November 1, 2011

Cornell Questions Status of WVBR on Campus

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Student leaders at WVBR, an Ithaca-based radio station operated by Cornell students, are expressing frustration after the University recently began questioning whether it should allow The Cornell Radio Guild — WVBR’s parent organization — to continue to register as a student organization.“We were posed as a risk to the University, but we don’t know why we were a risk to the University,” said Noah Kaminsky ’13, a senior disc jockey at WVBR.The Cornell Radio Guild — which owns and operates WVBR — registered on campus as a student organization with the mission to educate Cornell students in media and media business. However, University officials say that the Guild’s educational mission is not adequately distinct from its commercial side, and the University is unwilling to risking its tax-exempt status by having a competitive local business listed as a student organization, according to John Gutenberger, vice president of government and community relations. “Somewhere along the line the University started looking at us as a business enterprise rather than a non-profit organization,” said Nischay Rege ’12, WVBR’s program director.According to the Student Activities Office website, Cornell Radio Guild is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization registered as an independent student group for the 2011-2012 academic year. Students at WVBR said they cannot identify a time in the organization’s history when the Guild was not a student group. Since August 2010, however, the University has been looking into the relationship between the radio station and its governing organization — which has been registered under the names Cornell Radio Guild and Friends for Cornell Radio at differing points in its history — according to Rege.The University first began questioning the Guild’s status as a student organization when Friends for Cornell Radio signed up for Club Fest 2010 but showed up as WVBR.“[WVBR] openly said that Friends for Cornell Radio was a front to get approval as a student organization,” Gutenberger said. “They want to run a commercial radio station and be listed as a student organization, and we said you can’t be both.”According to Rege, WVBR’s troubles with the University started at Club Fest 2010, when Catherine Holmes, associate dean of students in the Student Activities Office, approached the students and informed them that WVBR was not a recognized student group. Rege said Holmes told them to “deal with the issue” and that they would notified as to whether they would be able to participate in Club Fest in the future.Holmes declined to comment Monday.According to David DyTang ’12, general manager of WVBR, the Club Fest incident sparked the issue of WVBR’s status as a registered student organization.“What started out as a misunderstanding in the Dean of Students Office spread to other University offices,” DyTang said. “We’re trying to have our full, registered student group status restored as a contracted independent organization.”A contracted independent organization is an organization comprised primarily of Cornell students, faculty or staff that is afforded certain benefits by the University, according to the Student Activities Office website. The University does not have authority over the organization’s activities, but provides the group with certain benefits, including limited use of University property.WVBR operates out of a rented studio across from East Hill Plaza and broadcasts at 93.5 FM, 105.5 FM and online, according to the group’s website. The site characterizes WVBR as a non-profit organization made up of Cornell students that is not affiliated with the University or part of any larger media conglomeration.Vice President of University Com­munications Tommy Bruce said he supports the educational mission of the Guild, and helps them reserve room space on campus. According to Bruce, the group needs to decide who they are as an organization.“Are they independent, are they a student organization? It’s kind of hard to be both at the same time,” Bruce said. “WVBR needs to make the same clear-cut kind of distinction and behave accordingly.”Gutenberger said he was involved in meetings in April, May and August with WVBR staff adviser Corey Earle ’07 and other University officials.According to Gutenberger, WVBR’s status raised concerns when his office and several other offices began to receive complaints from other registered student groups that WVBR was reserving rooms and space on campus for meetings and events under the name Friends for Cornell Radio.“The underlying issue is that businesses can’t use Cornell University tax-exempt property for their own business purposes,” Gutenberger said. “People thought the space was being rented out to a student organization, but it was a commercial radio station. They say publicly that they compete openly in the marketplace — they’re a business.”According to Rege, WVBR’s program director, while WVBR is a student-run business, it is non-profit and dedicated to a mission of educating Cornell students in media and media business.“We do compete with local organizations, but nonprofits do that all the time,” DyTang said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that other student organizations do that all the time, but nonprofits definitely do.”DyTang said WVBR’s staff advisor, Corey Earle, met with University officials on Aug. 31 to discuss the legal implications of WVBR’s status — the latest in a series of meetings between Earle and administrators in various University offices since April.According to DyTang, administrators in attendance represented the Student Activities Office, the University Counsel’s Office, the Risk Management Office and the Office of Community Relations.  In addition, Craig McAllister, director of risk management, and Norma Schwab, University Counsel’s Office, were present at the August meeting, DyTang saidMcCallister, Schwab and Earle declined to comment Monday.Kaminsky, the senior disk jockey, said that WVBR is not seeking funding from the University, but merely access to the campus resources available to registered student groups.“We want to use Cornell’s campus, hold events on campus, recruit on campus. We are a student organization,” Kaminsky said.Gutenberger said that while the University understands and appreciates the historical connection of WVBR to the Cornell student body and campus, it cannot run the risk of giving the organization special treatment over its local competitors. According to Gutenberger, the University took steps to separate the business aspect of WVBR from its educational mission, agreeing to sponsor the group so that they could hold meetings and recruit students on campus property.“We thought that all of their needs were met since they have access to the campus,” Gutenberger said. “But they want to use University resources and still be independent of the University.”WVBR is registered under the name Cornell Radio Guild for the 2011-2012 academic year, a move Rege said was an attempt to clear up confusion about the organization’s mission. Despite the offer from the Office of University Communications to provide space on campus for meetings and recruitment, Dytang and fellow WVBR student leaders said they are unhappy with the possibility of being prevented from registering as a contracted independent organization.“We certainly don’t want to stand in the way of their educational mission and we thought we had come up with this compromise that had fulfilled 99.9 percent of their desires,” Gutenberger said. “We’re still hopeful that they’ll accept this solution and we’ll all move on.”

Original Author: Rebecca Harris