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Open Letter To President Privett on The Sale of KUSF by The University of San Francisco

Save KUSF
23 January 2011

Open Letter To Father Stephen A. Privett, SJ

Dear Father Privett, S.J:

When you first became President of University of San Francisco a little more than a decade ago, many of us admired your long-standing commitment to community service, and your passionate investment in making social justice, and the experiences of the oppressed and poor, central to the university’s educational mission. Your impassioned speeches about the need for a “whole person” education that goes beyond the classroom, and your heroic front-line rescue efforts during the Salvadorian Civil War (that saw the CIA-supported militia assassinate 6 Jesuit priests) were very welcome to those who felt that the church, especially in America, had lost touch with the original Jesuit vision and mission.

In El Salvador, the democratic movements the Jesuits engaged in understood the importance of de-centered education, arts and culture. Many believed your tenure would help find ways to translate the “liberation theology” approaches you learned in Latin America to your tenure as President of the Jesuit University in your native San Francisco, and we applauded when you said on taking the job:

“…The best education is one that includes the realities of the world. Without that, it would be knowledge without any of the consequences. It would be knowledge that comes from textbooks and very limited experience. We are not just preparing kids to go out there and make money. They will learn what they need to be successful, but success for us is what they give back to society.”

As recently as 2009, your advocacy of policies to help alleviate global poverty have helped restore some of the original vision to the Catholic church and Jesuit society. Many are grateful for your deep understanding of how the realities of the world justify South African Bishop Downing’s decision to educate people on AIDS/HIV prevention through the distribution of condoms, despite his being censured by the Vatican. Certainly your decision was more in line with the teachings of Jesus, St. Ignatius and John Courtney Murray than the Vatican’s censure is.

Closer to home, your primary success as President of University of San Francisco has been in sustaining the high-ranking of the University’s award winning business and entrepreneurship programs. According to US News & World Report, USF’s McLaren College of Business in the School of Business and Management is ranked in the top 50 business schools. The USF MBA program is consistently ranked in the top ten in the nation for business schools with the greatest opportunities for minority students, and is currently ranked 6th according to the Princeton Review. In 2005, the MBA Entrepreneurship Program was ranked 25th in the nation. In 2009, USNWR ranked USF’s School of Nursing 54th in the country.

Aside from the School of Nursing, 3 out of 4 of these programs are much more about preparing kids to go out there and make money than they are about giving back to society. This may be the most important factor for a successful President of a private university, especially during these times of economic crisis, unemployment, and runaway tuition prices that make it hard to lure quality students.

The success of the Business and Entrepreneurship programs under your tenure, Father Privett, is something to be proud of, but the way you’ve handled the recent sale of the 90.3 FM frequency on which KUSF broadcast(s) does very little to convince an aspiring business major that she should attend the University of San Francisco, as this decision clearly chose short-term economic profits over a model of more sustainable long-term economic growth. At the very least you missed an opportunity here for your business school to help your graduates in the field of job placement that would also more truly live-up to the Jesuit notion of community service, immersion programs and the university’s professed mission to “provide programs and services that support students leadership development.”

I understand that your intentions in selling KUSF were not entirely economic, but rather a result in a change of priority toward science and away from traditional Jesuit staples such as the Theology program and community service. Perhaps your biggest legacy, on which you’ve staked your reputation as President, will be the John Lo Schiavo, S.J. Center For Science and Innovation (for which construction began on December 10, 2010, 40 days and 40 nights before the sale of KUSF).

Since the primary aim of the Schiavo Center is to “push the growing links between sciences and other disciplines, from nursing and health promotion to business and entrepreneurship,” it’s clear you want to broaden the University’s reputation so that its science programs may join the nursing and business programs in the top 50 ranking of the nation’s universities. Such a plan could be a great thing Pro Urbe Et Univesitate (for the city and university, and beyond) did it not, in your hands, come at the cost of both the Masters in Theology Program and KUSF.

