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Crossing Over a Fine Line: Commercial Activity on Campus

The recent Daily Sun article about WVBR’s relationship with Cornell raises a much larger issue about commercial activity on campus. While this issue is at the heart of the Cornell’s relationship with WVBR, a serious question the university needs to consider on a larger scale is where is draws the line in general in preventing and allowing so-called “commercial activity” from taking place.

Cornell has a general policy against independent businesses engaging in “commercial activity” on Cornell property. This makes sense. Commercial activity can be disruptive to the learning process and, although I’m not a lawyer, I’m told it endangers Cornell’s tax-exempt status. Last year, Gutenberger explained to me that commercial activity includes any advertising or attempts at selling/promoting on campus. Independent entities can be contracted out to perform a service for the university, but in performing that service, the entity cannot solicit calls to action. For example, the Ithaca Bakery may provide catering at an on-campus event but cannot suggest to dinner guests to try a new food item available at its Collegetown location. According to Gutenberger, local, regional, and national businesses alike want to reach the Cornell student population, and the university would be overrun by salespeople pushing their wares if these businesses were allowed on campus.

This policy would be acceptable and fair if it were evenly applied to all organizations that either exist on or come onto campus. I understand why Cornell does not want to turn Ho Plaza into a bazaar. The problem, though, is that the policy is not evenly applied, and in some cases, it is egregiously ignored. This brings me to Slope Media and Matt Nagowski ‘05’s recent post .

Make no mistake: I am not out to get Slope Media. I deeply respect the organization’s meteoric rise to campus prominence, which I discussed in a previous post . However, I am concerned that Cornell is inconsistently applying its “no commercial activity” policy when it comes to student-run media and is creating a situation where it favors the commercial activities of one organization to the detriment of others.

Despite Slope Media’s claim to the contrary, it is a commercial business. Perhaps Slope Media is not legally a corporation, but it operates much like WVBR in that it sells commercial advertising to third parties and then reinvests its profits exclusively into its operations. WVBR is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit educational organization and by law cannot distribute earnings to its shareholders, which, for the record, are exclusively full-time degree-seeking Cornell undergraduates.

Slope Media’s selling of commercial advertising is a flagrant violation of Cornell’s policy against such activities, and, ironically, they sell their advertising right under the administration’s nose from their office on the first floor of Willard Straight Hall. Slope Media does not even make any effort to disguise their ad sales and direct targeting of Cornell students. Their own website advertises, “Let Slope Media help your business gain attention from the college market!” The page goes on to explain, “our audience is hip, well-rounded, and influential,” and that potential advertisers can “email advertise@slopemedia.org for specific rates and deals.” The rates for their radio, television, and print advertising are listed along with this sales pitch.

How can Slope Media receive byline funding paid for out of the student activity fee while they are running a business on the side? Granted, the profits don’t accrue to individual Slope Media staffers. But, the same can be said about WVBR’s profits, and WVBR is not supported at all by the student activity fee.

Let’s for a moment ignore the issue about Cornell’s policy prohibiting commercial activity on campus. Instead, assume that the only reason for prohibiting a student organization like WVBR from using Cornell property is to prevent unfair competition in the local business community, as raised by Gutenberger in the recent Daily Sun article:

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.

Slope Media, like all other online media, competes with local businesses. Today, there are no geographic boundaries for media competition and members of the Cornell community can freely choose where they consume their media. If a student wants to listen to music, he can choose any number of online music streams throughout the country, including those provided by Ithaca companies like WVBR, Slope Radio, Z-95.5, or Q-Country. But, only Slope Radio gets to freely promote its online music stream on Cornell property and then sell its listeners to third-party businesses in the form of advertising time. And, if we’re to believe Slope Media’s commercial advertising page, these unrestricted on-campus promotional efforts allow them to “reach thousands of students, faculty, and alumni online each week.” How is this fair competition? None of the other local radio stations, all of which have online streams, can target the Cornell student population on campus. Local businesses looking to reach Cornell students have limited advertising dollars to spend, and Slope Media has an advantage over other media businesses competing for these advertising dollars because it can uniquely (and exclusively) reach the Cornell community. Slope Media, more than any other campus media organization, is receiving “special treatment” over its local competitors.

Cornell University should not shut down Slope Media nor change its policies with regard to allowing commercial activity on campus nor stop preserving a sense of fair competition. Cornell University should treat all organizations the same. WVBR, specifically, is as much of a student organization as is Slope Media, and Slope Media is as much of a business as is WVBR. Both organizations exist solely for the benefit of Cornell students. Both organizations sell commercial advertising. Both organizations compete with local businesses. Both organizations do not distribute their profits to shareholders.

Although I contextualize my argument around WVBR and Slope Media, the same argument about inconsistent application of the commercial activity policy and preventing of unfair competition can be made for many other student-run businesses. For example, the Cornell Concert Commission directly competes with the not-for-profit 501(c)(3) State Theatre in the market for concert entertainment, and yet only the CCC may use campus property for promoting its concerts. Yes, it is true that the CCC is not producing concerts and selling concert tickets for profit, but neither is WVBR producing radio programming and selling advertising for profits. The CCC provides a service available to all members of the general public for a price, and “townies” and students alike have a choice to spend their limited entertainment dollars on entertainment produced by the CCC on Ithaca’s East Hill or entertainment produced by the State Theatre in downtown Ithaca. Although it is not legally a corporation, the CCC is a student-operated “business” that competes in the commercial marketplace and engages in commercial activity on campus.

There’s a fine line to be drawn somewhere in deciding the types of organizations that can conduct so-called “commercial activity” on campus. The Cornell administration needs to draw that line, and when it does, it needs to apply its policies on either side of the line consistently across all organizations. The argument that the not-for-profit WVBR is “more commercial” than an organization like Slope Media because it either sells advertising or competes with local businesses falls flat because an organization like Slope Media does the same. So, what is the factor that separates an organization like WVBR from an organization like Slope Media and forces one to remain off campus while then other can thrive literally within Cornell’s halls? There’s a catch-22 here if the answer is that Slope Media is a registered student organization and WVBR is not.

Kyle Scott | Posted on November 05, 2011 (#)

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