at the university was eliminated in 2021, said the decision to award bonuses after announcing the realignment plan “gives the illusion, whether it’s true or not, that they are paying for your silence or for your support of the plan.”

Hush said he was disappointed the mayor “would publicly insult” ESU employees.

“As a spokesperson for our community, reckless statements like this are unacceptable and cannot be tolerated,” Hush wrote. “Their only purpose is to damage the university and the cooperative relationships between ESU and our regional community. More should be expected of the person who serves as our mayor.”

Brinkman said she didn’t know how to interpret Hush’s comments.

“Is it a threat? Am I being bullied? I have no idea,” Brinkman said.

The mayor said it was difficult to be informed about the university’s actions when the university refuses to respond to inquiries from media, the public or her.

“If my comments to media inquiries are the needed targets for president Hush to feel comfortable at last giving us open and transparent dialogue, then I am happy to take the criticism in stride as a public servant,” Brinkman said.

Kansas Reflector has reported on the university’s realignment plans through news stories and opinion articles since the start of the school year. The university has been given an opportunity to comment on news stories and typically did — except for stories about litigation.

Kansas Reflector filed a request under the Kansas Open Records Act on March 1 for “records sufficient to identify the names and titles of faculty who have received performance bonuses during the current academic year, as well as the date and amount of those bonuses.” The university asked for $700 to fulfill the request, claiming that the records would require 20 hours of staff time at $35 per hour. Kansas Reflector paid the fee after receiving an outpouring of donations from readers.

The university provided 136 pages of documents in response to the request and an $87.50 refund because the work was completed with 2.5 hours to spare.

Spokeswoman Gwen Larson didn’t respond to emails seeking comment about performance bonuses before Kansas Reflector published its story on April 5. As with other news stories, Kansas Reflector included comments from those who are critical of the university.

Hush said he was surprised “at the persistent stream of damaging misinformation being driven by a small group’s extremely limited perspectives and personal agendas.”

“That is partly why we have made the decision to be selective about when and how we respond to various media outlets,” Hush said. “We respect the media and their role but choose not to engage with op-ed articles disguised as ‘news’ that are driven by personal agendas full of vicious accusations. Because of our public responsibility to those we represent, and as a state agency of Kansas, we have chosen to be professional, and as a result have remained politely silent. On this issue, however, it is our duty to speak up and defend our employees.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.