Students for Public Interest Research Group in Michigan has generated a lot of support — and a lot of controversy — in its effort to establish a funded chapter on campus. Arguing that a PIRGIM chapter would fight for students on issues ranging from textbook pricing to tenants’ rights, it sought $20,000 from the Michigan Student Assembly’s discretionary fund to pay for a year-long trial period to demonstrate results for students.
That effort has been stalled by an injunction filed last month arguing that a PIRGIM chapter would imperil MSA’s tax-exempt status. Since then, students following the issue have had a quick lesson on 501(c)(3) organizations, the Southworth cases, and other such lovely bits of tax law. The injunction was upheld last week, and it appears PIRGIM’s funding request will be firmly bound in red tape for the foreseeable future.
If Students for PIRGIM is able to navigate the MSA bureaucracy and gets funding for a trial period, it will then have to seek a permanent source of funding through student fees. Such a funding method would most likely require a student fee increase approved by the University Board of Regents. A look at PIRGIM’s past, however, hints that trying to fund a full chapter on campus through student fees might ultimately be a losing battle.
A PIRGIM chapter was started on campus in 1972 after the regents were presented with a petition of over half the student body supporting PIRGIM. The regents agreed to allow PIRGIM to seek funding through the University’s fee collection system from students wishing to donate, so long as they maintained the support of one-third of the student body. With a shift in the registration system in 1975, the opt-in system was replaced with an unpopular negative check-off system that automatically assessed fees for PIRGIM but allowed students to seek a refund.
In 1977, the regents agreed to go back to the opt-in system, and PIRGIM soon saw a drop in funding below the one-third student support mandated in the 1972 agreement. Seeing in PIRGIM a constructive alternative to the chaotic activism of the ’60s and ’70s, several regents at the time actively supported PIRGIM. They cut the minimum required support to 25 percent and then 20 before eliminating the requirement altogether. But by fall term 1985, only 8.5 percent of students chose to donate to PIRGIM, and the regents cut the group off from the student fee system. PIRGIM sought funds from MSA for a couple of years thereafter, apparently in vain.
Obviously, this all happened decades ago, and the specifics of PIRGIM’s efforts to get funding will be different this time around. What doesn’t seem to have changed, however, is the slope of the hill PIRGIM will have to climb.
Throughout the entire time there was chapter on campus, PIRGIM had to fight for its funding. Its members worked constantly to persuade students to pay the PIRGIM fee. In 1981, they mounted a failed campaign to return to the negative check-off fee system. In 1983, they scrambled to combat a petition of 7,000 students opposing PIRGIM.
Funding seems to have taken priority again. Students for PIRGIM chair Carolyn Hwang told me that although some work is ongoing on a housing campaign, most of Students for PIRGIM’s work has been stalled because of the campaign to gain funding for a chapter.
I support having a PIRGIM chapter on campus, and I’d be happy to see a couple dollars of my fees every term go to the group. But I even more strongly support having an active group fighting for students’ rights in Ann Arbor. MSA, with its bureaucracy, its cautiousness and the ever-present suspicion that its members are only involved to pad their resumes, doesn’t exactly seem to be doing the job.
Even if PIRGIM is successful in establishing a chapter on campus, its activities will be limited by the necessity to avoid lobbying due to MSA’s tax-exempt status. They couldn’t, for instance, lobby the Ann Arbor City Council to do something — anything — about the housing situation. A separate student fee for PIRGIM independent of MSA might be able to avoid this, but it’s anyone’s guess if the regents would go along with it, or for how long.
I can’t fully gauge whether the benefits of having a full chapter would outweigh the potential restrictions on lobbying and the struggles that will be necessary to get and keep funding. By continuing to operate as an independent student group, though, Students for PIRGIM wouldn’t have to worry about getting student fee money or avoiding lobbying, and could still accomplish a lot. Having a PIRGIM chapter would probably help with local issues, but the main thing that’s needed is for student activists to invest their time, and lots of it.
Unlike many student groups focused on broad idealistic goals, PIRGIM — whether as a chapter or a regular student group — could bring about real improvements for students. There are some extraordinarily dedicated activists involved in Students for PIRGIM, and I’d hate to see all their effort used up learning tax codes and MSA bylaws.
Zbrozek can be reached at email@example.com.