Donation system violates student rights

I would like to propose an additional group be included in the Web registration system. This group would be called the “Minnesota Party Uninhibited Revelry Grant Establishment.” A long name, I know, but a group dedicated to a lofty goal: partying. This organization, MPURGE, would be headed by me and guided by a vision statement including and limited to throwing wild weekend soirees at my house (e.g., bean dip, frosty beverages, confetti and karaokeing to Barry Manilow).

This is how student contributions would work: you’d sign into the Web registration system at the beginning of each semester, and before being able to register for classes, you’d be given the option of declining to pay a semester fee of $4.13 to MPURGE. However, if you make no selection, you’d be automatically charged this fee.

Some students might complain such a “donation” system is a bit shady. However, I figure since students have the option to decline, this amounts to “consent.” This system might be charged with taking advantage of students who rush through the registration system or don’t realize they have the option of denying the fee. It should be obvious, however – after all, we’re intelligent college students.

If you end up contributing to MPURGE and want your $4.13 back, you could simply stop by my office or, even simpler, call my office, give me your name and student ID number and I’d reimburse your STARS account. I might glower a bit though, since you’re not on the party bus. I mean, what kind of curmudgeon would be against fun, frolic and fandango?

By now, you might realize this is a flimsy attempt at satire. In the past two weeks, there have been several letters back and forth regarding the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group’s questionable infiltration into the Web registration system, where students are automatically charged a “donation” to MPIRG unless the student actively declines to pay.

I am sympathetic to recent student complaints denouncing this as theft. While MPIRG isn’t lifting any wallets from student’s back pockets or mugging students on the Washington Avenue Bridge, they are relying on student apathy or confusion to get many of these contributions. Even if this isn’t MPIRG’s intention, they must admit this is how they score many of their contributions.

MPIRG supporters argue this donation system isn’t theft. They state students are intelligent people who should be able to figure out the Web registration system. Ironically, this argument probably comes from the same liberals who were whining about Florida’s controversial butterfly ballots in the last Presidential election (I was one of those whiners, but at least I’m consistent). This argument is obnoxious sophistry – intelligence has nothing to do with it.

The fact is many students are zipping through the registration system and might not realize they are being pickpocketed by MPIRG. Some other students have been prey to a glitch in the system that resets the MPIRG fee back to the default “yes” after a certain time has elapsed in the computer registration. Then there are those students who feel pressured into leaving the checkbox marked “yes,” because they feel this is what they’re supposed to do.

Personally, I support MPIRG and I agreeably left the donation checkbox marked “yes” as I registered for classes this semester. I’m grateful for the work they’ve done over the past 30 years, and the work they continue to do. I support their activism to advance social justice and students rights. I appreciate their efforts to register students to vote, organize student activities and raise thousands of dollars for women’s groups in the Twin Cities.

However, even if MPIRG is a benevolent association, this does not necessitate a student automatically be signed up to donate. There are certainly other organizations nobler than MPIRG, to which I’m not automatically presumed a donor. No individual should be signed up to donate to any fund without that individual’s express consent. The current MPIRG “donation” system misrepresents this consent, and is a violation of students’ autonomy. Consent means actively saying “yes,” not just declining from marking “no.” Consider what would happen if our legal system defined consent as merely “not saying no.” The results would be chilling.

MPIRG supporters have countered that, if a student wants his or her money back, it’s easy enough to get a refund – just call their offices. Refunds might be easy, but students are busy – we don’t have the time or inclination to look up MPIRG’s number and call their offices to be reimbursed the $4.13. Columbia House told me how easy it would be to get refunds on music I didn’t want – now I’m stuck with five David Hasslehoff compact discs.

But the alleged ease of a refund misses the point: the general grievance is not about money, it’s about principle. MPIRG shouldn’t be able to write themselves a check from my checkbook in the first place. It entirely misses the point for MPIRG to respond to my complaint by saying, “If you don’t want us to cash the check, just call your bank and cancel it.” MPIRG should keep its hands out of my checkbook altogether. Students shouldn’t have to do a goddamn thing to keep their finances totally under their control, no matter how easy it is to unclick “yes” or to call for a refund.

The MPIRG contribution setup is a parasitic rider on the Web registration system, and, as such, should be killed. It is another issue if there should even be a “neutral” system in its place where the default is either unmarked or set at “no, I do not want to contribute.” At least this revised system would be more representative of the will of each student.

The vandals who ripped down some MPIRG flyers two weeks ago might have had a legitimate point – that MPIRG’s contribution system is unjust – but this doesn’t justify their juvenile actions. There is more intelligent recourse than this. I’m not sure why MPIRG is complaining about the vandalism, however. After all, the people at MPIRG simply have to go to the nearest copier, duplicate more flyers and post them again. What could be easier than that? In fact, it seems just as easy as calling MPIRG for a refund. Surely the people at MPIRG are intelligent enough to know how to use a copier and stapler; they’re college students after all. I’m sure it would even cost less than $4.13 – a single duped student forgetting to click “no” could finance that.

But perhaps I’m being obtuse, and MPIRG is decrying this minor vandalism not because of these trivialities, but because of the principle of the act. Of course, that’s my very point.

Matt Brophy’s column appears alternate weeks. He welcomes comments at
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