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The Whole, Ugly Scoop on OSPIRG

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.

  1. […] of large firms, Hitchcock said.” More on the PIRG groups here, here, here, here, here, and here (& more in comments and from Deputy […]

  2. […] PIRG money has a funny way of leaving campus. […]

  3. […] Oregon Commentator also has a great write-up on its blog: Currently, OSPIRG (the student one) receives roughly $120,000 of student funds. Most of it goes to […]

  4. Josh M. says:

    When are you guys going to do a movie night? I recommend “Gran Torino.”

  5. Sorry, Oberlin sucks says:

    1) Affirmation process you mention is somewhat invalid. You’re extending what happens at your college and trying to apply it to UO. We actually don’t get to vote/sign a petition on funding OSPIRG every two years – or really any year. See: above Commentator talks about defunding in 1998 through referendum. Students voted to defund them 55 to 45 percent, but then OSPIRG got refunded by ASUO the following year. Sketchy, at best.
    2) I don’t know how your private college works, but damn. I totally wish I could opt out of our incidental fee. In short, students don’t get to “opt out” of paying this fee. Another moot point.
    3) “Supporting advancing issues” according to the PIRG, or specifically OSPIRG involves money and giving that money to administrators and politicians who then “advocate” for issues at both state and federal levels. In actuality, this is called lobbying and is illegal as a contracted service at the UO. This is why they have defaulted to saying they are an advocacy group when they lobby.
    4) Screw your “structure.” Consistently trying to evade certain budgetary processes is weak sauce. Being a contracted service means they don’t have to provide a line item budget. Back in the 80s they tried to get their budget reviewed every two years instead of one. OSPIRG constantly tries to ask for more money. Only $25,000 of their $120,000 budget stays on campus. $23,000 is to pay an outreach coordinator.

    Maybe I’m beating a dead horse though because it seems you actually didn’t read this or any other article regarding OSPIRG on the Oregon campus. Shame on you, Leah Pine. It sounds like you’ve had some involvement with PIRG or you just decided to stick your nose into UO issues without any real warrant. Either way, none of your points apply to the situation here in Oregon.

  6. Leah Pine says:

    The major fundamental problem with this article is that it neglects the PIRG affirmation process that legitimizes its funding. At least on my campus, Oberlin College, OHPIRG is required to get a huge number of student signatures every 2 years to verify that students want to fund it. Furthermore, any student has the right to opt out of paying the fee. Perhaps this is not the case with OSPIRG, and that is a shame. But on another note, I don’t believe that Student PIRG chapters really do aim to bring a lot to campuses–rather, they are intended to rally student support for advancing issues in the public interest that often take place largely off campus. In this case, it is perfectly logical that resources would be channelled away from campus, and also that student PIRG chapters would have such a close relationship with the state office. That is not money-laundering, it is structure. I hope nobody actually takes stock in that ridiculous and unsupported accusation.

  7. Ossie says:

    Great article, CJ. A long, strange trip indeed. In the first issue of the OC, there is an article about OSPIRG trying to convince the ASUO to allow the group to go through the budgeting process every two years, instead of every one year like every other student group. I forget the whole context, but i know that an OC founder (I think it was Rust) was integral in pointing out how illegal this request was and the ASUO shut down OSPIRG’s request.

  8. Kai Davis says:

    Wonderful article, CJ.

  9. Niedermeyer says:

    Goodness I’ve mellowed in my old age…

  10. raz says:

    As a liberal and former PIRG employee, I disagree with virtually everything in this paper, but the main points of this article are spot on. A large part of the money from student fees are funneled off campus to state and national PIRG offices. It is also used to fund Environment Oregon, which split off from OSPIRG to run strictly environmental campaigns. And don’t let the PIRGs get away with saying the chapters are run by students. The vast majority of students of are on campus and state boards are simply rubber stamp votes that reflect the agenda of the national PIRG staff. I think OSPIRG does do alot of good work, but I wish they would be more honest and open about how they spend student fees.

  11. shelly says:

    stop writing on white chalk boards.

  12. Ghost of Athan says:


  13. Thanks for the info, OC.

    I spoke with someone on the ACFC recently who suggested that they be funded as a student group and therefor be disallowed to send money off-campus. Feelings about the group aside, I think that is the most reasonable approach to take.

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