MPIRG fights for students and social issues

Each semester, students have the option to pay a $4.13 fee to support an organization that offers several benefits and unique opportunities to University students. The organization is the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, and the fee is both refusable and refundable.

MPIRG is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization solely directed by students across the state. For 31 years, students have worked through MPIRG to deal with environmental, consumer and social justice issues. Over the years, MPIRG students have established the University recycling program, created the Program Against Sexual Violence (now called the Aurora Center) and worked with The Minnesota Daily to switch to recycled newsprint. Currently, MPIRG students are working to get the University to buy non-

sweatshop-made apparel.

In addition to these University programs, MPIRG students and staff have been active in broader issues such as cleaning up dirty coal power plants and organizing a Twin Cities-wide Take Back The Night march and rally to raise awareness of the problems of sexual and domestic violence against women. MPIRG also produced the Twin Cities annual production of the “Vagina Monologues,” which has raised thousands of dollars for local women’s shelters.

But MPIRG is much more than these issues. MPIRG is an organization that allows students to get involved in dozens of issues that affect students at both the University and statewide level.

MPIRG is a place for civic training. Hundreds of MPIRG students work with a staff of researchers, organizers and advocates who weave their way through civic processes such as conducting public interest research or advocating passage of legislation.

The MPIRG fee is a refusable and refundable $4.13 fee. Students may refuse to pay the MPIRG fee when the “optional fees” screen pops up during online registration, or may request a refund anytime during the semester. The fee is the foundation of the organization. Only through its stability can students involved with MPIRG undertake long-term issues and hire a professional staff to work with students in areas in which students do not have expertise or experience. It is through this fee that MPIRG students can work on long-term issues such as generating more affordable housing in the Twin Cities.

The MPIRG fee was established through a direct majority action by the student body, the only time this has occurred in the University’s 150-year history. Over 24,000 students signed a petition electing to assess themselves a fee in order to fund an organization that would impact policy on both local and state levels.

Students valued the work MPIRG would do in a similar way that, as a society, we value having services, such as safe roads, funded through taxes. No one would argue that gasoline taxes could be replaced by putting a donation can in every parking lot. Even the Salvation Army, known for their kettles, gets very little of the money they raise from bell ringers. The majority comes from automatic deductions from paychecks.

The refusable and refundable option is a popular form of funding. In the most recent University survey, in 1998, 93 percent of the student body said they were satisfied with the MPIRG fee.

Some people feel the refusable/refundable fee is unfair and would like to see MPIRG use a donation system (yes/no or positive check-off). However, in addition to devaluing the work MPIRG does, a donation system (yes/no or positive check-off) is not a viable funding option.

In 1987, the University experimented with a donation system (yes/no) to fund additional student study space. While surveys indicated students overwhelmingly supported additional study space, less than two percent of students actually donated money, which never even covered the costs of administering the donation.

In another example, the University of Montana found in a study of PIRG funding systems that PIRG chapters that were switched to a donation system had a 90 percent decrease despite a majority of students expressing support in attitude surveys.

Finally, despite consistent and overwhelming public support for public financing of elections, less than 10 percent of taxpayers check the donation for presidential and state election campaigns, which neither increases the tax payment nor reduces the refund amount. There is no clear evidence a donation system would be sufficient to

fund MPIRG’s program or any other program.

MPIRG’s fee is fair and democratic. Originally, this was a mandatory fee, but the student leaders of MPIRG initiated a change in 1974 to adopt the refusable/refundable fee. They reasoned this would allow students to opt out if they disagreed with the work MPIRG was doing, while preserving the original desire of the majority of students to pay the fee. The refusable and refundable MPIRG fee provides for a person’s right to dissent while providing a stable funding system for the sophisticated programming of MPIRG.

Clearly, the MPIRG fee is the most democratic fee when compared to other student fees. Students support 33 organizations through the student services fee. All of these fees are mandatory. Only two fees are refusable and refundable: Student Legislative Coalition and MPIRG.

The MPIRG experiment started in 1971. Since its inception, Minnesota students have gained valuable civic skills and have effectively advocated for solutions to serious problems within our society.

The Student Services Fees Committee is hosting public hearings Wednesday, Feb. 27, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the West Bank Union Auditorium (Willey Hall); Thursday, Feb. 28, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Northstar Ballroom Lounge (St. Paul Student Center) and Friday, March 1, from noon to 2 p.m. in the West Bank Union Auditorium (Willey Hall). Please come and make your voice heard in support of students’ right to organize.


Sean Koebele and Kate Suchomel are MPIRG leaders at the University. Send comments to [email protected]