World Press Institute officially breaks ties with Mac, seeks new home

By Matt Day

Three months after the World Press Institute cut Macalester a $160,000 check and officially severed ties with the college, the non-profit organization has “secured an agreement” with the University of Minnesota School of Journalism, newly hired WPI director David McDonald said. Founded at Macalester in 1961, WPI brought a group of international journalists to the United States each fall to learn about reporting in a free press environment.

The result was an international network of journalists: almost 500 professionals from 94 countries, with Macalester and the Twin Cities acting as the hub.

That arrangement ended when the WPI paid off its outstanding debt to Macalester with a lump sum payment Nov. 30.

To keep costs low, the WPI will operate without an official home base when the fellows arrive in August. While the WPI hold programming at the University of Minnesota for the first two weeks of the program, the site might not remain permanent. McDonald said the board has looked into obtaining a long-term location for the institute.

“We’ve had some inquiries made, but nothing is concrete yet,” he said.

During most of its 47-year relationship with Macalester, the institute was housed at the International Center at 1576 Summit Ave.

McDonald, a lawyer at the Briggs and Morgan law firm in Minneapolis who has been involved with the WPI since the early 80s, said the board has discussed establishing long-term relationships with the U of M and Hamline University.

“There was a little bit of talk about going somewhere else, but most likely it will remain within the Twin Cities,” McDonald said.

WPI Board Chair Ginny Morris said the institute will remain “nimble” for a while, forging temporary relationships with colleges like the U of M.

Programming this fall will center on the fellows covering the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, McDonald said. The convention will run Sept. 1-4 at the Xcel Energy Center.

McDonald couldn’t say whether the WPI would work with Macalester in the future.

“Its something we’d have to be careful look closely at,” he said.

The trouble began for the WPI in early 2007 when the philanthropic Knight Foundation discontinued its $125,000 annual gift to the organization, cutting almost a quarter of its operating costs. The college also lost funding from the Star Tribune Foundation, which eliminated most of its grants following the company’s sale.

The WPI cancelled its fall 2007 program after the funding shortfall.

Former Director Doug McGill resigned in March after attempts to negotiate temporary support from Macalester failed. WPI Board Chair Howard Tyner left after the staff was laid off in April.

“They told us they weren’t interested in working through the problems with us,” Morris said.

“We didn’t think it would be prudent to be taking the financial risk,” said David Wheaton, Macalester’s vice-president of administration and finance.

According to Wheaton, the debt owed to Macalester amounted to about $160,000. Through solicitations of corporate donors, the WPI Board was able to raise the sum in less than seven months.

The WPI, which was originally integrated within the college, was founded by Reader’s Digest writer Harry W. Morgan and his boss, DeWitt Wallace ’11. Its goal was to foster international understanding to combat the polarization caused by the Cold War.

The structure of the WPI changed shortly after its establishment, with the creation of an endowment especially for the institute, former WPI Director John Ullmann said. The WPI transitioned into a separate nonprofit organization, with Macalester serving as its landlord and financial agent.

“Its unfortunate,” said Humanities, Media and Cultural Studies professor Clay Steinman, who worked with various groups of fellows over the years. “I think that [the WPI] was a resource that was underused.”

“I thought there was potential there,” Steinman said.

Wheaton said that the missions of the college and WPI diverged over the institute’s lifetime.

“Unlike the early years at WPI, the integration of their program into Macalester became smaller and smaller,” Wheaton said. “[The fellows would] pass through briefly in August and then go around the country.”

“The fact of the matter is there was very little programmatic overlap anymore.”

Morris agreed. “At one point in our collective history, [the relationship] made sense for everybody,” she said. “But with diverging interests and goals and missions it drifted apart.”

McDonald downplayed the gravity of the financial trouble that ultimately caused the split with Macalester.

“What we were told at least is that they were concerned about the financial state,” he said. “I don’t think it’s as serious as they thought.”

“[Macalester] wanted to concentrate on undergraduate education,” McDonald said. “They had a hard time understanding how a bunch of mid-career journalists coming into the campus was helping that.”

McDonald said he wasn’t surprised by the institute’s quick financial turnaround. He said the majority of the support came from the 3M Company, Dolan Media, Hubbard Radio, and H&R Block, all organizations with employees on the WPI Board.

“All of those entities will continue to support us,” McDonald said. “We have 20-30 corporate [sources of funding]. Right now I’m encouraged by those who committed funds.