Attorney General agrees with SaveWCAL

The Northfield News has a story in today’s paper titled WCAL controversy continues at St. Olaf: Attorney General rules college had no right to sell:

SaveWCAL, the group formed in August of 2004 to fight the sale, argued from the beginning that St. Olaf acted wrongly when it agreed to sell the beloved listener-supported station. The station should have been recognized as a charitable trust, members of the group said. Donations to WCAL by listeners were merely held by the college. St. Olaf had no right to sell the station without donor’s permission, they said.

On Wednesday, the state Attorney General’s office agreed with SaveWCAL. It declared WCAL a charitable trust. Michael Cunningham, St. Olaf’s attorney, and attorney Michael McNabb of SaveWCAL have until July 9 to respond to the Attorney General’s ruling. Depending on St. Olaf’s response, the case may be reviewed again by the Attorney General’s office, then turned over to Judge Gerald Wolf by July 17. The sale of WCAL could be declared void, McNabb said, which would be a major victory for SaveWCAL which has hoped for three years to reinstate what it sees as its members’ radio station.

Last week, City Pages ran a feature story titled WCAL: A Trust Betrayed: Alumni are cutting St. Olaf out of their wills in protest of the decision to sell WCAL. (Cynthia Child blogged the CP story on There’s no mention of the CP story nor the Attorney General’s decision on the St. Olaf News web site.

The SaveWCAL weblog reports that St. Olaf, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Howard Hong…

howard_hong.jpg“…is very concerned that a future administration might sell the highly valuable rare book collection in the Kierkegaard Library (the largest in the world and assessed in the millions of dollars), and then argue that since the Kierkegaard Library no longer exists, that the college be permitted to use the funds in the Kierkegaard Library endowment (and its sub-accounts) for purposes other than what the donors requested.”

Update 6/29: I’ve changed the headline of the blog post from “rules in favor of” to “agrees with” since only the court can ‘rule.’

14 thoughts on “Attorney General agrees with SaveWCAL”

  1. I found myself wondering what exactly SaveWCAL was looking to accomplish, and thought others might wonder the same.

    Off SaveWCAL:

    “Our preferred outcome is to restore to St. Olaf’s stewardship the jewel of an asset that provided the College with a continuing connection to generations of alumni and friends of the college — a radio station that served as an ambassador of the College to the community it served.”

    I now wonder what this “restored” station would look like, how much this once profitable station would cost the college to run again (if they put any money at all into it), and how much SaveWCAL is willing to put St. Olaf through to make it happen.

    The statement seems to signify support for the station because of its benefit to the school and how the loss of the station hurt the school, but the actions of the organization seem to be extending the harm considerably further (and even has the potential for disasterously damaging the school), without much chance, IMHO, of returning the station to its former glory. The Regents may have made a poor decision in the sale and its handling, but how good of a decision is SaveWCAL now making in this “support” of the school?

    Note: My wife worked for WCAL. I adamantly disagreed with the sale and its handling (and am on the record for doing so in the St’rib’). I do not feel St. Olaf had the right to do with the station what it willed without the consent of its financial contributors, nor do I feel it now has the right to do with the money donated to WCAL what it wills without the consent of the contributors.

  2. Hey Boys:

    I’m not an expert but isn’t the issue (being considered by our judicial system), “Did St. Olaf College have the legal right to sell WCAL’s assets?” NOT “What does SaveWCAL want to do with a used radio station?”


  3. Hey Boy,

    Yes, you’re correct, that is the legal issue. And I would have to say it looks like St. Olaf did not have the rights they claimed, and that the SaveWCAL people have been right the whole time. Good for them.

    I’m simply asking: To what end? As Alex points out SvaeWCAL claims to want everything back as it was before the sale. My question is: How?

  4. I’m simply asking: To what end? As Alex points out SaveWCAL claims to want everything back as it was before the sale. My question is: How?

    Brendon, I completely agree. I never really took much of a position on the sale back in 2004, but I wonder what good SaveWCAL will do now. This isn’t even like voiding the sale of books (the quote in the post), which could be easily transferred back. You can’t just “undo” the disbanding of an organization.

    And then, of course, what about The Current? What about MPR? And how is St. Olaf supposed to fund whatever they were spending the $10 million on? Even if this sale was wrong from the beginning, at this point voiding it just seems to hurt everyone involved.

  5. I’m not with the naysayers on this one. Sean writes: “Even if this sale was wrong from the beginning, at this point voiding it just seems to hurt everyone involved.” That sounds like Bush justifying the war in Iraq. All the reasons we gave you for going to war were wrong, but it’s too late now. I find SaveWCAL’s legal victory immensely satisfying. When those in power have betrayed a trust, the legal system should hold them to account.

  6. Agreed, Rob, people should be able to hold others accountable in the legal system. SaveWCAL had every right to, and they appear to have been (legally) correct as well.

