Faculty, staff members support MPIRG

by Emily Dalnodar

Amid political opposition, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group recently found new and old friends.
A group of eight University faculty and staff members, calling themselves Faculty in Support of MPIRG, have rallied behind the public interest group. This comes in light of its recent change in status concerning student services fees and some opposing activism that threatens its position.
The supporting committee sent out a letter to all University faculty and staff asking them to put their name behind MPIRG. They received 326 signatures from departmental staff members ranging from agriculture to women’s studies.
“We heard their funding was in question,” said Bill Cunningham, professor of genetics and cell biology and member of the founders committee. “I think it’s a really valuable contribution to the University.”
Twenty-five years ago, Cunningham stood behind MPIRG when its position on campus was threatened by opposing groups. Now MPIRG needs support again, and Cunningham said he’s glad to stand behind the group.
“The faculty is the most common link with MPIRG throughout all of its history,” said Heather Cusick, executive director of MPIRG.
Two main concerns MPIRG has are its status for receiving student services fees and activism against its group.
Its position in the student services fees process is less secure than it has been since its beginning at the University in 1971.
The Board of Regents had reviewed MPIRG’s fees request since its inception 26 years ago, meaning the group’s main contract was not with the student services fees committee like other groups.
But because of a recent administration decision, MPIRG now has to go through the fees committee every year to renew its funding.
This prompted MPIRG to go out on campus and collect signatures from students a few weeks ago.
“We wanted to demonstrate that students still support MPIRG, and we also did it because of this special interest attack,” Cusick said.
Most of the students MPIRG has come into contact with have given support. In its three-day search, MPIRG had more than 5,500 people who signed in support.
And with the backing of more than 300 University faculty and staff members, MPIRG is showing that it does have encouragement from the college community it represents.
“I do have an interest in the continued protection of natural areas in the Twin Cities, and MPIRG is a real resource to communicate these issues,” said Barbara Lukermann, director of Graduate Studies and also a member of the faculty founders committee.
But some students have problems with the group and don’t necessarily agree with its purposes.
“As a group, we are against MPIRG because of their negative-funding fees, and also because of their extreme environmental activism,” said Bill Gillis, chairman of the College Republicans.
In addition to the College Republicans, Bill Cooper, CEO of TCF banking and chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, began a letter-writing campaign last summer against MPIRG. He also urged University President Mark Yudof to vote “no” should anything come up in favor of the group.
Cooper was unavailable for comment, but Tony Sutton, executive director of the State Republican Party commented for the party.
“MPIRG claims they are nonpartisan, which is why they say they should be part of the negative check- off, but we don’t think they are nonpartisan. We think they favor one party over another, and should not be using state money for it,” Sutton said.
Negative check-off is when a group automatically receives money from each student via student services fees. However, these students have the option to decline contributing to MPIRG when they register for classes.
MPIRG, however, is clearly a nonpartisan, nonprofit group and has been since the very beginning, Cusick said.
“What concerns me the most is that you have a small number of very, very far-to-the-right people who don’t want to see students involved in activism or politics,” Cusick said.
For the most part, students and staff members have been impressed with what MPIRG has been doing, Cusick said.
“In the 70s, it was important to have that public interest information. There were protests, and activists needed information to base their decision on. Now it’s different. There’s apathy. People don’t get involved with things much anymore, so MPIRG is a really valuable source,” Cunningham said.