Editorial: It is time for KU to own its Fritzel mistakes

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

University of Kansas leaders have a lot on their plates right now. Figuring out how to safely reopen the Lawrence campus is one of the most important issues currently facing our community, and it is one of the toughest tasks those leaders likely will ever face professionally.

But it is not the only issue that deserves attention. Last week served as a reminder that the chancellor’s office has left one other issue hanging for too long: KU’s partnerships with a convicted felon.

Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel last week was sentenced in the last of the four felony charges that he has been convicted on, ranging from financial fraud to environmental law violations. The cases are resolved and all that is left now is for Fritzel to serve his one-year sentence, which also includes three years of post-release supervision.

Seemingly, there is no reason left for KU leaders to wait on addressing their relationship with Fritzel. KU has at least two important partnerships with Fritzel. KU’s track and field, soccer and softball facilities at Rock Chalk Park are owned by an entity controlled by Fritzel and his wife.

KU’s golf team also is based at Fritzel’s Jayhawk Club. More interestingly is that Fritzel is the holder of a unique licensing agreement that allows him significant use of the Jayhawk name and brand. That agreement is how he has been able to rename the former Alvamar Country Club into the Jayhawk Club.

Partnerships between KU and private entities are important. As traditional funding sources shrink, KU should be more innovative in how it tries to address its needs for the future. That’s why KU needs to deliver a loud and clear message on how it is reacting to the fact that it has an entangled business relationship with a felon. If such public-private partnerships are the future, then KU must prove now that it has the capacity to deal with partnership pitfalls.

It is especially critical in this case because one of Fritzel’s convictions is related to financial fraud. Fritzel defrauded the City of Lawrence of tax revenue. The city was a partner of Fritzel in a partnership that built The Oread hotel. Fritzel was convicted of defrauding a public partner. KU is a public partner of Fritzel. It is clear that that set of facts requires KU to issue a strong and public response.

That response should include at least two elements:

• KU and its associated KU Endowment Association needs to explain what actions they already have taken to review the finances of their partnerships with Fritzel entities. Hopefully, the federal charges sparked special audits of KU’s deals with Fritzel. All those audit documents and their findings should be made public.

• KU and the KU Endowment Association should pledge that all aspects of their partnerships with Fritzel entities are now open to the public. That has not been the case previously. For instance, KU Endowment owns the land at Rock Chalk Park, while the Fritzel entity owns the buildings. There is a land lease between the Fritzel entities and KU Endowment. That lease has never been public, despite requests the Journal-World has made to KU Endowment to see the documents. To keep such a document secret in this situation sends a terrible message.

Whether KU should end its partnerships with Fritzel entities is an open question. The public needs to see the information about the deals first. Then the cost and benefits of ending the partnership can be more fully debated.

As for Thomas Fritzel, the public also needs to see what is to come there. The hope for Fritzel should be the same for anyone who is paying a debt to society. We should hope that it is paid and that the individual goes on to be a productive part of a community again. Anyone who is hoping for less than that for Fritzel’s future should spend some time looking in the mirror.

That’s the same spot KU should find itself too: in front of the mirror. KU leaders made some really poor judgments in creating these partnerships with Fritzel. For example, as we’ve reported, KU entered the partnership with Fritzel for the use of the Jayhawk name knowing that Fritzel was under a fraud investigation by the City of Lawrence.

That was a mistake, and KU should own it. Owning mistakes is how you build trust, and KU will need as much of that commodity as it can find to get through the tough days ahead.

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