Emporia State’s new president, Ken Hush, recently expressed confusion and used contemptuous language about those urging the university to save its 68-year-old early childhood center and preserve on-campus childcare for faculty and staff.
The ridicule came during a wide-ranging interview Aug. 2 with The Bulletin, when Hush brought up the planned demolition of the Butcher Education Center and the closing of the Center for Early Childhood Education (CECE) housed there.
Hush said he knew there were objections to the plan to close CECE, but that he found it difficult to take such criticism seriously.
“I laugh when I hear that,” Hush said. “Because we’re – they're not understanding the overall high-level concept.”
Minutes later, Hush attempted to walk back his comment. He said that “laugh” probably isn’t the right word and he doesn’t want it used in the quote.
Erika Martin, an associate professor of biological science and an author of a petition to save the early childhood center, expressed disappointment Friday when told of the president's comment.
“I laugh when I hear that. Because we’re – they're not understanding the overall high-level concept.”
-- Ken Hush, president of Emporia State
“That's pretty gross,” Martin said. “Thanks for laughing at us. Wow... That's very disappointing, from an administrator, to laugh at people that want something to help them be better workers under him, obviously.”
The petition, which has been circulating since May, urges Hush and the ESU leadership team to rethink demolishing Butcher and closing the Center for Early Childhood Education, according to Martin. The petition had 405 signatures as of Saturday night and is largely being circulated through social media.
Hush said he had not seen the petition.
“By the way, there's a supposed petition around,” Hush said. “I've never seen it. It's never even hit my desk… You know, if people have opinions, why don't they bring them forward? And by the way, I have an open door policy.”
Activists have been attempting to set up a meeting with the administration for weeks with no response, according to Martin. The petition has not been formally presented yet, she said.
The Kansas Board of Regents selected Hush as the 18th president of ESU in June, after a closed presidential search. No finalists were named. Hush had been interim president since November 2021, after former president Allison Garrett took a different position in Oklahoma.
The closure of the childhood education center was announced by the ESU administration May 20. Hush says this gave those affected a 15-month notice.
“We worked with a lot of groups that, frankly, they don't know about,” Hush said. “It (was) all in preparation, we discussed it for a handful of months on the leadership team, and (decided) what's the best thing.”
Hush listed the community, the county and surrounding areas, ESU deans, some faculty members, the Kansas Board of Regents and legislators as groups he worked closely with to decide on the closure.
The petition to save CECE began May 23 and was organized by parents who currently use or would use CECE. The petition asks for a conversation around the need for child care at the university and urges ESU to provide such help for faculty, staff and students, according to Martin.
“Isn't that a great opportunity to educate instead of laugh?”
-- Erika Martin, associate professor of biological sciences
During the interview, Hush said his approach as president is “to listen.” Concerns about the CECE closure are “absolutely not (being) dismissed," he said.
Hush made the "laugh" comment 19 minutes into the interview. Seven minutes later, after being asked by The Bulletin about his comment, he conceded that his wording may not have been appropriate.
“Laughing was probably not the right word,” Hush said. “But I shake my head, because we're dealing with something that was part of the 2014 Master Plan.”
The master plan suggested tearing down Butcher Education Center and the Morse Complex to make room for a new central entrance to campus.
Four minutes after Hush said he shook his head, he asked that the word “laugh” not be used. It is The Bulletin’s policy, however, not to allow sources to edit quotes.
Another seven minutes after that, Hush suggested that how the interview was handled would influence his relationship with The Bulletin.
“I think this interview today will determine how our relationship is going to exist on a go-forward basis,” Hush said. “And I'm meaning the whole newspaper on campus."
Martin, who is the mother of a small child, said that if there is something people are not understanding about the demolition, Hush should open up a conversation and let people know what they are missing.
“Isn't that a great opportunity to educate instead of laugh?” Martin asked.
Hush said leaving CECE open is a waste of money.
“It's like throwing money out the window,” Hush said. “You do that very often? I couldn't afford it.”
Those involved in the petition don’t expect Hush or the university to fund the CECE, according to Martin. Instead, they are actively looking for “grants and alternate funding sources” to save the center.
“I guess, I mean, does he think his faculty are stupid? Because, wow. That's just really sad,” Martin said. “That's just really sad.”
Students at Kansas State Normal School -- the school that would eventually become ESU -- first had the opportunity to gain “classroom experience on campus” in 1867, according to material in Special Collections and Archives. This was the beginning of what would be known, by 1954, as Butcher Children’s School.
In 1961, Butcher Children’s School was moved to its current location, 15th and Merchant streets. After multiple temporary closings, re-openings and threats to cut costs, the Butcher School was closed in 2003, but the preschool remained open, according to special collections material.
In 2017, the CECE was the target of an investigation by the Kansas Department of Children and Families for the physical abuse of four children, ages 1 and 2, by a staffer. The staffer and the center's former director both received diversion following a criminal complaint. In 2019, the families of the victims were awarded $350,000 after a jury trial in Lyon County District Court. The jury found the university partly responsible for damages.