secured laptop on wooden background

Rich Neighbors – Poor Judgement

The students of Umpqua Community College (UCC) have been rewarded for their passionate concerns for the environment, journalism and democratic free speech by the closure of the school’s acclaimed newspaper The Mainstreamas well as termination of the college’s popular journalism course, which has produced generations of skilled investigative journalists who cite their years at The Mainstream as formative. 

On April 3, 2024, Melinda Benton, a member of the UCC faculty for 30 years and advisor to The Mainstream, informed the newpaper’s staff that UCC President Rachel Pokrandt is cancelling the popular journalism course and terminating The Mainstream, founded in 1965.

This attack on student’s first amendment rights stems from Pokrandt’s crusade to eradicate all discussion of the controversial 134-year-old Winchester Dam from her campus, despite overwhelming county-wide support for its removal. The dam is both a health hazard and the subject of a lawsuit brought by the State of Oregon that has levied a $27.5 million fine against its wealthy owners, who include Umpqua Community College’s new Student Engagement Coordinator, Leila Goulet.

The UCC campus overlooks the private water ski lake behind Winchester Dam

The UCC campus sits high on a hill overlooking the infamous Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River, historically the #1 steelhead stream in North America. The dam provides no hydroelectricity, flood control, or irrigation. Condemned in 1976, its sole function is to provide a private water ski lake, at the exclusion of the public, for the 99 wealthy Winchester Water Control District (WWCD) members whose pricey homes (including Goulet’s) surround it.

The dam is an impassable barrier to wild migratory native fish—whose counts at the dam have dwindled from the tens of thousands to a few hundred in recent years. The dam also leaches arsenic, copper, and chromium into the drinking water supply for 37,700 Douglas County residents, and according to the Oregon Water Resource Department “loss of life” will occur when the leaking dam fails. Recreational rafters have been injured after being sucked over the lip of the dam and falling 17-feet onto the bedrock below.

Yet the UCC administration goes out of its way to curry favor with the moneyed and privileged WWCD members in hope of extracting sizable donations – so much so that, in November of 2023, UCC president Pokrandt went so far as to hire one of the WWCD homeowners, Leila Goulet. 

Pat Collins and Jim Cockrum look on as Terri Williams mimeographs UCC’s first college newspaper (1965).

Goulet, a Canadian immigrant, was employed briefly at the Red River Zoo in Fargo, ND, before becoming director of education at Winston, Oregon’s Wildlife Safari, where she worked with grade school students. She is only a few years older than the students she “advises,” and is not a member of the UCC faculty – rather she is, according to Pokrandt, “administrative personnel.” Goulet is apparently overreactive whenever the Winchester Dam is mentioned. She was recently recorded at a public meeting uttering profanities, bullying students, and restricting their free speech in matters pertaining to the controversial dam. When students suggested inviting a guest speaker to talk about the dam, Goulet insisted an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) official also be invited so that “both sides” would be represented — despite the fact that ODFW is the plaintiff in an unprecedented $27.5 million lawsuit against Goulet and the other 98 owners of the Winchester Dam.

UCC Student Engagement Coordinator Leila Goulet. “I know that some of my closest and most consistent relationships,” she told a Ted Talk audience, “have been with animals.”

As an immigrant who grew up 3,000 miles away in Quebec, Goulet is likely unaware that for several decades, ODFW has gone out of its way to help corporations and special interest groups like the WWCD skirt laws designed to protect fish and aquatic habitat. When the dams were removed from the Rogue River in neighboring Josephine County a few years ago, ODFW director Curt Melcher, refused to allow the fish ladders to be shut down or fish passage blocked for even one minute. But Melcher allowed fish passage on the North Umpqua River at Winchester Dam to be stopped for 30 sweltering days in August 2023, resulting in one of the biggest fish kills in state history – the needless slaughter of 550,000 Pacific lamprey, a wild migratory native fish sacred to local Indigenous tribes – as well as the $27.5 million lawsuit. ODFW director Melcher has since resigned in disgrace..

Students commuting to the UCC campus have no alternate route to the two-lane road through the wealthiest neighborhood in Douglas County – the homes surrounding the Winchester Dam. The proximity between the “haves” and the “have nots” in this geographic arrangement is particularly poignant. For most UCC’s rural poor students living in the lowest wage county on Oregon’s Highway 5 corridor, Goulet is the personification of everything the WWCD represents.

UCC Student Engagement Coordinator Leila Goulet exercising her privilege to go boating on the private water ski lake behind the Winchester Dam. Goulet and her 98 wealthy neighbors own the condemned Winchester Dam and are defendants in a $27.5 million lawsuit brought by the Oregon Department of Justice.

Indeed, many of the students work more than one minimum wage job to pay the interest on their student loan debt. They are cognizant that the lifestyle WWCD members enjoy is something they will never experience. In fact, wages are so low in Douglas County, most UCC students over the age of 30 have little expectation of owning a house.

In January of 2024, the staff of campus newspaper, The Mainstream, voted unanimously to print several articles on the Winchester Dam. But due to the on-campus climate of zero tolerance for students’ first amendment rights, these articles were never published, even though the paper carries the legal disclaimer, “Any opinions or art presented in The Mainstream do not represent the viewpoint of this newspaper or UCC.”

Ironically, the soon to be terminated journalism course (whose students publish The Mainstream) consistently draws higher enrollment than the Student Media or Public Relations classes UCC offers. 

How times have changed. Half a century ago, The Mainstream published “students’ perspectives on nuclear power and editorials opining for the Equal Rights Amendment.” Today, in a flagrant attempt to constrain students’ first amendment rights, president Pokrandt is neutralizing The Mainstream by turning it into a social media group so UCC administrators can police and censor everything the students post. 

Despite Pokrandt and Goulet’s ongoing effort to suppress discussion of the dam, support for its removal is widespread throughout Douglas County – so much so that at a town hall meeting on the UCC Campus on March 2, 2024, at which Pokranst introduced U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, the Senator asked for a show of hands to gauge support for removal of the dam; nine out of ten hands went up. Witnesses report that Pokrandt blanched when she saw that practically everyone in the 110 person audience raised their hand.

Free speech is an essential element of a healthy educational institution. American students deserve the opportunity to exercise their first amendment rights. And a student-run community college newspaper is an indicator of a democratic learning environment. 

Putting freedom of speech on the chopping block at is downright un-American.

UCC president Rachel Pokrandt