Thursday, October 16, 2008

In Defense of the Grinch

A friend kindly sent me a link to this article from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, regarding a bit of a kerfuffle my alma mater's been involved in. See, four years ago St. Olaf College sold WCAL, an independent classical music station owned by and located on the campus of the college. For a tidy sum, mind you, and to Minnesota Public Radio, which speedily replaced the classical music programming with The Current, an indie/eclectic station. Some students were iffy about the sale at the time, but when we realized the college had gained both several million dollars and a radio station students actually listen to, most considered it a win-win situation. I say "most" very pointedly, however, as several alumni (some of whom were student at the time of the sale) have refused to let the issue die. SaveWCAL, which made lots of noise around the time of the initial sale, is apparently still alive and kicking, and (of course) suing to get the whole thing reversed. Now, there's a stereotype of Olaf alums (and this is probably common at small private schools) that the alumni all want Olaf to stay exactly how it was when they were students. I have to admit, I've felt the twinge myself upon seeing significant changes to the school and the campus. But this is the first case that I know of where alumni have attempted to use the courts to force the college to change things back the way they were.

As to President Anderson being a "Grinch" for refusing to give free (and scarce!) ChristmasFest tickets to ungrateful alumni who've now cost the school hundreds of thousands in legal fees? Good for him! The nerve of some people.


Phil said...

Nerve indeed. The Board of Regents and administration of St. Olaf sold a charitable trust that they had no right to sell. In doing so, they broke laws designed to protect the assets and intentions of the thousands of people who donated to the trust in the first place.

Despite the hopeful wishes of St. Olaf, there isn't a get out of jail free card, because that wasn't Monopoly money that St. Olaf pocketed -- it was a very real 10.5 million dollars that wasn't given to St. Olaf -- it was given to WCAL

SaveWCAL said...

SaveWCAL appreciates your interest in the story - whatever your personal opinion might be!

That said, we would like to have the opportunity to respond.

* WCAL was not "owned" by the College. The College was the trustee for the station for 80+ years and created the trust by accepting and soliciting contributions to the station itself, not the College. The Court has determined this in the previous court action ("St. Olaf Petition and Amended Petition") -- which was initiated by St. Olaf College, not SaveWCAL.

* The ONLY reason that the College has had to pay "hundreds of thousands" in legal fees is the College's own fault. They did not handle the WCAL trust correctly or legally.

Minnesota state law forbids a trustee from destroy/dismantling a trust without the court's permission and it also forbids a trustee from using funds from a trust for purposes other than the purposes of the trust.

In fact, Judge Wolf said in his recent Court Order:

"The only watchdog looking out for the interests of the trust in this case was the Respondent, the non-profit organization SaveWCAL. SaveWCAL raised the alarm when they first learned of the sale of WCAL by St. Olaf, but neither St. Olaf nor the Minnesota Attorney General's Office paid any heed to SaveWCAL's warning."

and, further on:

"Now, the Court is faced with a plethora of issues to unravel in the aftermath of St. Olaf's unapproved sale of WCAL and the Minnesota Attorney General's Office's breach of its duties in this case."

Therefore, SaveWCAL has recently filed a Petition For Redress Of Trust (the first court action the group has initiated since its inception) which asks that the sale be voided based on the illegal way in which the sale was handled (federal and state laws were broken in the process). The petition also asks the court to determine the full value of the trust at the current time -- and to remove St. Olaf College as the trustee.

This is not the first time that St. Olaf alumni have stood up to other decisions by the St. Olaf administration (e.g., the destruction of the original Ytterboe residence hall and the termination of the Paracollege). Some of these may have ended up in court as well.

The current case, which has national significance for listener-supported radio stations and for charitable trust law -- is also not the first time a higher education institution has been taken to court by alumni, donors or state attorney generals. Other recent cases involve Fisk University, Princeton University and Dartmouth, as well as others.

In fact there is case in Federal Court right now over the sale of WMCU, a listener-built-and-supported radio station, by its trustee (Trinity International University). The WMCU story, as well as that of WGTS in Washington DC, have striking similarities to the WCAL case. In all cases, the "buyer" was APMG/MPR.

By the way, it's precisely because SaveWCAL is made up of alumni amd donors (we have several thousand on our email list) who *are* grateful to St. Olaf for the education received and the public service rendered by WCAL that we find ourselves in the unenviable position of having to hold the leadership of our alma mater accountable for their actions.

We encourage and invite you and others to gain a broader and deeper perspective and understanding of the story and issues by reviewing the information - facts and documentation - assembled on the SaveWCAL web site at

St. Olaf alumni and donors should be asking questions about what really happened and what is really going on. We guarantee you that this is much more serious than a "kerfuffle".

As for those Christmas Festival tickets? SaveWCAL maintains that it is certainly St. Olaf's right to make that decision. Whether it was a *wise* decision is a different question.

Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake said...

Much thanks for the input, particularly the reminder that the college's administration doesn't exactly have the cleanest record, certainly not enough to deserve knee-jerk trust in this issue.

And you're absolutely right, the issue of who has cost whom those legal fees will be decided when the suit is.