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ISSUE 121 VOL 5 PUBLISHED 10/26/2007

A Word from Our Editors: Moving Forward

By Peter Farrell
Executive Editor

Friday, October 26, 2007

Nearly three full years after the sale of WCAL, St. Olaf College is still embroiled in controversy over its decision to sell the highly valued radio station to Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). This week, Judge Gerald Wolf of Rice County District Court assigned a special master to investigate the College's accounting practices regarding donations made to the station prior to its sale. St. Olaf initiated the legal proceedings in December 2006, filling a petition with the court in order to determine how to handle nearly $1.3 million in endowed donations from benefactors that are either deceased or unable to be located.

How does St. Olaf want to use that big chunk of change? In its petition, the College proposed that $400,000 would be used for "core WCAL activities," such as recording the "Sing for Joy" program, as well as broadcasting concerts and other campus-related content on the Internet. The future of the remaining funds – around $900,000 – would be at the College's discretion.

Not all alumni are pleased with St. Olaf's desire to use some funds specifically designated for WCAL however it pleases. SaveWCAL, an organization that formed in the fall of 2004 in opposition to the original sale, has also participated in the court proceedings. Led by attorney Michael McNabb,– who's working the case pro-bono, –SaveWCAL argues that the donations to the radio station constituted a charitable trust (which, significantly, the College admitted in its original petition). They further contend that as steward of that trust, St. Olaf violated its fiduciary responsibility to those donors by selling the station, since the College can now no longer perpetuate the mission of the trust and operate a radio station.

Whether or not you accept the core mission of SaveWCAL as valid, the group does raise compelling questions. Former President Christopher Thomforde, who led the charge to sell the station, resoundingly failed to engage the St. Olaf community in a dialogue about the station's future. Consequently, the tidal wave of anger that submerged St. Olaf after the announcement of sale was primarily in reaction to Thomforde's questionable leadership, which stands in marked contrast to President Anderson's approach to the land-use issue.

But it is a mistake to read too much into Judge Wolf's decision. His memorandum is not a condemnation of the College's conduct regarding WCAL assets. And even though the Judge Wolf has given the special master wide latitude in his investigation – there is no explicit limitation of the inquiry to post-sale assets – that does not mean the special master will choose to expand the scope of his inquiry. The state's attorney general has determined that $1.3 million at issue in the original petition does constitute a charitable trust, but that determination did not expand beyond those monies.

At this point, the sale of WCAL is a reality that our community must accept. Though frustration with the College's decision to catapult a storied institution may never subside for generations of St. Olaf alumni, the special master's inquiry will clarify pertinent financial issues. Then, Judge Wolf can make an informed ruling on the appropriate use of the donors' money.

It's not worth waiting around for Judge Wolf to miraculously rescind the sale of WCAL. Instead, let's grasp this opportunity as a campus to think critically about the ways in which we can utilize new technologies (broadband) and oft-ignored institutions (like KSTO) to reinvigorate the College's commitment to creative broadcasting. Moving forward does not repudiate WCAL's legacy. It can be also be rejuvenation.

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