MassPIRG fee system up for reaffirmation vote

On Tuesday and Wednesday Williams students will vote on whether to reaffirm the MassPIRG (Massachusetts Student Public Interest Group) refundable fee system.

Under the current policy, a $4 MassPIRG fee is added to each student’s term bill. In order to receive a refund, a student must fill out the waiver form MassPIRG distributes to students’ SU boxes. This funding system must be reaffirmed every two years by a majority vote of the Williams student body.

MassPIRG is a state-wide organization which directs its efforts towards a variety of activist political campaigns, including endangered species, pesticide use, hunger and homelessness, and consumer protection. The group consists of a central office in Boston and 27 campus chapters throughout Massachusetts. Each member campus sends a representative to a student Board of Directors.

“The Board is the decision-making body of MassPIRG,” James Dubick, the Chairperson of the Board of Directors and a student at Amherst College, said. He continued,“Choosing campaigns that will be coordinated at a state-wide level, deciding upon an annual budget, directing any hiring of staff, and generally setting the vision for the organization as a whole.”

At each college, there is a professional organizer, who is hired and paid by the student Board of Directors, and a campus chapter chair (at Williams, Becky Sanborn ‘01) who is an (unpaid) student elected by the campus’s MassPIRG membership. There are also student campaign heads for each of MassPIRG’s projects.

The funds each chapter collects from their student body are sent to the state-wide office where they are pooled and distributed according to the budget set out by the Board of Directors. Approximately 15 percent goes to the national program, US PIRG; 12 percent goes toward operating expenses; and the remainder (73 percent) goes toward the state program, which includes money spent on lobbying at the state level and money sent back for work on the individual campuses.

Virtually all MassPIRG chapters raise money the same way the Williams chapter does, with a refundable fee system. Nonetheless, many WIlliams students do not understand why MassPIRG doesn’t use a voluntary donation system, or get funding from College Council.

MassPIRG does not see a voluntary donation system as a viable funding option for several reasons. The most important of these, says the organization, is that fundraising would then have to become an active part of MassPIRG’s activities. “With a donation system,” Graham Lee ‘01, MassPIRG member and coordinator of the reaffirmation vote, said, “MassPIRG would have to spend the vast majority of its time fundraising instead of working for you.”

Julia Goren ‘01, the Williams chapter representative to the MassPIRG board, agreed, “We don’t want a check-off system where you say ‘yes’ because then we’d have to spend all our time campaigning for people to give us money and we’d never get any of our program work done. For us, what we do is the most important thing.”

“If we had a donation system,” Becky Sanborn ‘01, Williams Chapter Chair, added, “you’d see us in Baxter lounge asking for money, not signatures.”

Money from CC is also not an option. The CC’s constitution forbids them to fund political groups whose activities extend beyond the Williams campus.

Faced with what they see as the necessity of a negative funding system—one where the default position is to give—MassPIRG says they have tried to administer the system in the most democratic way possible.

When the Williams chapter was founded in 1986, the prospective MassPIRG members lobbied the Williams College Board of Directors to have the fee added to each student’s term bill. Then the group had to collect signatures from a majority of students on campus before the chapter could be founded and the funding system instituted.

Since then, MassPIRG has had to report back to the student body every two years to ensure it continues to have student support. For 10 years, this “reaffirmation,” as it is called, was done the same way it was done that first year, with a petition. But in 1996, two years ago, Dean of the College Peter Murphy changed the requirement from signatures to a majority vote.

“All [MassPIRG, CC and myself] were agreed that a vote had more content as a measure of support than a petition,” Murphy said. “The petition drives were conducted over long periods of time, and offered individual moments of persuasion as the person with the petition discussed it with the person they wanted to sign it. We all felt that this compromised the independence that we felt a true referendum needed.”

1996 also marked another change in MassPIRG’s funding system, similarly aimed at making the process more accountable to the students. In the first 10 years of MassPIRG’s presence at Williams, the fee refund took the form of a negative check-off box on the actual tuition bill. In 1996, President of the College Harry C. Payne decided to have MassPIRG distribute waiver forms to the students themselves.

