Alums, friends and foes talk about MPIRG at 40


At forty, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) has encountered mood swings that range from ennui to euphoria.  Activist Monte Bute,  long-time Metro State faculty member, acknowledges that he, too, has gone through changes:

I was contemptuous of MPIRG when it was first created.   I was a revolutionary who denounced all reformist organization. I got a bit wiser about social change during my years as Director of Organizing for MPIRG from 1978 -82.  Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was dead after a decade. MPIRG is alive and well after 40 years.  Who knew!

Executive Director Josh Winters, reflects on MPIRG’s maturing process, including growing pains, as a grassroots, non-partisan, nonprofit, student-directed organization.  The Minnesota PIRG, along with Oregon, was the first campus-based public interest research group in the nation.  Though the beginnings are often associated with Ralph Nader, Winters is quick to credit others, including Don Ross, who took a good idea and made it happen.  “A good idea is a good idea, but it takes people to do it,” Winters observes.  In this case the “people” were University of Minnesota students who collected mroe than 25,000 signatures to form MPIRG on campus. The plan to fund development, including professional staff, with student activities fees seemed like a good idea at the time.

As the idea of grassroots and non-partisan involvement of students spread, chapters sprang up statewide.  Marcia Avner who worked on the MPIRG staff from 1977-1983, credits local campus development to the fact that the organization “ensured that member campuses had opportunities for individuals to engage in a wide range of campaigns – from working for tax credits for investments in alternative energy (the early days of the green movement) to campaigning for passage an Equal Rights Amendment.  Students led the way on energy reforms, transformation in the utility industry which was compelled to consider conservation a core energy strategy, and recycling.”   

Still, there were growing pains:  In spite of, or perhaps because of, the organization’s expanded outreach, MPIRG faced obstacles, particularly in the late 1990s when campus conservative organizations launched protests against the use of students’ activity fees to fund a “liberal student organization” that opponents maintained “have been popping up at colleges across the country”  Pro-Family News expressed the anti-PIRG charges from like-minded campus groups:

There are groups promoting the homosexual agenda, groups with radical environmental concerns, groups dedicated to Marxism, groups engaged in alternative and non-traditional religious activities, and many more.  What is more disturbing than the mere existence of these groups is their ability to get funding from general student activity fees.  Liberal administrators have condoned this, just as they have condoned the establishment of radical academic courses and curricula.  With the blessing of administrators, and with the ability to dominate the student fee distribution process at many campuses, these liberal groups have gone virtually unchecked for years.  At the same time, conservative groups and traditional Christian groups have often been blocked from receiving student service fee funding.”

Though the U of M did institute a refusable/refundable policy, MPIRG got the full blast of the conservatives’ concerns.  One administrator from an MPIRG campus advised the U of M Board of Regents that “the funding scheme the University allows MPIRG to use relies heavily on student naïveté” which he describes in detail.  The controversy garnered headlines and public outcry that included Governor Arne Carlson’s charge that “MPIRG clearly is a political and partisan lobby and ought not to receive favorite-funding status from the University of Minnesota.  If that is the case, then conservative activities should receive equal status.”

In 2006 Marty Andrade posted his reflections on “The Ten Great Moments in Minnesota Conservative History” on The Minnesota Republic blog. Under the headline “Tim Pawlenty Leads Conservative Takeover of MPIRG” Andrade tells a story that mixes mandatory fees, a disputed election of MPIRG officers, and the emergence of a young politician. Andrade writes:

MPIRG, a left wing activist group, has been stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from tens of thousands of unwilling and often cash strapped students for decades now.  You see, for the longest time the U just assumed every student wanted to pay the optional MPIRG fee and thus either automatically charged you the fee (before online registration) or automatically checked a box which charged you the fee.  If you wanted to not pay the fee or get a refund you had to jump through hoops and otherwise hassle yourself.  And it was even worse before the days of online registration.  In 1983 a group of College Republicans decided to run for positions on the MPIRG board of directors.  When they were elected they decided to do away with the MPIRG fee.  A battle ensued between the local MPIRG board and the statewide board and the battle landed in court…Sadly, the court took MIRPG’s [sict] side in the case.,,,The fight against MPIRG started over twenty years ago and continues to this day, thanks to a group of College Republicans which included a student who became our current governor.

During the ongoing celebration of MPIRG’s legacy members, alumni and advocates affirm the adage “no pain, no gain”  What Winters sees is a perpetual state of change matched by an ability to cope based on experience. The MPIRG leader overflows with ideas as he looks to the future – how to harness today’s social media without losing the essential “hands on” essence of the organization. Winters speaks enthusiastically about community/campus initiatives, e.g. the current approach to mandatory business recycling in Minneapolis.

Another priority for tomorrow’s MPIRG is research, particularly in-depth and long-term research. At present, for example, MPIRG is initiating an extensive survey of photo ID requirements on voting.  Another ongoing longitudinal study focuses on a statewide survey of sexual violence and assault on campus; the report of that study is due out next fall.

Today some 70,000 Minnesota college students are members of MPIRG; the ranks augmented by hundreds of community volunteers, including many MPIRG alumni. MPIRG operates on nine campuses throughout the state:  Augsburg College, Carleton College, St. Catherine University, Hamline University, Macalester College, U of M-Duluth, U of M-Morris, U of M-Twin Cities, and William Mitchell College of Law.     

The individual campus-based websites and the media reflect diverse campus initiatives, e.g.: MPIRG students at U of M-Morris were key players in the campus-wide green movement. At the Twin Cities campus some MPIRG students are dimming lights and duking it out in competitive recycling efforts, while others have fought sweat-shop apparel at campus bookstores.  Other campuses are grappling with statewide issues of green transportation, health care for all, and affordable higher education.

As always, MPIRG takes a lead in voter-related issues including voter ID, voter registration, early primaries and students’ concerns that politicians neglect youth issues in their efforts to garner votes from the growing population of elderly constituents who are conditioned to show up on election day.

Looking ahead as MPIRG turns 40, Winters posed a compelling question:  Just how did a small cadre of students, volunteers and others create a national network in a pre-social media environment?   The answer, he said, was based on a deep commitment to grassroots organizing coupled with a shared vision to give voice to everyone.  The challenge, he concluded, is to harness today’s social media without losing the essential ‘hands on’ essence of the organization.

For her part, Avner, who is widely recognized as a vocal, informed and respected voice for social justice, emphasizes the influence of role models and mentors – including heroes such as Paul Wellstone- in her tribute to the leadership development opportunities that MPIRG provides staff and students.  Avner attests to the fact that she herself “would not have enjoyed a career of policy advocacy if MPIRG had not set me on the path.”