In leasing a building on its campus to members of the Koch family for a new private school named Wonder, Wichita State University has reaffirmed the proposition that academics aren’t especially good at business.
Sure, it’s great that the university’s Wichita State Innovation Alliance leveraged $90,000 a year in rent for its former print shop, and that school creator Annie Koch and her associates are investing $1.5 million in renovations and equipment. But considering that WSU is owned by the people of Kansas, the Innovation Alliance’s failure to leverage public benefits from Koch and her cohorts is disappointing.
Many vacant buildings in Wichita that would have been suitable sites for an open floor-plan private school that will be charging parents $10,000 a year in tuition for students of preschool and elementary school age. In return for this princely sum, “coaches” and “guides” will challenge these lucky youngsters to achieve academic and social milestones in order to advance to higher-level learning. But Koch and her associates apparently viewed the university as their best site choice, not least, one surmises, because the building borders WSU’s innovation campus (though the educational methods to be employed at Wonder are more duplicative than innovative).
Surely the good folks who run the Innovation Alliance were aware that the print shop building is an especially desirable site for a private educational enterprise. But apparently having lost sight of the needs of the public they putatively serve, they were content to collect rent on an unused building and ask no public benefits in return.
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The most obvious such benefit, of course, would be finding a way for some youngsters from homes of modest means – $10,000 a year is all the money in the world to many families in Wichita – to attend the Wonder school. But no. The gurus at the Innovation Alliance accepted the Wonder school founders’ assurance that scholarships for promising underprivileged youngsters man transpire someday, just not right now. Why didn’t the Innovation Alliance insist that they provide a modest scholarship fund, say $100,000 distributed among 10 youngsters, up front?
And why didn’t the Innovation Alliance demand that the school’s founders develop and hire some of their coaches and guides from WSU’s College of Education? Instead they settled for the founders’ vague promise of cross-pollination between Wonder school and the college.
These would not have been unreasonable demands. Instead, the gurus at the Innovation Alliance – wittingly or unwittingly – perpetuated the widely shared (and possibly unfair) impression that university leadership is transforming a precious institution, deal by deal, into a privately entity that has turned its back on its owners.
Denney Clements is a former Eagle opinion writer.