Unbeknownst to many, statewide org gets MCSG funding

By Nate Oglesbee

You may recall finding a small slip of paper in your SPO early this semester about transferring MCSG funds to the nonpartisan Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG). You may also recall promptly throwing it away.That slip of paper was the only indication that most students would get that $10,000 from the MCSG coffers is donated, under contract, to the state MPIRG organization, with no strings attached, from an annual operating budget of $300,000. This amount is taken from funds automatically “collected” from every Macalester student, $6 each. With that contract up for review next semester, some have begun to question whether this is a justifiable way to spend student money. MCSG President Ben Johnson ’06 said “I don’t know that the benefits for Mac students are equal to the amount that we give the state organization.”

That slip of paper, delivered to every SPO, allows students to formally request that their $6 remain with Macalester College Student Government, and not leave the school to go to MPIRG, over which Macalester has no control. “I’d prefer to have even $4 and just advocate for myself,” Dylan Calmes ’09 said.

Yet a grand total of only 28 Macalester students took the time to follow through with a request that those funds remain with the MCSG by filling out the slip. This low number could be due to student support for MPIRG, or against the MCSG, but a more likely culprit for many could simply be confusion about the issue and a lack of knowledge about MPIRG (pronounced “EHM-puhrg”). MPIRG members try to be realistic: “Everyone who doesn’t give their slip is not necessarily a supporter,” said MPIRG Campus Co-Chair Katie Ashton ’06.

MPIRG is centered on college campuses, its funding coming from student fees, and those students are who it aims to benefit the most. MPIRG.org says “MPIRG serves its 20,000 community members in numerous ways-offering educational events and advocacy opportunities, organizing Minnesotans into a cohesive voice for political and social change and passing meaningful public interest reform.” They are careful not to be confused with the lobbying firms that represent interests they oppose: “We’re a lobbying firm only in the sense that we train people to be citizen lobbyists, whether it’s meeting legislators or writing letters. We set up events and demonstrations,” said Organizing Director and paid staffer Sean Koebele, who helps coordinate the Macalester MPIRG chapter.

MPIRG essentially offers the student body the choice to be part of a greater movement advocating for student issues, supporters say. “It’s the only statewide organization out there that links schools and can affect policy,” MacMPIRG Chair Trudy Rebert ’07 said. “It gives skills in helping students be more effective in making changes, and can be effective because of its strong structure.”

When it was created at the University of Minnesota in 1970, MPIRG was revolutionary in its concept of a student advocacy group. The organization is completely run by students.

“Statewide, there is a state board, students from all campuses elected in it, they make all our decisions,” Koebele said. “I take my directions from students. They are, for all intents and purposes, the heads. They hire and fire staff, and make all budget decisions.” Minnesota created the template for such advocacy, but remains unique among PIRGs. In 1984, the USPIRG was formed, with mixed reactions from Koebele.

“We’ve been asked to join; a slight benefit involved would be more funding, but the huge drawback would be loss of autonomy and student leadership, and consistently the student board has decided they liked student leadership, so we are one of only two PIRGs not affiliated,” Koebele said.

But the question remains: is MPIRG a good investment for Macalester students, and

should Macalester should renew its contract with MPIRG?

Macalester students are certainly in the dark as to what MPIRG is doing for them. “I know they’re on campus, but I have no idea what they do for us,” Victoria Harris ’09 said.

“I don’t think that most students are at all aware of what MPIRG does at the state level,” Johnson said.

The state MPIRG destination of the MCSG money can be misleading. In the 2004-2005 budget, Macalester student fees provided $10,598, and statewide program grants amounted to $312.19, totaling $10,910.19. All told, expenditures for the Macalester MPIRG chapter came to $10,908.94, indicating most of the money goes back to Macalester, though paid staff salaries are also figured in.

“[Of those student fees] a good chunk is my salary, a good chunk goes to a paid student intern from Macalester, and various things like printing costs, for example the postcard drive we’re doing for renewable energy,” Koebele said. “The students tell me what they want me to do.”

The Macalester MPIRG chapter also receives funds from MCSG directly. To date, only $100 of those funds have been spent this semester, and next semester the chapter expects to receive $750 in funding.

The state MPIRG student board of directors chooses the issues on which MPIRG will focus, and any student can submit a proposal. Each issue is adopted for two years. Current issues include environmental justice and fair trade, while past issues like women’s rights and the Fair and Clean Elections bill (FACE) continue to be worked on. On campus, MPIRG will be holding a Fair Trade bazaar, along with the postcard campaign, and later in the year will host the annual production of the Vagina Monologues, which raises funds for women’s shelters. At Macalester, 15 to 20 members show up for the weekly meetings, around 50 members usually attend events, and around 100 people are on the e-mail list for the group, which is open to all Macalester students.

Last year, Macalester students collected 200 signatures for an MPIRG survey on student knowledge and support of fair trade that showed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that 90 percent of students thought it at least somewhat important that school food service provide fair trade items. In 2000, students collected 700 signatures for a petition to pass the Legacy initiative, which provided $110 million in environmental funds in Minnesota. It seems difficult to quantify the benefits that MPIRG gives students in exchange for what is a comparatively low fee, a mechanism common to all eight schools under MPIRG.

However, the members of this “public interest” organization emphasize not only the organization’s intangible benefits, but also the civic duty of Macalester students. As Rebert said, “We have a responsibility to give back to our state and area, even if we’re only here four years.