“We thought that it is highly unlikely for most parents even to notice the option that the negative check-off allowed,” Payne said. “We thought it a more direct relationship for students who have the right to vote for the fee also to have a clear, direct option to waive it. No system is ideal. This seemed more forthright.”

Despite the vote every two years and the waiver forms, some Williams students contend that MassPIRG’s funding system is deceptive and unfair. In a recent article for The Williams Free Press, Mike Fransella ‘98, said: “Virtually every fair-minded person, regardless of whether or not he supports the lobbying efforts pursued by PIRG, will agree that donations to a group such as MassPIRG should be made voluntarily by individuals cognizant of what they are doing, and that a negative system, in which the default action is to contribute, is inherently unfair.”

Fransella notes that with the change to a vote instead of a petition, it is possible that a majority of voters is a considerably smaller number than the majority of students on campus. For example, in 1996, MassPIRG was reaffirmed with the support of only 28 percent of the student body. Fransella says he personally does not feel that a majority of student support on campus should be enough to add the fee to the term bill. “I personally don’t think it should be imposed if even one student objects to it.”

Another primary objection Fransella and other MassPIRG critics have to the current system is the waiver forms. In his article Fransella contended many students threw away the forms without looking at them, and that furthermore, many do not want to go out of their way to save their parents a few dollars.

“If you were actually giving them four dollars or a free frost or something, they would probably take it,” Fransella said. “But this way it’s just their parents money, and they don’t actually see it.”

MassPIRG, on the other hand, contends that a majority vote with waiver forms is the best possible way to make the process fair. “I don’t know how it could be any less shady,” Goren said. “We come before the student body every two years for a majority vote. Then, the rights of the minority are protected too, by the waiver forms. I mean, we put them in your box. All you have to do is check if off and send it back… [Fransella] is assuming that students are too stupid to figure it out.”

“There’s nothing we can do about it if students don’t read what’s in their boxes,” Sanborn added.

Furthermore, contends Sanborn, the waiver form actually makes MassPIRG
more accountable to the student body than many other organizations on campus. Every student is charged a Student Activity Fee which goes toward funding college organizations. “When you compare it to other groups funded by College Council, for those groups you don’t have the opportunity to not have your money spent that way.”

Fransella’s article also stated that MassPIRG was “pretending to be a student-run organization.” He contended the state-wide organization, not the students decide how to spend the money, that the funds are sent to Boston and do not remain at Williams, and the “the lion’s share” of the revenue from Williams goes toward paying the non-student coordinator.

According to MassPIRG, these accusations are unfounded. First, Sanborn noted, “the budget is decided by a completely student-run Board of Directors.” Second, “although the money is coordinated by a state-wide office, it is not tied up in Boston. A lot of it does come back to campus.” Third, explains MassPIRG, the local coordinator is an employee of that same student-run Board of Directors, and her job is to help implement only those programs that Williams students tell her to help implement.

Rather than a money drain, claims MassPIRG, the state-wide structure is exactly what gives MassPIRG its power. “Working together through a state-wide structure gives all of the chapters an opportunity to accomplish more of the work we want to do,” Dubick said. “By coordinating our efforts, we can have a greater impact than if we all were to work separately.”

Lee agreed, “It’s actually a lot like Williams’s participation in the NCAA. With just our local resources, we would not be able to accomplish much. But, once we pool our resources with the larger organization, we are able to use their resources locally and benefit from this alliance with other schools.”

Opponents of MassPIRG also claim that MassPIRG is misleading the student body on the nature of the reaffirmation vote; in fact it is only a vote on funding of MassPIRG and not on its presence as an organization.

MassPIRG, however, sees the two issues as one and the same. “The upcoming vote,” Lee said, “both concerns the presence of MassPIRG on this campus AND its funding system. The two are inseparable. The refundable fee on the term bill is the way that the state board, which includes our representative from Williams, Julia Goren, has determined MassPIRG will assess its fee.”

Sanborn added, “If the students vote [the funding system] down, it would mean that MassPIRG would leave Williams.”