Emporia State University forges new identity with $9M earmark from Kansas Legislature

By: - September 12, 2023 6:10 pm
House Speaker Dan Hawkins appears April 27, 2023, on the House floor with an image of Corky — the Emporia State University mascot.

House Speaker Dan Hawkins appears April 27, 2023, on the House floor with an image of Corky — the Emporia State University mascot. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Emporia State University’s new structure, underwritten by a $9 million earmark in the state budget, comes with a new marketing slogan and a new explanation for last year’s dramatic upheaval.

Legislative leaders and university administrators describe the so-called “ESU model,” which involved the firing of tenured faculty members under the guise of a financial emergency, as an attempt to align course offerings with the needs of Kansas employers.

Lawmakers didn’t mention they had invested $9 million in the ESU model when they debated the state budget at the end of this year’s session. But the university celebrated support from House Speaker Dan Hawkins, an ESU graduate, and Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican, in a news release shortly after the session ended.

Campus yearbooks show Hawkins and ESU president Ken Hush were members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity in consecutive years in the early 1980s.

“Emporia State University has focused on investing in the programs that students and the employers who hire them want and need,” Hawkins said in the news release. “As legislators, working with our higher education institutions to deliver the best value to their students and graduates will go a long way toward building up a robust worker pool, something I hear from across all industries that they are in desperate need of.

“The Emporia State Model is about ‘right-sizing’ for the needs of students and businesses in Kansas and I believe it is truly the way forward for all higher education institutions in our state.”

House Speaker Dan Hawkins appears as a Kappa Sigma member at Emporia State University in the 1982-83 yearbook.
House Speaker Dan Hawkins, lower right, appears as a Kappa Sigma member at Emporia State University in the 1982-83 yearbook. (Katelynn Donnelly for Kansas Reflector)

In September 2022, the Kansas Board of Regents approved ESU’s “framework” to stabilize finances and restructure the university. The plan involved firing 30 tenured or tenure-track professors without telling them why they had been chosen from among their colleagues or allowing them typical due process in appealing their fate. An appeals panel reinstated seven of the professors, who are now on paid administrative leave.

In July, 11 of the professors filed a lawsuit alleging a conspiracy to eliminate tenure, which they argue is a property right.

Amanda Vogelsberg, one of the attorney representing fired professors, said ESU “destroyed livelihoods” and shifted jobs from dedicated professors “to less experienced and less credentialed adjunct professors.”

“As far as we can tell, the ‘ESU Model’ involves a taking by government officials of tenured professors’ property rights without due process in violation of the U.S. Constitution, and grants ‘appeal rights’ that prohibit inquiry into the real reasons for the government officials’ taking,” Vogelsberg said.

ESU utilized a temporary pandemic-era policy to fire the professors and eliminate programs. At the time, the university cited “extreme financial pressure,” rather than the interest in aligning course offerings with business needs.

“Emporia State is taking our role as an economic engine for our region and state seriously,” Hush said in the news release. “ESU prepares students for the jobs Kansas needs most — teachers, nurses and career-ready graduates for Kansas businesses.”

It isn’t clear how the university determined what employers want. The university discontinued or dramatically altered programs that include English, journalism, history and debate while investing in nursing, computer science, music, art and cybersecurity.

An investigation by the American Association of University Professors faulted the university’s “shifting and incoherent rationales” for the changes.

As outlined in a recent ESU alumni newsletter, the university has expanded from four schools to seven while adding an institute and “honors college.” The changes are branded under the marketing slogan “Together, Forward,” and the goal is to “help Emporia State evolve to best serve future Hornets.”

How many is unclear.

The Kansas Board of Regents typically reports fall enrollment numbers after the 20th day of class, and ESU numbers are widely expected to decline more severely than the 5% decline it projected in May. The Board of Regents rejected an open records request by Kansas Reflector for spring enrollment numbers because it still considered them to be preliminary, weeks after the spring semester ended.

The unusual $9 million line item granted to ESU in the state budget is significant increase from the base aid of about $37 million. Each of the state universities, including ESU, received more modest allocations for specific projects or initiatives. ESU also received $1.1 million for its new cybersecurity center and $510,000 to recruit science and math teachers.

“The budget enhancement awarded to Emporia State University this session is a demonstration of the support that the Legislature has for the leadership and direction of ESU,” Longbine said. “We are excited to see the results that will enhance student learning and workforce development.”

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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.