The Masters in Theology program has been the most notable casualty of your “take no prisoners” approach toward achieving the Schiavo Center, and serves as the major precedent for your decision to sell KUSF. The economic downturn meant looking at programs that were losing money as primary targets for elimination. In the process you alienated many both within the university, the church and community as a whole, who felt you had done significant damage to USF’s identity as a Catholic institution.

Sure, this decision has its defenders. Many undergraduate students were relieved that theology courses would no longer be a requirement (while ignoring the fact that a Master’s program is not an undergraduate requirement), and surely the companies you’re contracting to build the Schiavo center (as well as the donors you lined up to make this a reality) are glad of your re-allocation of funds and energies. For many, however, you never provided adequate justification for farming this program off to Santa Clara University, which by most accounts does not provide the tools for community service the USF program did.

You argued that “the needs of the church were being met by Santa Clara,” but for a society founded on missionary zeal, reflection retreats, and taking a vow of poverty, your understanding of the “needs of the church” was spoken in a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. Your response to criticisms was an awkward silence, absolutely lacking in the “New Fervor and Dynamism,” with which the Society of Jesus responded to the call of The Pope in 2006. What about the needs of community which the church should serve?

Since you place such a high value on innovation, could not an innovative plan been developed to allow this Theology program to turn a profit without any loss to the service it provided the community? It didn’t have to be an all or nothing decision. No wonder some skeptics have even begun to ask if your intention in cutting the Theology program was to erase the history of your own church, whose mission was too demanding to live up to?

If the sale of KUSF, in addition to freeing up more money for the Schiavo center or the losing basketball team, was intended to appease, or make amends, with those in the university, the community, and the church hierarchy who were alienated by your cutting of the Theology Program, this sale was a colossal failure on both fronts: on a business level, and in faithfulness to Jesuit principles such as education, community service and spiritual growth. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Just as you farmed out the Theology Program to Santa Clara University so did you farm out KUSF to a Los Angeles-based media conglomerate, thus effecting both San Francisco culture as well as small, locally owned businesses. If your decision is not reversed, the negative economic and cultural impact to the Bay Area will be felt for years to come.

Do you really think you can have it both ways, and tell the theologians, on one hand, that you need to keep up with the times and be more responsive to the secular, humanist education your 71% non-Catholic students demand, while at the same time, with no consideration of the needs of the students, pull the plug on the more secular-oriented community-based radio station that, perhaps more than anything else, best represents the University’s motto, Pro Urbe Et Univesitate?

Theology and KUSF may seem like strange bedfellows, but only if you accept the “sacred/secular” split that the church has always struggled with in a society that claims to believe in “separation of church and state” as America does. The Jesuit vision at its highest, most liberating, democratic and empowering has always been about seeing beyond, or seeing through, this reductive “sacred/secular” split, especially when it is used by imperial or corporate powers to keep local communities weak and segregated.

It was in a private methodist college where I, as a working class first-generation college student, learned that what’s called “High Culture” and what was once called “counter-culture” (independent, alternative, underground, folk art, amateur, people’s culture) have more in common with each other than either do with the junk-food of official commercial mass-media culture, which has become increasingly syndicated and monopolistic since the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Both KUSF and the Masters in Theology program afforded students, and community members, the possibility of dreaming a utopian alternative to the brutal onslaught of monopoly capitalism, and both university and KUSF benefited by the relationship in deep and profound ways for over 30 years.

When St. Ignatius lived, reading and writing were relatively new technologies, and only beginning to become democratized. He didn’t have the radio or the internet through which to evangelize, educate and entertain. Yet, when he began to set up schools for previously uneducated populations, these schools were met by opposition by the church elite who wanted to keep most of the population illiterate. In 20th century America, Radio has have served an educational, or propaganda, function—-whether blatantly (as in Roosevelt’s fireside chats, contemporary AM-Talk Radio, or some of the community broadcasting KUSF had) or more subtly, less heavy-handed or intrusively (like the music programming that characterized KUSF). Even in 2010, the medium of radio has a power that cannot be denied, a power in bringing people together even when apart. I know I’m not alone when I say I’ve had many experiences that approached the vision of the Jesuit “reflection retreats” while lying in bed with the lights off listening to (and sometimes even hearing myself on) KUSF.

