Minnesota student fees fund progressive lobbying group

Campus Reform Reporter

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  • The Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) has chapters at seven universities in Minnesota.
  • Two schools give students the option to opt out of funding MPIRG.
  • MPIRG worked to defeat a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
  • Hamline University (HU) in Minnesota is providing significant funding to a progressive lobbying group through student fees.

    Hamline automatically charges students $16.50 annually to fund the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG). The fee is listed alongside charges for facilities, health insurance, course materials, book rentals, and more.

    "I was surprised, I had never heard of the group and certainly didn’t know you could opt out of these fees."   

     

    The MPIRG fee is listed as optional, but many students said they were not aware of the charge and were never notified of where, when, and how to opt out.

    “Some other students told me that they had absolutely no idea they were being charged this $16.50 and once they did, they expressed interest in opting out,” Chris Wojtowicz, Vice President for Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) told Campus Reform. “I told my friend who was just as insistent as I am in getting his money back because this is going to fund an organization that we don’t believe it.”

    According to MPIRG’s website, the group focuses on corporate accountability, democracy, and environmental justice, and has established student chapters on seven campuses throughout Minnesota: Hamline University, Macalester College, UM-Twin Cities, UM-Duluth, UM-Morris, Augsburg College, and St. Catherine University.

    Hamline and Macalester have separated out the charge funding MPIRG; however, the other schools fund campus MPIRG chapters through student service fees, which are typically allocated to student groups on campus by a committee according to need.

    However, HU directly funds the larger MPIRG organization, which then uses the money “to support things happening on campus,” Chad Hermes, member of MPIRG Board of Directors at HU, told Campus Reform.

    “MPIRG lobbies for student interests at the state government,” Hermes told Campus Reform. “So we’re representing the students in politics in Minnesota so I think that having a fee for us, the students really get a lot out of that fee…[through] policies that students want to see happen.”

    Some of MPIRG’s previous advocacy efforts include: prohibiting institutions from using materials created under illegal work conditions, ex-felon voter re-enfranchisement, and campaigns to defeat a voter-ID law and a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

    When asked why HU was directly funding MPIRG, Hermes told Campus Reform that the group reflects the wants and needs of the students.

    “We can’t support political parties but we’re issue based. We represent the issues of students and typically students have more progressive ideals, more progressive interests and we try to reflect that as best we can,” Hermes told Campus Reform. “But we are non-partisan and more progressive at the same time, and that’s very much possible.”

    Hamline students must use the Piperline portal to opt out by entering their student information, but this option is only explained under HU’s Frequently Asked Questions.

    “I was surprised, I had never heard of the group and certainly didn’t know you could opt out of these fees,” Wojtowicz told Campus Reform. “So I tried last semester to do that and found that I was unable. The option was listed that I could once I entered the portal to actually do so, but the option was no longer available. It was simply blank.”

    Wojtowicz told Campus Reform MPIRG has advertisements all around campus, but had never seen one with a disclaimer indicating that students can opt out of funding the group. He said he never received an email, saw an advertisement on HU’s website, or even signed an initial consent form.

    “That has to do more with the administration and we have been trying to work with the administration for a while on making [opting out] easier and easier to understand,” Hermes told Campus Reform.

    Hermes said that a campus-wide email is sent out to students regarding the option to opt out “as far as he knows,” but added “this isn’t my area of expertise.”

    “I remember an email being sent out to me personally last year but that could have changed in the next year,” he said.

    Hermes told Campus Reform that there is a refund period where students can get the $16.50 back, which he believes ends in November. However, Wojtowicz claims that the portal where students are supposed to control their funding for MPIRG remains blank and offers no assistance or options for refunds.

    Macalester University (MU) voted to increase funding to the activist group by $3 in 2011, bringing the charges up to $12 per student. Similarly to Hamline, funds are automatically taken from student fees to fund the group unless students opt out. However, according to an agreement posted on the MU website, a campus-wide email is sent out reminding students of the option to do so.

    Chaz Fenzke, a member of the UM-Twin Cities Student Senate, says the group is a powerhouse on campus.

    “To their credit they are probably the most well organized group on UMN’s campus and probably in the state,” Fenzke told Campus Reform. “They get a lot of activity fair and welcome week space and exposure. They are probably the most well-known political group on campus and probably one of the most well-known groups in general.”

    Despite multiple attempts, HU and MU didn’t respond to Campus Reform’s request for comment.

    Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @MaggieLitCRO