Spin Control

Rice University's slow, systematic makeover of KTRU is just the latest example of a college determined to pattern itself after corporate America

But the real fear that came with the 50,000-watt upgrade was not of turning into a community radio station. The student leaders in 1991 worried that a high-powered station would be a prime target for an administrative takeover. Bill Cordell, a veteran radio man and the engineer who built KTRU's tower in Humble, warned them. "Guys, it won't be long before the administration sees what this will really do," he told them. "It will be like my alma mater, University of Houston. It will become more of a conventional radio station as opposed to something for the students to enjoy….They run it like a commercial venture." A Press story on the subject ("They Got the Power," by Tarbox Kiersted, June 13, 1991) predicted a scenario in which the university exercised more and more control over KTRU and the station ended up "safe, sterile and boring."

Then-KTRU general manager Rodney Gibbs voiced his concerns about losing control of the station, in whole or in part, to administrators at the time. In a recent letter to current VPSA Camacho, Gibbs says these former administrators assured him, "unequivocally, that the university had neither present nor future desires to end KTRU's history of being student-run."

But university administrations turn over just like students do, and this promise does not appear to have remained in Rice's institutional memory. In 1996, just three years after President Malcolm Gillis took office, the university had a new "strategic plan," and it included the recommendation that Rice begin using the valuable resource of KTRU in new ways, such as the broadcasting of language courses, lectures, music school concerts, interviews with visiting scholars and even radio drama to provide "a public voice for the University."

Johnny So has survived his first major confrontation with what he calls "the Man."
Deron Neblett
Johnny So has survived his first major confrontation with what he calls "the Man."

It is not coincidental that the very same section of the strategic plan suggests partnering with industry to open up new research arenas for the university and using Rice's athletic programs to bring people into a closer relationship with the school. "Some who come to cheer will stay … to support one aspect or another of the University's agenda," the strategic planning report states. It is also not insignificant that Rice was about to embark on a massive six-year, $500 million capital campaign. A KTRU that would broadcast the school's many splendors, as opposed to some weird music, would be a great advertising tool to attract money, students and recognition to what seemed to be becoming Rice University Inc.

The trend of university corporatization is not just a Rice phenomenon. A deal at Berkeley in 1998, in which Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical company and genetically engineered crop producer, paid one-third of the research budget for the university's department of plant and microbial biology, sparked debate on that campus over the end of disinterested scientific inquiry. The Atlantic Monthly recently reported on a study conducted by Harvard professor James Engell and former Dartmouth professor Anthony Dangerfield on the state of the humanities in American universities. "Test what you will -- majors, salaries, graduate programs … the results come back the same," the professors write. "Since the late 1960s the humanities have been neglected, downgraded and forced to retrench, as all other areas of higher education have grown in numbers, wealth and influence." It is a result, they say, of the "Market-Model University," in which disciplines that "make money, study money or attract money are given priority." Filmmaker Kyle Henry, a Rice graduate, made a documentary titled University, Inc. in 1999 about the University of Texas's dismantling of the Union Film Program because it wasn't adding to UT's bottom line.

The same sorts of things are happening at Rice. University spokesman Terry Shepard says Rice has more than 70 research partnerships with the Texas Medical Center, invites venture capitalists to campus to help launch Rice-affiliated businesses, and has an Office of Technology Transfer to ensure that faculty inventions make it to the marketplace. Some of these business dealings undoubtedly will benefit the common good. Shepard says that one Rice nanotechnology researcher may be leading the way to a cure for cancer. But the corporatization has negative implications as well. Rice undergraduate Ben Weston wrote a recent column for the Thresher complaining that administrators see no place for undergraduates in the university's quest to become a world-class research institution. "We don't do research," he writes. "We don't bring Rice international acclaim. Instead, we tie up the university's beautiful 50,000-watt transmitter with crap like 'Free Guitar Lessons for Animals.' We drive huge trucks around the inner loop and chuck water balloons at each other, causing a dozen injuries and a liability nightmare each year. We get drunk as hell and have to be taken to the emergency room….[A]n undergraduate population that won't behave is just in the way."

Other editorials in the Thresher have noted many Rice traditions that have been sterilized and politically corrected by the administration in order to limit liability risks: orientation-week pranks; college cheers that could offend; a drunken orgy called Night of Decadence that was once written up in Playboy magazine's list of top ten college parties; and Beer Bike, a relay race in which students guzzle beer from specially engineered cups and bike around a parking lot track. Upperclassmen and alumni remember a Rice where students studied hard and partied even harder. They remember a Rice that encouraged its students to experiment, be independent, take risks and make mistakes without ruining their lives. It was this quirky character that made Rice different from the other institutions of its academic caliber. It was this climate that made it possible for a few Rice students to start their own radio station back in 1967.

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