Despite the trickle down economics of the post-Clinton IT Technocracy utilizing its best focus-group research to manufacture needs for new technologies and render the radio obsolete once and for all, radio has tenaciously persevered as a powerful tool. Whether or not one wants to blame certain radio personalities (none of whom were associated with KUSF) for igniting recent shootings in Arizona for instance, there’s clearly a reason why the big corporate conglomerates are aggressively vying for ownership of radio stations. It’s the same reason they are trying to do away with net neutrality and control the flow of content.

I don’t know if your decision to sell KUSF came from Rome, but it’s clear that Pope Benedict’s appointed Press Secretary, Federico Lombardi, S.J, understands the power of the radio more than you, in his decision not to sell Vatican Radio, but rather merge it with the Vatican Press Office. Given this fact, at the very least, you could have waited and struck a more lucrative deal for the university, and opened up discussions publicly rather than hiding behind the cloak and dagger of the Non-Disclosure Act in defiance of the public trust. It’s hard to escape the feeling that you had something to hide. As I like to believe you are a man of good intentions, I prefer to believe that, unbeknownst to yourself, you were played for a pawn by larger forcers of monopoly capitalism in selling away one of your strongest assets.

You were sitting on a gold mine with KUSF, one that you could have done so much more with for the benefit of the university and community. In your cost-analysis, you could have, and should have, considered alternative economic models that would’ve maintained the station’s relatively autonomous diverse award-winning community-oriented, working-class programming while working more closely, in truly innovative ways, with the McLaren College of Business, for instance, to their mutual benefit. I am sure the staff and management of KUSF, many of whom have taken their own vow of poverty and work as volunteers to spread their message of social justice, would have been willing to negotiate a new business model that would have helped KUSF turn a greater profit for the University as well.

Beyond being a bad business decision, in itself a problem for a school known primarily for its business school, the University’s reputation as an upholder of the Jesuit tradition of “humanitarian activities, notably in the field of higher education and human rights” has taken a severe beating with the sale of KUSF. KUSF had a broad, but focused, tent, that was dedicated, like St. Ignatius, to the “life of the mind and the encounter with the world.” KUSF, starting from scratch in 1977, long before you became President, was able to build and galvanize a local community that had been fractured from the social and economic unrest of the previous decade. It facilitated a dialogue between a diverse range of cultures which otherwise would have no outlet, supported local businesses, such as The Community Thrift Store and Arizmandi Bakery, to name but two (who were locked out of advertising on the increasingly prohibitive corporate radio stations), and ultimately did more, in a cost effective way, to raise USF’s visibility and stature in the local community. If SF is still on the top 15 list of best college towns, it’s in large part due to KUSF.

Although not heavy-handed or polemical, and sometimes playfully flaunting their autonomy from the university, many of the local volunteers at KUSF passionately championed human rights and social justice as well as educating the populace in ways that don’t require tuition. Despite its relatively cheap low-wattage transmitter, KUSF’s hill-top location ensured its broadcast range reached beyond San Francisco to the East Bay and environs. The free and publicly accessible medium, like neighboring community-based radio station KPOO 89.5, made it especially crucial for the poorest of us, whose needs are not served by the larger commercial syndicates (or the USC-station you’ve sold it to) who act as if the object of radio is simply to prettify public life. This was great publicity for the school, especially in a post-John Courtney Murray era; at the very least a loss-leader (“you don’t need a ticket, just get on board,” as Curtis Mayfield sang in his classic soul/gospel radio hit, “People Get Ready”).

