On Monday and Tuesday, a referendum will be held to determine the future of Minnesota Public Interest Research Group’s (MPIRG) chapter on campus. If a majority of the voting population votes ‘Yes,’ the referendum will be followed by a renegotiation of MPIRG’s contract with MCSG, while a majority of students voting ‘No’ will result in the termination of MPIRG’s current contract with Macalester College.
MPIRG is a Minnesota nonprofit that works to represent student voices in the state legislature. It has had a chapter on campus since 1971. They currently have multiple task forces working on issues surrounding environmental justice, health, gender and sexuality, and economic justice.
Unlike all other student orgs on campus, MPIRG is funded through a contract with MCSG that currently allocates $6 per semester from each Student Activity Fee to MPIRG. The contract allows students to opt out of giving MPIRG their $6 each semester. If students choose to opt out, their money is returned to MCSG’s operating fund. Additionally, and this is what will be occurring next week, MPIRG must hold a referendum every three years.
“Since MPIRG is funded differently than other student orgs, we have a different set of rules we have to go by,” McMeeking said. “Part of that is having the opt-out every semester, and also every three years, according to our current contract, we have a referendum where the student body has the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to have a chapter of MPIRG on campus.”
This contractual relationship dates back to when MCSG was created, as MPIRG was already present on campus, and already collecting a fee from the student body. When MCSG was created, MPIRG signed a contract with the newly formed student government in order to continue collecting money from the student body.
“When MCSG came into existence, because we had this contract with the students, it became a contract with MCSG,” MPIRG co-chair Miranda Adams said. A form of this contract has been in place since its initial creation.
According to Adams, if the referendum fails and the present contract expires, it will be essentially impossible for MPIRG, as an organization and in its current iteration, to return to campus. However, the debate has focused on MPIRG’s funding structure rather than its continued presence on campus.
“The only way we could have a presence is if MCSG would allow us to budget with them. And that would require a change to the bylaws,” Adams said. “If the student body wanted us back, they would not only have to go through MCSG, they would also have petition to bring MPIRG back.”
“Essentially this could be the end of MPIRG at Macalester forever,” Adams said.
Adams said that in similar cases, other colleges have regretted their decision to jettison MPIRG, and have made efforts to bring the organization back years later. However, this is not an option at Macalester.
“If other campuses lose MPIRG over a referendum, they often come back. Students realize, ‘Oh, we made a mistake,’ or a couple years go by and they realize ‘Why did that happen? We want them back,”’ Adams said. “And that can’t happen at Macalester. MPIRG can’t come back. Partially, it’s because we aren’t [like] every other org, but it’s also because there are walls that we would not be able to get over to get funding for the programming we do on campus.”
Some students see the potential finality of this decision as an important reason to support MPIRG’s continued presence on campus.
“Without the funding guaranteed by the contract, Macalester will risk losing its MPIRG chapter. While everyone’s views may not always align with MPIRG’s work, I think it’s important to keep Macalester’s chapter running so that students who would like to make a difference in state policy have the option to do so with a well-established organization,” Ashley Lund ’17, an unaffiliated student, said. “Many students come to Macalester with interests in law, public policy and social activism, and this organization provides an opportunity for ‘hands-on’ learning. MPIRG is a student-directed organization with significant professional resources, and I encourage those who would like to see modifications made to join MPIRG and have their voices heard in a productive, respectful manner.”
However, students advocating a ‘No’ vote on the referendum have had a very visible presence on campus. Its unique funding mechanism — the opt-out system — has been one of the largest points of contention for students who oppose MPIRG in the referendum, as many see it as inherently unethical.
“The crux of it is the opt-out funding scheme that exploits uninformed and unmotivated students at Macalester at the expense of our many other valuable student organizations,” Ryan Daly ’15 said. “MPIRG is the only organization on campus that enjoys financial gains when students are unaware of its funding mechanism.”
Many students have suggested that an opt-in funding mechanism would be a more equitable system. However, MPIRG is currently not funded by opt-in systems at any schools in the state. According to McMeeking, the public universities with MPIRG chapters have automatic fees with no option to redirect one’s money, while most private schools use opt-out systems like Macalester. While the state-level MPIRG does allow an opt-in system in its bylaws, according to MPIRG co-chair Miranda Adams ’15, it is only allowed if “exceptional need” can be demonstrated. After negotiations last spring, it is clear that an opt-in system is not on the table in this referendum or the contract negotiations that would follow.
“The reason MPIRG has to have this referendum and this funding structure is because it is different,” Adams said. “It offers something other organizations don’t. It is a statewide organization and it’s run by the students. There are a lot of orgs [that] do on-campus events and we do as well, but one reason that we have the different funding is that we’re more than that — we do things off campus, we go to the capitol, we have lobby days.”
Other students contend that the amount of money MPIRG gets each semester and how they use it, not just the way they receive it, is an issue.
