The dispute between Southern Oregon University and the Jefferson Public Radio Foundation has taken on a more ominous tone with the publication of a threatening letter from attorneys for the Oregon University System. The bluntly worded letter, which threatens crippling lawsuits against individual members of the JPR Foundation board, raises questions about SOU's concern for the communities it serves, Medford in particular.
The Oregon University System raised questions about the JPR Foundation's plans to restore the Holly Theatre and move the public radio stations' headquarters to Medford. An audit questioned the role of Ron Kramer, who serves as executive director of both the radio station and its foundation, and suggested the theater project would result in an unacceptable debt load for the foundation and could compete with the SOU Foundation for scarce donations.
The JPR Foundation board defended its plans for the Holly and for Jefferson Square, the Medford project designed to house the radio station's studios and a radio museum. The foundation and the university announced they would enter into mediation to resolve their differences even as SOU President Mary Cullinan terminated Kramer's contract as director of the radio stations.
The March 22 letter from a Portland law firm, sent before the mediation began, has so poisoned the atmosphere that Steve Nelson, himself an attorney and the chairman of the foundation board, says he is through serving on public boards because of the risk of personal liability. He resigned from the Jackson County Library Foundation board last week, and said he will remain on the JPR Foundation board only until the completion of the Holly project is assured.
We hope this battle between the university, the Oregon University System and JPR does not undermine that project or prevent JPR from relocating to Medford — a move that would be good for this city's continuing efforts to revitalize its downtown.
But these heavy-handed tactics seem designed to prevent JPR from becoming more independent of the university. In the process, the university may wind up discouraging other community members from volunteering to serve on nonprofit boards if they fear they could become personally liable for decisions they make in good faith.
It is deplorable that an institution of higher learning, supposedly dedicated to the free exchange of ideas, would stoop to such street-fighting tactics to protect its financial interests. The university seems more concerned with the value of JPR's assets than in preserving the radio stations' contribution to the culture and vitality of this region.
It may be time to question whether a regional university should have any involvement in a public radio station any longer.
One of SOU's primary concerns with the JPR Foundation's ventures was potential competition for fundraising dollars. By resorting to threats and intimidation, the university may have damaged itself more than JPR's efforts ever could.