    Your analogy falls flat, however. The Iraq war is still going; it can be ended. The sale of WCAL is done. It can’t be ended, only “un-done”… I would like to know how?

    This does not mean SaveWCAL was wrong to pursue their case, only that I am at a loss as to what end this brings things, particularly when SaveWCAL seems to have restoring the station to St. Olaf’s control as their “preferred outcome.”

    I’m sure others have expertise in knowing how cases such as this proceed from here. I do not, but, as I wrote previously, SaveWCAL’s plan seems like a tough sell.

    It seems to me that the much more realistic goal would be – putting it simplistically – to give WCAL’s donors their money back.

    To paraphrase a different war analogy, SaveWCAL may have won (may be winning) the battle, but isn’t the war already over?

  7. Rob Hardy said:

    That sounds like Bush justifying the war in Iraq.

    Harsh. And you make a point, but I’m going to nitpick — there’s a significant benefit to be had by ending an ongoing war: fewer people dying in the future. The other side of that, not ending the war: more people dying in the future.

    Now take the two options to WCAL. Reversing the sale: A few jobs are created at WCAL, MPR people lose their jobs, thousands of Current listeners disappointed, St. Olaf loses $11 million. Not reversing the sale: all continues smoothly (save for a few remaining bitter WCAL lovers).

    That’s doesn’t include every pro and con, of course. There is a benefit (if in fact St. Olaf did act inappropriately) of wrongdoings being noted and wrongdoers being penalized. So I guess if this judge does agree with SaveWCAL and the Attorney-General’s office, it would be best if St. Olaf could just give the donors their money back — as Brendon suggested. I doubt it could be that neat and easy, but it sure would be nice.

  8. A St. Olaf VP has a letter to the editor in this week’s Nfld News, objecting to last week’s coverage:

    The article in the June 23 edition, “WCAL controversy continues at St. Olaf,” contains factual inaccuracies regarding the issues in St. Olaf’s petition to the Rice County District court concerning how to use certain specific gifts from donors to support radio station WCAL.

    Contrary to the sub-headline (“Attorney General rules college had no right to sell”) and story text, the state Attorney General’s office did not “rule” that the college had no right to sell the station in 2004. The AG didn’t rule, nor was it in a position to do so. The AG is a party to the court proceeding, as are St. Olaf and SaveWCAL. Any ruling will be issued by the court, not by the parties.

    The AG submitted a legal brief generally expressing its views on the topic of charitable trust principles. More importantly, the AG’s office specifically said the sale of WCAL is not an issue before the court. In the very first paragraph of that brief the AG states “The propriety of St. Olaf’s sale of WCAL, and its use of the proceeds of that sale, are not before this Court.” And it repeats that position several times. The presiding judge has made the same point in court proceedings.

    In the meantime, the purpose of this proceeding has become lost in some of the public discussion about it. In fact, it’s a narrow and routine matter, initiated by St. Olaf (not critics of the WCAL sale) to ask the court for instruction regarding the use of specific restricted gifts, some of which have sat idle since WCAL was sold.

    We are asking for the court’s approval in order to use the gifts for the college’s benefit for activities consistent with the donors’ intent such as webcasting daily chapel, concerts and worship services or producing “Sing For Joy” or recording student recitals. The funds are not proceeds of the station sale but specifically identified restricted funds donated for support of the station over the years.

    The WCAL sale was made three years ago. Instead of revisiting the past, we think it’s wisest to focus our energies and resources on building a better future for that community.

    — Janet Kringen Thompson, Interim Vice President for College Relations, St. Olaf

  9. In tomorrow’s Star Tribune:

    WCAL fans fight on for reversal of sale

    But the attorney general’s opinion was responding only to the question of what to do with the $1.3 million from those donors, the memo cautioned.

    “The sale and the sale proceeds aren’t at issue right now,” said Deputy Attorney General Ann Kinsella. “We’re not going to be able to put the genie back in the bottle. The sale was three years ago.”

    All sides may submit more written arguments this month, and a Rice County judge will decide later this summer or fall what can be done with the $1.3 million.

    Hamline University management professor David Schultz, who teaches courses on nonprofit law, agreed that the sale isn’t likely to be nullified.

    If the group wants to challenge how St. Olaf used the $10.5 million in proceeds from the WCAL sale, he said, it would require another court proceeding.

    Under legal doctrines, those overseeing charitable trusts can petition to use donated money for similar purposes if the intended purpose no longer exists, Schultz said, and courts are usually accepting of that.

    St. Olaf is using some of the sale proceeds to set up endowed professorships in math education, biology and sociology.

  10. Brendon Etter says:
    “It seems to me that the much more realistic goal would be – putting it simplistically – to give WCAL’s donors their money back.”

    Minnesota law does not allow that remedy.

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