Administrators at public universities across the country have granted unique campus privileges and funneled millions of dollars—in part, from mandatory student fees—to the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), a network of liberal lobbying organizations. At the City University of New York (CUNY), where I teach, off-campus lobbyists from New York’s PIRG chapter enjoy special rights, including the chance to compete for student-activity fees and an exemption from fiscal oversight. The result: NYPIRG raises more money than all other campus student groups and surreptitiously diverts those funds to its statewide lobbying operations. Compounding the problem, CUNY administrators exhibit blatant bias to promote the group’s interests.
Though CUNY has much to be proud of in recent years (see “The CUNY Revival”), the university has abetted NYPIRG’s accumulation of unrivaled power on its campuses. Other student groups stand little chance in political fights against its well-funded professional lobbyists. NYPIRG’s annual budget dwarfs that of ordinary student groups and is double that of CUNY’s student senate. With its unmatched resources, NYPIRG has succeeded in making dissent on campus against its positions practically nonexistent. During funding referenda, virtually every campus leader and club president signs statements supporting the group. Even the editors of campus newspapers—in violation of journalistic ethics—sign full-page ads (which NYPIRG purchases) in their own papers. At my CUNY campus (Brooklyn), students are permitted to claim a refund of their NYPIRG fee ($5 in each of four sessions), but almost none does.
Courts have twice ruled that CUNY’s cancellations of referenda on reducing NYPIRG funding were illegal. Two similar incidents were settled out of court. In all four cases, students acted as their own attorneys, demonstrating that CUNY’s violations were so flagrant that amateurs could beat the university’s lawyers. Even debating NYPIRG’s funding was too much for officials at one CUNY campus (New York City College of Technology). They banned a discussion of the issue during a debate among candidates for student government, turned off the microphones when one attendee raised the topic, and canceled the forum altogether when the audience wouldn’t let the subject drop.
CUNY’s extraordinary efforts on NYPIRG’s behalf include whitewashing its misdeeds. When 58 CUNY scientists accused NYPIRG of committing research misconduct, the university appointed a founding member of NYPIRG—now a CUNY vice chancellor—to look into the matter. Predictably, CUNY declined to investigate further, falsely claiming that the research in question had not taken place on campus. The university continued to allow NYPIRG to teach college-credit courses, in which students—as a NYPIRG syllabus makes explicit—get high grades for work on NYPIRG events and projects.
While such authoritarian tactics may be restricted to CUNY’s campuses, exempting student PIRGs from fiscal oversight is typical on campuses in the 16 states that grant campus access to these organizations. Student-government leaders at the University of Montana decried the group’s avoidance of financial monitoring in 2010. Even the Supreme Court noticed: in a student-fee case decided in 2000, the justices noted that the University of Wisconsin’s PIRG was funded differently from other student groups and that it was not clear how the group spent its money.
What do the PIRGs want on campus? Their primary goal may be to use their freedom from political restraints and fiscal oversight to divert student money to the groups’ off-campus operations. At CUNY, evidence gathered during litigation proves that NYPIRG diverts at least half the $1 million it collects annually to subsidize operating costs at its main offices—a diversion obscured by the fact that NYPIRG keeps no written records and acknowledges that no one outside the group can verify how the money gets spent. Similarly, a student-government leader at the State University of New York at Stony Brook discovered that NYPIRG used only $342 of $54,000 in fee money on campus in 1994. And columnist Mark Hemingway observed that PIRG’s off-the-books financial operations made it impossible to demonstrate that any of the money it raised stayed on the Oregon State campus in the 1990s. Student-fee money has not only been diverted off campus but also out of state: New Jersey PIRG shifted about 58 percent of the $578,210 it raised from Rutgers students in the 2010–11 academic year to out-of-state lobbying groups.
Taking on the PIRGs has proved difficult because the groups have powerful allies among the media, politicians, and college administrators. The situation in New York serves as a prime example. On his last day as attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, now New York’s governor, awarded NYPIRG a $10 million grant for a national ad campaign to promote the group’s higher-education activities, calling the group—despite its research misconduct—a “trusted source of information.” The state’s current attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, twice served as a counsel for NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign. NYPIRG can also count on the New York Times, which often cites its research and has featured quotes or references to the group roughly once a week over the last 15 years. And in Massachusetts, the state’s House speaker used parliamentary tricks to block a bill requiring public colleges to notify students on their tuition bills that the PIRG fee was voluntary.
Though the political obstacles are formidable, the solution to the PIRG problem is relatively simple: universities should subject PIRGs to the same regulations that govern other student groups, and the PIRGs’ use of student fees should be subjected to a comprehensive audit. In its current form, the PIRG–university alliance allows the lobbying group to convert millions of dollars of student fees each year to its own unregulated political expenditure fund. It has essentially robbed students of their rights—and their money—for decades. The harm done, both off- and on-campus, deserves much more attention than it has received.
Photo by NYPIRG/Facebook