MPIRG celebrates its 25th anniversary

Bei Hu

While many of his Harvard Law School peers were making six-figure incomes and working in corporate legal firms in 1971, John Herman was working out of a shabby office and taking home considerably less money.
Herman wanted to work in public service more than he wanted a cushy income, and he found his niche while he was working for the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, a fledgling student-run grass-roots organization.
“We had the seediest office you could ever imagine,” he said. “All of our furniture was either a hand-me-down, or we made it ourselves.”
MPIRG will on Tuesday celebrate its 25th anniversary. Over the years the Minnesota-based organization has grown to include chapters on nine Minnesota college campuses, including the University’s Twin Cities, Morris and Duluth campuses. An estimated 30,000 students contribute time, energy or funds to the group each year.
“(MPIRG) was born out of radical politics that were intended to get your hands dirty and do the day-to-day things that were necessary to implement changes,” said Lawrence Pogemiller, who joined the group in the early 1970s. Today he is a five-term state senator, D-Minneapolis.
As part of the celebration, at 7:45 p.m. on Tuesday consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the Green Party presidential candidate in the 1996 election, will deliver a keynote speech. The extravaganza will also bring together MPIRG alumni, of whom 1,800 are expected.
“Basically what we want to do is to celebrate 25 years of student activism,” said Heather Cusick, the group’s executive director.
“It’s one of the few student experiments in the 1970s that has lived and is still as essential today as it was 25 years ago,” she said.
Nader, known as the father of student-supported public interest research groups, inspired the organization’s formation when he spoke on the St. Paul campus in September, 1970, said Karim Ahmed, MPIRG’s co-founder.
Hundreds of volunteers launched a petition drive in January 1971 and collected nearly 50,000 student signatures from college campuses throughout Minnesota. They also garnered the support of about 26,000 students — or 63 percent of the student body — at the University.
Ahmed said zealous volunteers even solicited support in men’s bathrooms. “We completely blanketed the University,” he said.
MPIRG’s Twin Cities campus chapter now has more than 40 student volunteers. They work with professional staff members to identify issues, conduct research and lobby for legislation.
Cusick, who has been involved in student advocacy groups for about a decade, said the Minnesota chapters have a two-part mission.
The first component of the mission is “to advance issues that students care about, to actually effectively engage (students) and change the way the society is,” she said.
An equally important component of the group’s mission, Cusick said, is engaging students in the civic process. “It uses the voice of students in issues of public policy,” she said.
In its early days, MPIRG members demonstrated outside the Food and Drug Administration’s office on Hennepin Avenue in order to urge the passage of legislation requiring pre-market testing of cosmetic products.
Students also picketed the Hennepin County Government Center and the University’s medical center when they were under construction. They handed out leaflets to construction workers warning of the danger of inhaling asbestos, a chemical linked to health problems.
When armed Minneapolis police officers clashed with University students during a 1971 campus protest against the Vietnam War, MPIRG representatives sought a federal court injunction to bar city police from coming to campus.
Over the years, the organization has lobbied for the protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota from motorized vehicles and logging. It’s efforts have led to the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, which declared the area “paddle-only.”
MPIRG sponsored a canoe trip down the Mississippi River this past summer to protest attempts to open more areas to motor vehicles.
The group has also tried to stall Northern States Power Co. from installing a dry-cask storage facility for high-level radioactive waste at its Prairie Island power plant. Currently, members are investigating, among other things, state investment in the tobacco industry.
Although the group is primarily known for its influence in far-reaching social policy issues, it is also concerned with more immediate interests of college students, interests such as keeping tuition costs low and urging minimum wage increases, said Cusick and Aimee Tsuchiya, a College of Liberal Arts junior and current chairwoman of the group’s state board of directors.
At the University level, the organization has successfully lobbied for the student regent position and also restored the state-wide renter’s tax credit in 1988, which had been cut by 33 percent. It has published about five editions of the Tenant-Landlord Guidebook
But MPIRG is not without opposition.
“MPIRG does things that are not noncontroversial,” said Charles Dayton, who gave up 40 percent of his salary at a prominent law firm to become the organization’s first legal director.
Cusick said the organization’s criticisms of corporate interests has resulted in hostility from some businesses. But much of the antagonism on campus against the group stems from the way its portion of student fees are collected.
At MPIRG’s inception, University students each paid $1 per quarter. The amount was automatically collected, but was refundable upon request. In the mid-1970s, a negative check-off system was installed. Students could indicate their refusal to pay the fee by checking “no” in a box on registration forms.
Some students have called this method coercive, and have argued for a positive check-off system. Under the proposed system, students would not be asked to contribute to the organization unless they check “yes” in boxes.
According to Cusick, the number of University students who pay the MPIRG student fee has fluctuated between 55 and 60 percent. She said University students contribute about $110,000 a year to the organization, and this money constitutes one-third to one-half of MPIRG’s budget.
In addition to influencing public policy issues, the organization has also launched many University students onto promising careers.
“A lot of MPIRG alumni go on to be leaders in some capacity in the community,” Cusick said.