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Aug. 19, 2010

Below is the text of a letter sent to alumni and students who wrote President Leebron expressing opposition to the sale of the KTRU tower and broadcasting license:

I am writing in response to your letter regarding KTRU.  First, thank you very much for taking the time to communicate your views.  Obviously, KTRU does hold a strong place in the hearts of both those who worked at the station and those who listen to it.

I have received many emails and letters, many strongly supportive of the university’s decision, but the majority raising objections.  I would have hoped to respond individually to each email and letter I have received, but I didn’t want too much time to pass before getting back to you.  So I ask you to forgive this general response, which tries to address the points raised most frequently in the various communications I have received.

First, it bears reiterating that we are not selling KTRU.  We are selling the 50,000 watt broadcast license and radio tower.  This is not a trivial distinction.  We don’t claim of course that KTRU will reach the same audience, although the ability to reach audiences through the Web and in more places is growing rapidly.  Some who wrote in objecting to the sale of the tower and license live well beyond its broadcast range.  They must understand that their access to KTRU will remain unchanged.  The critical question that must be asked is in what ways the student experience will be changed as a result of this decision.  Students will still manage the station (along with its general manager Will Robedee), design its programs and serve as DJs and announcers.  They may reach somewhat fewer people, but their audience will be increasingly global, and their opportunities for experience not significantly diminished.  The question is not whether providing the KTRU experience is worth almost $10 million, but rather whether the difference between a Web-based-only format and the 50,000 watts justifies allocating all of those resources solely to KTRU.  In addition, we had to take into account that a radio broadcast license was most likely a declining asset over the long term as a result of changes in technology and consumer preferences for accessing music.

Second, I do want to address the issue of confidentiality and the lack of discussion or consultation regarding this sale.  This is indeed a serious objection.  We have tried since my arrival to have open discussion of both fundamental issues regarding the future of Rice and all important issues that affect students.  These have included every aspect of the Call to Conversation, and especially the expansion of the student body.  This openness was the policy we followed in our discussions about a possible merger with Baylor College of Medicine.  Input from students was critical in determining the size, location and design of our two new colleges and the renovation project in the south colleges.  This is certainly our preferred mode of making decisions, and the standard against which we should be judged.  

The special circumstances of conducting a bidding process for a broadcast license and negotiating the terms of the transaction required confidentiality.  We sought advice about the best ways to conduct this process from those with deep experience in the sale of university-owned broadcast licenses.  They advised that we needed to have a confidential process.  This troubled many of us, and we asked ourselves throughout the process whether we could bring students and others into it, but concluded that this would not be compatible with the negotiations we were undertaking and our ability to bring them to a timely conclusion.  

Going forward, students and others are entitled to hold us to our word that this is not a precedent.  We believe that the confidential process we undertook was a necessity in these very specific and unusual circumstances.  We believe equally that this must be a very rare exception to our commitment to involving students in the decisions which affect student life.  Indeed, we have certainly taken note of the very strong feelings expressed on this issue, and thus might in the future strike a different balance between confidentiality and consultation even when the needs for confidentiality are high.

Third, I want to reiterate and perhaps amplify what we have said about the use of the proceeds.  A portion will be used to help fund the construction of the new servery for Will Rice, Lovett and eventually Sid Rich.  This has been a high priority for our students, communicated with passion and frequency over the years. (This is not, as some have assumed, part of the expansion of the student body, but rather part of our plan to improve the quality of our older colleges.)  It will enable us to markedly improve food quality and variety.  The majority of the resources will be applied in ways strongly informed by student input.  We expect this will include first and foremost support for KTRU as Web-based radio so that our students can operate a station on the cutting edge of technology.   We also expect that some of the resources will be used to expand media opportunities for our students more broadly, bringing to more students a more diverse array of choices in this arena.  Other uses, such as lighting an additional playing field, have also been mentioned repeatedly by the students as one of their top priorities, but no decisions have been made, nor will they be made without substantial student input.  It is not irrelevant in this context that the students have voted down KTRU blanket tax increases.  These votes have indeed indicated the need to expand our resources for student opportunities in other areas.

I do want to acknowledge not only the passion of KTRU supporters, but also the important role that KTRU leaders and others have played over the years in creating an important opportunity for our students and providing an eclectic mix of programming for our community.  You have built something important for our university that will continue in a different form.  While no doubt most involved directly with KTRU are opposed to the decision we made, we have received expressions of support from some others who were involved with the founding of KTRU for making this decision at this time and focusing on newer technologies while realizing value more broadly for our students.

Universities are entering a new time, during which we will have to reallocate resources as well as raise resources to achieve our priorities.  No one likes to see their favorite activity or program cut.  But we will have to make choices and aim to make sure that all resources, including potential sources of revenue, are applied in ways to maximize our students’ experience at Rice, as well as the excellence of our faculty.   These choices are never easy.  Almost any choice about reducing or cutting programs will result in some outcry.  This decision was made by the administration and the Board of Trustees.  The latter consists of 24 members, most of whom are incredibly dedicated alumni.

Last, I want to address those of you who said you would likely withhold future contributions.  We regard each and every contribution as a wonderful act of generosity, and those from alumni as expressions of their love and gratitude for their Rice experience.  You are of course entitled to decide not to provide that support to Rice, and I cannot object to the choice you make.  But frankly, if all our graduates took the view that if the university makes a decision with which they strongly disagree they will not contribute, we would not receive any donations at all, and we would be a much weaker university and able to offer much less to our students.  Some of our most generous donors have been people who over time have very strongly disagreed with decisions the university has taken.  But they have understood both that their desire to make our university ever stronger, and stronger forever, as well as their desire to return some of the benefits they feel they have received, argue persuasively for their continued support.  We cannot eschew all change, and all hard decisions, simply because some of our graduates feel so strongly that they threaten to, and perhaps ultimately do, withhold support.  It will be a loss, and not only to our current and future students, but in fact to our alumni as well.  We urge you to continue to make your views known to us.  The passion of Rice students and graduates is one of our great strengths.  But so too is the fact that the vast majority of our graduates choose to support the university even when they take issue with particular decisions or directions.

I have spent much of the time over the last week with our new students and their upper class advisers.  They are a remarkable group and wonderfully happy.  They are encountering the true essence of the Rice experience, which for some is symbolized in part by the fact that within their first week they have had a barbecue dinner at the president’s house, dragged me into dancing with them, and perhaps come by the house as part of their O-Week scavenger hunt.  I cherish these opportunities to get to know our students.  We are in fact a wondrous caring community, but a community nonetheless that will have to make decisions that are controversial.  We should not question in that context each other’s loyalty and commitment to Rice.  Our university has gone through continuous and substantial change since its founding.  If you loved the university in 1970 or 1980 or 2000 or 2010, you loved a university that got to be there only by changing over time, and especially when times were difficult, making the hard decisions that would carry it forward.

I acknowledge, understand and appreciate the depth of passion for KTRU.  You will have to judge over time whether we have continued to secure and create new innovative media opportunities that serve today’s and tomorrow’s students.  Working together, and through our disagreements, there is little we can’t ultimately achieve.

Again, thank you for taking the time to communicate your views, and for your strong commitment to the Rice experience.

Sincerely,

David