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

It's true that some of the things that Rice undergraduates want to hold on to are difficult to defend. Obscenity, drinking and a sexually charged atmosphere are not traditionally considered the hallmarks of higher education. But John Stroup, professor of religious studies at Rice, contends that a sense of play is important at universities -- be it intellectual, athletic, social, even sexual. "What stimulates someone to become a great writer or painter or politician, for that matter?" he asks. "Risk takers may make the university famous….We could use a few more off-the-wall students, as far as I'm concerned." Stroup hopes that maintaining the playground model of higher education may keep American universities from turning into little more than corporate training grounds. "Rice needs courses, teachers and activities not as immediately defensible as training people in accounting or nanotechnology," he says. Rice needs things that are outside the bounds of business and law and purely in the realm of culture and experience.

Stroup points to recent controversies over the Rice student press as an example of corporate-style liability concerns stifling student rights and free speech on campus. In 1996 the Thresher published a column on its humor page titled "Rice Women Are Like…" The metaphors were juvenile and sexist ("Rice women are like … eggs: They only get laid once"), and the column led to a student-initiated forum on the problematic climate for women on campus. What was most troubling about the matter was that the Thresher uncovered a letter sent by administrators to the Student Association recommending that the association "override the editorial policy for the Thresher" in response to the column.

That spring Thresher editors published their yearly parody issue, the Trasher, in which they poked fun at a female student leader who had been profiled in Glamour magazine. According to the Trasher, a fictional female student, with a very similar name, had been profiled in Hustler magazine. Tasteless, yes. Defamation, no. But Rice administrators punished the editors for violating the school's very broad sexual harassment policy, the first time that policy had ever been applied to a student publication. One editor, a graduating senior, was given 100 hours of community service; the other was threatened with suspension until she wrote an administration-approved letter of apology. In the aftermath of the finding, two smaller satirical student papers ceased publication, and administrators appointed a student media adviser and an ad hoc committee to study the Thresher's relationship to the university.

Vice President for Student Affairs Zenaido Camacho and station manager Johnny So field questions from angry students the night of the KTRU shutdown.
Deron Neblett
Vice President for Student Affairs Zenaido Camacho and station manager Johnny So field questions from angry students the night of the KTRU shutdown.

KTRU, too, would soon be seen not just as a potential Rice asset but as a liability in the hands of the students.


In 1997 a committee was formed to follow the strategic plan and to "realize the fullest possible potential for the station." KTRU already had a committee to determine general programming and operating policies, one created in 1970 when the station went to the FM dial. But this structure was ignored by the administration and superseded by the new committee, perhaps purposefully. KTRU student representatives held a greater percentage of spots on the original committee than they would be granted in the new one. In fact, the new committee included 11 board members, deans, faculty and administrators, but only three students.

The 1997 committee surveyed members of the Rice community and concluded that KTRU could better reflect the entire campus by broadcasting more sports, lectures, music school concerts and conferences. "[U]niversity programming should be gradually expanded to approximately six to 12 hours in a given day," the report recommended, even more for special events. Student committee member and then-station manager Andy Campbell has said that the committee never discussed the six- to 12-hour university-programming goal that somehow got included in the report. He would never have agreed to give up half of KTRU's broadcast day.

Yet another committee was formed to oversee the station and implement the recommendations from 1997. Again, faculty and staff far outnumbered the student members. It was this oversight committee that Rice's athletic department came to in October asking that KTRU double its sports broadcasting this year and expand even more in the years to come.

The station historically has aired selective sports contests, with KTRU DJs themselves calling the games. But the athletic department frowned upon the irreverent nature of these sportscasts, and the practice was phased out in recent years. KTRU volunteers say they would have no problem broadcasting some Rice athletics today -- on their own terms.

But within the KTRU oversight committee, students were in no position to dictate terms. Johnny So says that he and the other two KTRU students on the committee were coerced into an agreement to broadcast three games a week every month except February and March, when they would air four games per week. They also agreed to broadcast all WAC semifinal and final events, pre- and postseason NIT tournaments, NCAA tournaments and College World Series games. So claims that an administrator told him, "If you don't implement these changes, I can see resources being withdrawn from the station until the station atrophies." So decided to play ball with the athletic department, just so KTRU could stay in the game.

KTRU may have made an agreement, but that didn't mean the student volunteers were happy with it. On November 28 two DJs protested the arrangement by playing punk rock songs over the last half of the Rice women's basketball game. As the Lady Owls fought a losing battle against the Arizona Wildcats, the DJs played "We Want the Airwaves" by the Ramones, "No Surrender" by Lickity Split and "I Don't Want to Hear It" by Minor Threat. The DJs thought it was an appropriate act of civil disobedience, a comment on the struggle for control of the station, a protest of the university's power. Administrators thought it was an outrage. Neill Binford, chair of KTRU's oversight committee and associate VP of finance and administration, called So and demanded to know what he planned to do about the troublemakers. So chose to do nothing. "The job of station manager is not to be their yes-man and expunge the political enemies of the administration," he wrote on the KTRU listserv.

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