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The PIRG Controversy

Letters to the Editor


To the Editors of The Crimson:

A recent letter to the editor (December 6, 1977) written by Thomas C. Seoh '78 discussed certain objections to the funding mechanism espoused by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (Mass PIRG). I hope to provide some acceptable answers to these objections.

The continuity of Mass PIRG's efforts during the year and over the years explains much of its success. Unlike many, if not most, activist student groups, Mass PIRG does not wax and wane according to the time of the year. It has staying power because the student members of PIRG hire (and fire if necessary) professionals--lawyers, economists, MBAs, and public health experts who carry through projects when students are occupied with exams, papers and vacations. When students move out of the state at the conclusion of their undergraduate studies, the staff is there to see that other students carry on their projects. These professional staff members also assist and coordinate student research and supervise most of the lobbying and litigative activities of PIRG. Without its staff, PIRG could not function half as effectively as it does today.

To ensure the continuity of PIRG efforts, student members must be able to guarantee some measure of employment security to PIRG professional staff. Furthermore, Mass PIRG tackles problems that require ample time and resources for solution. A fairly automatic fund-generating system is needed to sustain such efforts. In addition, PIRG wants to involve students in actual research and lobbying rather than draining their energies into fund raising year after year. A majority-supported negative check-off funding mechanism enables such a PIRG to exist; a positive check-off system does not.

Moreover, a number of safeguards exist to prevent PIRG from siphoning off monies from unwilling students. First, 50 per cent of the student body must sign a petition indicating their support for the PIRG concept before PIRG may even present itself to the students for approval and funds. Second, if a majority of students does sign this petition, both signers and non-signers of the petition still have a choice as to whether or not to support PIRG. Those students who do not desire to pay the PIRG fee of $3.00 per semester need only check off the appropriate box on their term bill worksheet (this mechanism is similar to that of the student health insurance also offered on the term bill). Third, if 50 per cent of the student body does check off this box, the local PIRG chapter will be dissolved. Fourth, a referendum is held every four years to determine whether students still wish to fund a PIRG chapter on campus. Finally, PIRG will make every reasonable effort to ensure that all students are aware of PIRG and its presence on the term bill. With the permission of the administration, the term bill worksheet would include information describing PIRG and what it had done the previous year. PIRG would provide this same information to incoming freshpersons in their post-acceptance packets (or in other appropriate materials). Additional information about PIRG would be forthcoming throughout the year.

Nevertheless, in the end, support for PIRG and its funding mechanism boils down to one's answers to some questions about democratic rights:

-Do citizens (and students as citizens) have the right to organize to protect their rights as consumers?

-If so, and if a majority of a student body signs a petition to fund its advocacy group by a negative check-off, does this majority have the right to impose on the minority the small cost of informing oneself about PIRG and its funding mechanism?

If one responds in the affirmative, one should base one's support for PIRG on its record and merit as an advocate for consumers. --Courtland J.W. Troutman '78

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