“The money is not staying within Macalester. All the money that I request, or another org requests, from MCSG is being used for events or student needs that are happening on campus,” Lucy Westerfield ’15 said. “With MPIRG, that money, due to the nature of the contract, goes directly to Minnesota MPIRG [as opposed to the campus chapter of the organization]. To me, my money that I’m paying in a student activity fund should be going to things that are happening on this campus that are benefitting me directly.”
Due to the separate financing process, questions about where MPIRG’s money goes have arisen. According to Adams, some of the money is used to pay the campus organizer for Macalester. However, some students in opposition to the contract take issue with what they see as the lack of financial accountability for MPIRG to the student body.
“I feel very uncomfortable with them getting this lump sum that is then unaccounted for,” Westerfield said. “With MPIRG there’s just no accountability, or need for accountability, because of the contract.”
MPIRG, however, thinks that the nature of its contract in fact creates accountability, as it requires renegotiation every three years.
“I do think there’s a lot of accountability for MPIRG, given that we’re a nonprofit organization so we have to do financial disclosures, we get voted on every three years to see if we can stay on campus, which no other org has to do, we’re the only org that you can opt out of funding,” McMeeking said.
Forum held last Tuesday
Much of this discussion occurred around forum the Election Procedures Committee (EPC) held on Tuesday.
During the town hall-style meeting, which provided a public forum on the referendum, MPIRG was given an opportunity to provide context for the referendum and provide an open dialogue for students both opposed to and in favor of passing the referendum.
A group of nearly 50 Macalester students participated in the discussion and clarification of facts that had become muddled during the past several weeks.
MPIRG member and current at-large FAC member Samuel Doten ’16, addressed another common concern of the opposition regarding funding of MPIRG in relation to cultural student organizations.
“There is one misconception about MPIRG, which is that it receives twice the money that all cultural orgs receive,” Doten said. “MPIRG does not get more than all the cultural orgs combined. All cultural orgs receive a total of $67,000.”
Moderators James Lindgren ’15 and Jennie Kim ’15, the FAC chair, addressed several specific questions regarding MPIRG’s financing structure, past opt-out participation and finances compared to other student orgs. In response to a student query, Kim reiterated information about where the money goes if a student does opt out.
“If students opt out, the money is put in MCSG’s operating fund and distributed to other student orgs,” Kim said. “This fall, 288 opted out, out of 1,924 students that were charged the activity fee. 1,636 students [did not opt-out] and the portion of their student activity fee went to MPIRG.”
The 288 that opted out was approximately double the number of students who opted out last year, at 139. Lindgren explained that the funding which MPIRG receives fluctuates on a yearly basis based on the number of students who choose to opt out, and that this semester, the organization received $9,816. Last year, MPIRG received a total of about $22,000.
History of the Referendum
In past years, MPIRG has had more exposure and widespread engagement on campus. Last time the contract was up for referendum and renegotiation, in 2011, the student body voted in favor of raising the fee from $3 per semester to the current $6. This year’s referendum has a decidedly different feel.
“In the past, the voter turnout for the MPIRG referendum used to be far better than the MCSG elections,” Lindgren said. “A thousand-plus people would vote in the MPIRG referendum and it would pass with something like a 60 percent margin. People would still vote against it, but it was a big turnout and now that’s been flipped.”
In the spring, more than 1,000 students voted for current MCSG president Rothin Datta ’16, but only 253 voted in the MPIRG referendum. A referendum on the contract was held last spring, but due to procedural violations in the voting process, the Judicial Council deemed the referendum invalid.
Prior to the referendum being invalidated, MCSG and MPIRG renegotiated a contract which remains the starting point for negotiations this fall, should the referendum pass. The contract was temporarily extended for one semester because of these complications, and a new referendum will be held again this coming week.
MCSG and MPIRG have taken steps to ensure this referendum isn’t subject to a similar fate. Additional delegation of responsibility regarding future referendums will be taken up in the negotiation process should the referendum pass.
For now, though, the EPC has been tasked with running the referendum — in part to deal with past issues regarding promoting and carry out the voting process.
The EPC has taken steps to ensure that this referendum is carried out according to MCSG bylaws and the existing contract.
“The EPC has worked hard to clarify with all involved the bylaws related to this and clarify the campaigning rules,” Director of Campus Life Keith Edwards said. Edwards is also the advisor to the EPC.
The EPC, along with MCSG and MPIRG, has put in place rules to ensure that this referendum runs smoothly and avoids the issues that occurred in the spring. Among these are limitations on campaigning by MCSG and MPIRG, the two parties bringing the referendum on the contract. The campaign period, based off of MCSG elections, began this Monday and will continue until midnight on Tuesday, Nov. 18. Additionally, the EPC has determined that MCSG executives cannot take a position on the election according to their bylaws.
“The EPC met with MPIRG to clarify all of this and answered lots of questions and came to a good common understanding,” Edwards said. “The EPC has also been in touch with MCSG executives about the campaign rules as well. The EPC’s goal is to avoid campaign violations and move the referendum forward to a vote without incident.”