Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007

College won’t sell Christian-music radio station

Columbia Union backs out of negotiations with Minnesota group in estimated $20 million deal

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Thursday’s decision by Columbia Union College’s board of trustees to rescind its offer to negotiate the sale of the school’s radio station, WGTS, has left the college community divided, since the profits from the sale could have been put toward Columbia Union’s $5 million debt.

While supporters and employees of the Christian-music station praised the decision, several members of the college’s faculty and administration saw it as a missed opportunity for the college.

‘‘I am shocked and dismayed the board reneged on their promise to fully support Adventist higher education in the nation’s capital,” said Susan Comilang, chairwoman of the English department at Columbia Union.

The board had previously decided to enter negotiations to sell the station to the St. Paul, Minn.,-based American Public Media Group, which had offered more than $20 million to buy the nonprofit radio station and turn it into a news and public affairs station that would compete with local public radio affiliates.

College officials said at the time that the sale would be used to bolster the college’s savings accounts, fund scholarships, improve the school’s facilities and boost its $4 million endowment.

Scott Steward, executive director for marketing and communications at the college, said Monday that the college is now exploring alternative solutions for funding.

A spokesman for APMG said Monday that the company was ‘‘disappointed” by the college’s decision.

Columbia Union College, located in Takoma Park, is owned and operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and has an enrollment of about 1,000 students.

The motivation to rescind came from an outpouring of support from church members and leaders who asked that the station remain open, said David Weigley, president of the Columbia Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and chairman of the college’s board of trustees, in a statement released Thursday.

Steward said that nearly 1,700 e-mails supporting WGTS were sent to the school and the station before the board voted Thursday.

John Konrad, general manager of WGTS, referred all comment to a statement he posted on the station’s Web site saying that the board’s decision was an acknowledgement of its dedication to the Christian station.

‘‘It is because of your prayers and letters and the support of the local pastors, and the pastors and leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Columbia Union College in this region that this ministry is able to continue,” he said.

‘‘You’ve heard me say it before, and I’ll say it again; WGTS is God’s radio station, and always has been,” the statement read.

The board of trustees also elected nine new members to the station’s 15-member board, which now includes members of the board of trustees. The board of trustees last year considered several options for the college’s future, including transferring ownership to Adventist HealthCare and turning the liberal arts school into a health sciences college. The move was considered a way for the college to reduce its debt. The board subsequently decided to maintain the current programs at the college and look for other sources of funding.

In the days following the announcement that the college would not sell the radio station, several members of the Columbia Union faculty and administration blamed the decision on college officials’ inability to argue in favor of the sale that they said was much needed.

‘‘The college failed to make its case again,” said communications professor David Miller, who also serves as a faculty member on the WGTS board of directors. ‘‘I think our college was overwhelmed by the constant barrage and found itself in a defensive position from the get-go. Our communication strategy failed because we had no strategy.”

Miller said he was frustrated that the college did not do more to respond to arguments made by station supporters in e-mails and letters to the college since it announced plans to negotiate the sale of WGTS.

‘‘I find it interesting that our World Church and other Adventist donors failed to step up to the plate to save the ministry of WGTS, but Columbia Union College is demonized for wanting to liquidate a non-core, non-academic asset,” Miller said. ‘‘Somehow, this point is conveniently left off by WGTS supporters.”

Bryan Zervos, director of development and a Columbia Union alumnus, said the college’s hesitancy to defend its actions hurt its ability to sway members of the community in favor of the sale.

‘‘The imposed media and public relations blackout on the college over the past five months has, at a minimum, been nettlesome, to say nothing of the confusion and hesitancy it has caused on the part of donors and the institution’s broader constituency,” he read in a statement. ‘‘The fact that we were unable to participate in robust dialogue and solid defense against scathing accusations and inaccurate information is an appalling misstep on the part of leadership.”

Zervos attended the meeting Thursday as an invitee, but left when the executive session began at 11:30 a.m.

He said other members of the staff and faculty share his feelings, but would not speak to the media because the college instructed them not to.

‘‘There will be some kind of reprisal,” he said. ‘‘I frankly don’t care anymore. ... I hope other people speak out. If they don’t, they’re wimps.”

Steward said he asked college employees to refer all media inquiries to his office, but that he had not ‘‘imposed any kind of blackout.”

Steward said the debate over the radio station is part of a larger dialogue on the future of Columbia Union.

‘‘It’s not surprising that something of this magnitude is going to be controversial, but our board felt it was a better part of wisdom to go back and look at some of the other rudimentary things facing the college and see if there may be another way,” he said.

Steward said the board of trustees plans to address the issue further at a meeting in November.

‘‘It’s their desire to help both the station and the college flourish, and it’s not one against the other,” he said. ‘‘There have been people trying to make it one against the other and that shouldn’t at all be the case.”