In 1932, during the infancy of radio, Bertolt Brecht wrote, “radio is one-sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out,” and called for radio to “step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers. Any attempt by the radio to give a truly public character to public occasions is a step in the right direction.” I don’t know whether program director, and Media Studies Professor, Steve Runyon, read this seminal essay, but Runyon was clearly a visionary in making KUSF one of the few stations (after the decline of locally-based commercial AM Top 40 Music Radio during the 70s) to take Brecht’s suggestions to heart, relentlessly using the request line to make two-way contact with Bay Area citizens, as well as co-sponsoring events and shows with local musicians, artists, DJS, activists, and businesses. In an era of increasingly censorious corporate media consolidation, many of the best artists relied on KUSF for much needed exposure, and when we succeeded, we often gave back to the radio station that nourished us.

In the last ten years, during your tenure, the initial developments of internet “radio” as a supplement to the airwaves helped KUSF’s international audience grow, without sacrificing its connection and grounding in the Bay Area arts, entertainment (Chinese, etc) communities. In fact, KUSF’s international reputation grew because it was still grounded in the local community based low-watt radio station. This gave the station an exemplary public, responsive, character that became the envy of many program directors nation-wide.

This positive reputation reflects highly on the Jesuit institution, especially among people otherwise not disposed or receptive to the traditional trappings within which the Jesuit mission is couched. The medium was indeed the message, as well as material force for a local working class and working poor. With the loss of the transmitter, the “internet only” radio station will have lost the main thing that distinguished it, even for its international internet audience; especially with the recent FCC decision to do away with “net neutrality.” Everything new is not better than everything old, and bigger is not always better; often it leads to a quick short-term bubble and a steep decline.

When Martin Luther King wrote Letter From Birmingham Jail on toliet paper to the white religious establishment of Birmingham in 1963, he was not speaking directly to The Society of Jesus. In fact, many more Jesuits heroically broke ranks against the church orthodoxy and marched and worked alongside of Rev. King. Yet, when he writes of how the church, which was once a “thermostat that transformed the mores of society” for the better, has now become a mere “thermometer” that records the “ideas and principles of popular opinion,” I think it’s important to reflect on what that means for your role as President of a Jesuit University. Your decision to sell KUSF is not even a thermometer, in that it doesn’t reflect public opinion, let alone transform the mores of society. The sale of KUSF is neither popular nor moral, but rather another cave-in to the trickle-down supply-side economics that crassly support an anti-humanist and anti-religious notion of “science and innovation” at the expense of the liberal arts. Ultimately, it’s not even a sound economic decision for you or the University.

I apologize for this lengthy letter, but I needed to go into some depth, as I am sure that you can’t “rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” In closing, Father Privett, I am not here calling for your resignation, but rather imploring you to cancel the deal you made with The University of Southern California and buy the station back. If this is impossible, at least consider purchasing 87.7 FM or retool the AM Station you currently own so that KUSF can resume broadcasting as soon as possible. It is your moral imperative to be true to the highest the Jesuit tradition has to offer, and truly live up to the university’s motto, Pro Urbe Et Univesitate.

Sincerely,

Chris Stroffolino, Ph.D

P.S. In my experience as an English, music & popular culture teacher at St. Mary’s College of California (Moraga), Mills, SFAI, Laney College, UC-Berkeley and CCA, I often get requests for recommendations and advice about what local colleges and universities my students should attend or transfer to. The University of San Francisco has usually been at the top of my list. In addition to my long-standing admiration for USF because of its support of KUSF, I have great admiration for the work of Thom Gunn, Aaron Shurin, and others who have contributed much to the arts and cultural life of The Bay Area (and beyond). In fact, I always thought USF would be a good place to teach if a position opened up. But, unless you revoke the sale of KUSF or buy it back, I will no longer be recommending the University of San Francisco as an institution worthy of the best and brightest minds that I’ve had the pleasure of teaching or otherwise collaborating with.

 

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