It was an evening much like any other, a class much like any other and a professor much like any other. After the assigned starting time of class and before beginning his lecture for the evening, my operations management professor yielded the lecture floor to a speaker from WisPIRG.
For those of you who have been to class lately, this is not a new occurrence for you. However, many of you are unaware of what WisPIRG really is or how it exists on the UW-Madison campus. Given that its presence is predicated upon your financial support, this is very distressing.
WisPIRG, as we are affected by it, is a student chapter of a national organization that was founded by Ralph Nader. Primarily, this organization is a tax-free special interest and advocacy group that is paid for by student fees. This organization actively lobbies in Washington, D.C. In fact, it publicizes congressional “scorecards,” complete with party affiliation, that indicate which politicians have been good this year and inferentially deserve reelection.
Within WisPIRG, there are several campaigns, ranging from environmental programs to compelling stances on consumer protection and special-interest influence in government. On our own campus, there is also a textbook exchange that would seem to lend legitimacy to the organization.
However, there is much that needs to be explained by WisPIRG, starting right at home with its student-government-granted budget. Within the last couple of years, WisPIRG campaigned against ATM fees. The argument here was that people should not be forced into paying an additional hidden charge for an essential service. For those of you who have not yet discovered the irony, every student on this campus, as part of the tuition bill, pays for WisPIRG. This year, you are paying almost $2 for the privilege of having your lectures interrupted by political campaigns many students oppose.
Even more disturbing is the way in which WisPIRG is funded at the Student Services Finance Committee level. For every other campus student organization, there is a requirement that a detailed budget be presented and adhered to. WisPIRG asks for and receives a one-line budget. This year, that one line is equal to approximately $77,000. While WisPIRG may come in front of the committee and promise to spend the money as they have proposed, there is no authority of enforcement for SSFC, UW, or anyone else to ensure that the money is spent in a particular manner. In fact, actual account and expense ledgers are not available for public inspection, as they are for every other student-fee-funded organization on campus. In effect, WisPIRG is granted a blank check for an amount roughly equivalent to tuition payments for 19 in-state students.
WisPIRG representatives contend that they would prefer a refundable fee system. Given the degree to which they advertise their ability to affect change in systems with which they disagree, this claim appears dubious.
However, the reality is that even a refundable fee system ought to be repugnant to a consumer-advocacy organization. Others have rightly questioned what PIRG would say to a silence-equals-consent program, should it be promoted by businesses such as mail-order CD companies, rather than their own student chapters.
Given the extremist stances of PIRG chapters in New Jersey and Penn State with regards to their funding mechanisms, it would seem that it is no accident that WisPIRG is funded the way it is. There seems to be some sort of national influence on funding issues.
Therefore, I issue a challenge to WisPIRG: Stand up to the bureaucracy of your national organization. Be a model for student PIRGs around the country. Open your books. Let the sunshine in. Take heed of your founder when he says, “Information is the currency of democracy. Its denial must always be suspect.”
Leif Jorgenson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in business management. He is a former chair of the ASM finance committee.