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MPIRG continues fight to restore on-campus funding and support

<rly two years after losing their main source of funding, the “opt-out” student fee, the leaders of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group are once again attempting to restore their funds. MPIRG, as the organization is more commonly known, is a non-profit, student-directed organization with chapters at various college campuses across Minnesota. The group’s goal, according to current co-chair Ben Hellerstein, is to give students a way to affect political processes in order to make a difference about issues that they care about. “There’s really nobody in our society who has more power than the government,” Hellerstein explained, “and MPIRG provides the resources [for students] to make change happen in politics.”

Co-chair Elissa Walters added that MPIRG is a “mechanism through which students can legitimately affect political change.”

From its founding in 1971 through the spring of 2009, MPIRG was funded by a traditional “opt-out” student fee of $7.50, which was included in the tuition bill. Every year, students received an email and a notification in the mail informing them of the ways they could get their money refunded if they wished; thus, the fee was considered optional. This form of funding was approved for nearly forty years in a row through a student referendum, which was held every spring.

However, in the spring of 2009, a student-led initiative was launched against the system of MPIRG funding. Following several years of poor financial management by the executive director of MPIRG, the campus support staff at Carleton had been drastically reduced, leading to a decrease in the organization’s visibility – and, some argued, effectiveness – on campus.

“The Carleton chapter had drifted away a little bit from the organization as a whole,” said Hellerstein. “Some of the students felt like [the executive managers] they didn’t want to do what the organizers wanted them to do, because they wouldn’t be effective.” Although he is quick to note that he and many other members of MPIRG did not share this view, several of the frustrated students left the group, beginning the campaign to reduce the funds that the group was receiving on campus. A quick, but very visible, campaign against the student funding process soon followed. Although the issue quickly became well-known and controversial, the group “didn’t forsee any problems coming up,” recounts Hellerstein, because their funding had been approved every year for nearly two decades. As a result, he says, the group members were dismayed when the referendum removed their main source of income.

Now, two years later, members of MPIRG are fighting to restore the original “opt-out” funding process. Rather than attempting to win back funding last year, only one year after the controversy, members of MPIRG have instead spent two years building up the organization, recruiting new members and gaining some staff support. Recently, MPIRG members successfully gathered over 400 student signatures on a petition; as a result, the issue of restoring MPIRG’s funding will be re-introduced on the student referendum this spring.

In the meantime, its leaders and members are campaigning to restore support for their organization. Through fall term alone, the organization engaged over 1200 students at Carleton through petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and other forms of political activism. “Something that is really unique about MPIRG is that any student can come to the meetings and talk about any issue,” explained Walters. She recalled that this fall, she presented an issue regarding he environmental consequences of proposed sulfide mining on the boundary waters; eventually, MPIRG was able to gather over 500 signatures against the proposal on Carleton’s campus alone. Combined with the efforts of other MPIRG chapters and public interest groups, the sulfide mining proposal was eventually rejected.

“When I joined, I never expected to have such an overwhelmingly positive experience,” Walters noted. MPIRG has given her the ability to “be active at Carleton, but also move beyond Carleton and actually be a part of the political process.” It is that quality of MPIRG that she feels is its most important feature: as college students, “we can really make a difference.” Nina Whitney, one of the leaders of MPIRG’s Environmental Task Force, agrees. “Having an MPIRG chapter on campus gives students a real opportunity to engage with the ‘real’ world on a policy level that can really make a difference.” Furthermore, she argued, “students are generally simply just not experienced and connected enough to run successful campaigns by themselves.” But with the “ample help, guidance and support of the MPIRG staff,” students can “run campaigns and actually get something accomplished.” Forrest McKnight, one of the leaders of MPIRG’s Democracy Task Force, reiterated that MPIRG provides Carleton students with a “unique capacity to fight for what we believe in,” adding that “the size and responsiveness of the activist network makes us a stronger grassroots force.”

As such, he continued, “it is more remarkable and important than ever that pooling the marginal fees from students across the state can allow us to build an infrastructure in the policy arena.” Walters and Hellerstein agreed, explaining that if the opt-out fee were to be restored with clearer instructions regarding optional policy, it would help the organization and Carleton. “We’re talking about trying to sustain the cost of a program on campus that benefits the entire campus,” said Hellerstein. Added Walters, “there are so many students who would forget to pay but who care about MPIRG and the issues it supports.” Ultimately, she said, “this fee will provide the means through which MPIRG can be even more effective, and become a greater tool for the Carleton student body.”

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