Last week OSPIRG had it’s annual budget hearing, and students packed into the room to speak out for and against the group. After nearly three hours of listening to presenters, the ACFC (which controls OSPIRG’s budget) adjourned the meeting without a vote. There will be a second budget hearing sometime next week.
As I mentioned earlier, the Commentator has opposed OSPIRG for most of our history, so I thought it might be useful to dig through the archive and give some context to the whole thing. You see, this has been going on for a long, long time.
But before I move on: Last year, the Daily Emerald ran a very good article, “The OSPIRG you can’t see,” that goes over much of the same material as this blog post. If you think we’re distorting or twisting facts, I would advise reading it. Many OSPIRG supporters accuse us of opposing the organization’s goals and trying to stop campus activism, but, as the aforementioned article says, “it’s all about money, visibility and tangible results.”
The PIRG system was founded in 1970 by Ralph “The Dour Knight” Nader and his many acolytes. PIRG stands for Public Interest Research Group. There is the national PIRG (USPIRG), as well as individual state PIRGs (Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, for instance).
These groups, individually and at large, lobby for a variety of liberal causes – comprehensive health care, environmental issues, rent control, etc. They also throw in some obligatory student issues, like textbook costs.
But here’s where things get tricky. Many campuses also have PIRG chapters, which feed into the state chapters. For example, here on campus we have the Oregon Students Public Interest Research Group. Yep, same acronym. In fact, both OSPIRGs share the same staff, same office and same telephone number. As Editor Emeritus Ossie Bladine wrote in a guest opinion in the ODE last year:
If you go to the Web site of the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group and the Oregon Students Public Interest Research Group, you will notice that contact information for the two groups, which claim to not be tied together, are the same: 1536 SE 11th Ave, Portland, OR; (503) 231-4181. This is because money that the student OSPIRG gets from Oregon universities goes to pay rent for a space in the state OSPIRG office. How much they pay is unknown, because the student OSPIRG does not have to list line items when it submits its annual budget to the ASUO Programs Finance Committee. For all we know, the rent could be a convenient way to launder money to the state OSPIRG, which could then use student funds to lobby its campaigns in the state agenda.
Currently, OSPIRG (the student one) receives roughly $120,000 of student funds. Most of it goes to OSPIRG’s Portland office to pay eight trained staff members. Only $25,000 stays on campus, and of that, $23,000 is the salary of a paid “campus organizer.” That leaves $2,000 for actual campus events. At last week’s budget hearing, when asked what OSPIRG had directly brought to campus, one OSPIRG member could only meekly bring up last year’s screening of Sicko.
What you’re seeing is, in essence, a giant pyramid scheme. The university chapters funnel money into the state chapters, which in turn funnel part of that money to the national PIRG. Radley Balko wrote in 2003 that the state PIRGs send roughly 10 percent of their budget to the national PIRG. What that figure is today, or even its veracity, is hard to determine because OSPIRG doesn’t have a line-item budget. OSPIRG is a contracted service through the ASUO.
If you’re still saying “so what?” consider: A large chunk of this money is involuntarily taken from students through mandatory fees. Once again: money is being taken off-campus through mandatory fees without a line-item budget or other way to keep track of it, all for explicitly political purposes.
And almost all public universities in Oregon have OSPIRG chapters … or at least they used to. Portland State University defunded their chapter last year, citing the same complaints as, well, everyone else. The University of Oregon now makes up about 60 percent of OSPIRG’s operating budget. Keep that in mind when you hear OSPIRG supporters talk about how desperately important it is to keep “empowering students” at the UO.
You see, OSPIRG’s power has been waning over the years. According to a 1999 article in the Oregon Commentator by Jonathan Collegio, OSPIRG used to receive $147,000. And that was at a time when the ASUO total budget was only $6.5 million, a bit more than half of the current budget.
If OSPIRG is defunded next week, it would be the end of a long, strange trip for us. As I mentioned before, we’ve been railing against the group for decades now. Here’s a a few highlights:
In 1995, Owen Brennan Rounds sued the State Board of Higher Education and OSPIRG, claiming the mandatory fees he paid as a student violated his First Amendment and association rights. He argued that the fee, specifically with regards to OSPIRG, compelled him to associate with and support the group.
In 1998, the Oregon Commentator spearheaded a campaign to defund OSPIRG. From the Daily Emerald article linked to at top:
In the 1970s, the number of OSPIRG groups peaked at around 12 campuses. Interest in the group slowly waned through the 1980s and it fell off Oregon State and Lewis and Clark’s campuses in the 1990s. In a heated campaign to bring down OSPIRG at the University of Oregon in the spring of 1998, a group known as “Honesty Campaign,” which was run by the Oregon Commentator and became OSPIRG’s main opponent, was successful in defunding the group during a campus-wide vote, 55 percent to 45 percent. It was the first time OSPIRG lost funding at the University.
But OSPIRG returned to the ballot and won back its funding in the spring of 1999. Since then, the Programs Finance Committee has allocated funds to the group as a contracted service.
To win back its funding, OSPIRG pulled out all the stops, including getting ol’ Ralph Nader himself to come speak on campus. It’s a tactic the group has used time and time again: when threatened, put on a big show to convince students that it actually does something for campus. And because of students and student government’s general lack of institutional memory, it works. (For example, next week OSPIRG is holding a benefit for Food for Lane County, which they announced at last night’s ASUO Senate meeting. What a coincidence that this should occur right now!)
Rounds’ case was finally decided in 1999, when the 9th District Court of Appeals ruled that his rights were not violated. The case was later cited in the Supreme Court case of Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, which ushered in the current era of “viewpoint neutrality.” (Coincidentally, viewpoint neutrality has saved the Commentator from being defunded once or twice, so maybe it all worked out for the best. Bladine layed out the specifics of viewpoint neutrality here.)
To finish up, I thought I’d quote old EIC Ted Niedermeyer, who wrote this on the occasion of OSPIRG crying when they didn’t get a big enough budget increase two years ago:
Dear OSPIRG, how I hate you. Please go away and die somewhere. You are totaly cynical, yet piously defensive when called out. I don’t understand why liberals like you. Even when I was a liberal I hated you. I’m sorry you didn’t think $1,681 increase was enough, but I’m even sorrier the PFC didn’t defund you entirely when you came back whining for more. Fuck you. Love, Ted.