The New York Public Interest Research Group, one of 23 state-advocacy organizations operating under the umbrella of the Ralph Nader-inspired United States Public Interest Group, receives nearly $600,000 of its $3 million annual budget from CUNY student fees. In the mid-seventies, when "Nader's Raiders" were all the rage, NYPIRG lobbied each CUNY campus for access to student fees and successfully entrenched itself through student referenda, later approved by CUNY's Board of Trustees. It has pushed its left-wing agenda with campus help ever since. NYPIRG's singular arrangement with CUNY continues automatically from year to year unless students work up the motivation to end it, no easy task against a well-funded professional advocacy group not shy to play dirty when it has to. (In 1993, critics blasted NYPIRG's College of Staten Island division for compiling an "enemies list," detailing the political affiliations and sexual histories of campus opponents.)
Take a look at a few of NYPIRG's pet projects: a voter registration drive in homeless shelters and soup kitchens, a center that provides advice to tenants on how to use small-claims courts to sue landlords, and innumerable "environmental justice" initiativesfrom campaigns against lead paint to the struggle for zero-emission vehiclesall aimed at weaving a thick net of regulations to entangle ravenous capitalists. Perhaps we should be thankful that the group lavishes over half of its budget on salaries and other perks for its employees.
NYPIRG's supporters say that the fees are voluntary, noting that any individual student can apply for a refund. But as a top CUNY administrator (who preferred anonymity) admits, CUNY rigs the game in NYPIRG's favor. Many students don't know that the refunds are available or even that the fees wind up in NYPIRG's coffers. Students who do seek refunds must approach NYPIRG's offices directly, where motivated activists might challenge their requests. Moreover, NYPIRG can bank the fees it obtains, generating interest, even if it must return a portion later. Just picture the outcry if a pro-life or deregulation advocacy group received university-levied student fees in this fashion.
CUNY should end all student fees for advocacy and force NYPIRG to rely on truly voluntary contributions to bankroll its sixties'-vintage politics. A legal challenge probably won't work; the Supreme Court upheld NYPIRG's similar arrangement with SUNY in 1992 on First Amendment grounds. And the student union, with its miniscule voter turnout, is not representative of student interests and isn't likely to pull the plug. The best bet for reform is for the mayor to pressure CUNY's Board of Trustees to stop favoring NYPIRG.