Are PIRGs Taking Over the Student Movement?
A Special HX Report (Fall 1999 issue)
by Kevin Pranis
About a year ago, I spent a weekend with representatives from half a dozen national progressive student organizations. Our task: Envision the student movement we'd like to see five or ten years down the road, and then develop strategies to get from here to there. The criteria we came up with: Large national organization(s), field organizers in every state, a presence in Washington D.C., multiple issue/action campaigns, media profile, student financed, etc. The problem: The organization we described already exists, it's called the Public Interest Research Group
(PIRG), and it may be sucking the life out of the student movement.
When I began working on this story, PIRGs were an enigma. I wanted to find out how they work and why they are driving so many progressive activists and organizations crazy. After spending months interviewing more than 15 present and former PIRG staff, board members and activists (covering four states PIRGs and USPIRG), as well as representatives of other groups that have regular contact with the PIRGs, I am struck by the similarities of their stories more than the differences. While it was impossible to get a complete picture of such a large network of state and national organizations, some of which have dozens of staff people and annual budgets in excess of $5 million, it is clear that the PIRGs present opportunities, but also serious challenges, to progressive activists. One last note- many sources agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, citing the need to work side by side with PIRGs. Eventually, problems between the PIRGs and other organizations will only be solved if concerns are expressed openly. It is my hope that this article will facilitate a more honest dialogue.
In 1974, the first Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) was formed in New York by Ralph Nader students who hoped to turn college campuses into hotbeds of "public interest" organizing. The strategy, explains one NYPIRG staffer, was to "pool students' money, hire a staff, and work on issues outside the university using Nader's muckraking model." Students, fresh from the anti-war movement and ready to train their sites on the statehouse, formed the activist base while student fees secured through PIRG campus referenda paid the bills.
And run it did. In the early days, NYPIRG put fear in the hearts of the fat cats and their legislative lackeys by running campaigns on a range of environmental and consumer issues-most notably fights around toxics, redlining and freedom of information laws. Students elsewhere followed suit, and within a few years, PIRGs had sprung up all over the country. While students remained at the core of the organization, the PIRGs-led by Massachusetts-soon began taking their activism to the streets through the summer canvass, which not only strengthened PIRG public education efforts but also expanded their funding base.
As the PIRGs grew in size and influence, the organization's structure and priorities began to change. The PIRGs became more conservative, more averse to taking risks, less connected to its base, and more reliant on staff to set political direction. One source, who currently works for NYPIRG and asked not to be identified, attributes these changes to the consolidation of most state canvass operations into the Fund for Public Interest Research, a national organization that, along with USPIRG (the PIRG lobby) serves as an umbrella for state PIRGs. "National structure has led to homogenization of PIRGs (w/exception of independents). They used to be student directed organizations, now funding for student work is negligible."
The problem with this explanation is that NYPIRG, which opted out of the Fund, is no different from the rest when it comes to progressive politics or grassroots governance. The best explanation I heard comes from "Don," who learned PIRG inside and out as a NYPIRG activist and board member. Don explains that, ironically, it was NYPIRG's success, and the accompanying professionalization of staff, that caused the organization to lose track of its mission to educate and empower students. "The staff realized that they had built a name for themselves and didn't need students anymore… NYPIRG began to measure itself by bills passed or defeated, and most staff weren't really concerned about how many students were educated on campuses." NYPIRG's decision to avoid angering CUNY trustees and administrators by staying out of the open admissions fray at the City University of New York, despite the fact that the new policy will have a devastating impact on the students who fund the them, is but one of many examples of the alienation of the organization from its base.
As an organizing strategy, this approach was short-sighted. Over time, the work became more technical, the organization more hierarchical and the politics more conservative, so students lost interest. "It's a cycle: poor campus projects, poor campus organizers-leading to a lack of involvement on campus, which leads to a weak board of directors, and so power goes to staff… [it] undermines political work inasmuch as big victories used to be built around student organizing."
Despite the fact that, by the late '80's, NYPIRG's effectiveness was considerably diminished, in many ways the organization was stronger than ever before. As long as the campuses continued to supply a steady stream of money (and a few activists), the organization could continue using paid staff in Albany and New York City to do decent but, with a few exceptions, uninspiring work.
Yet NYPIRG clung tenaciously to the self-image of an ass-kicking, student-run, grassroots organization-an image maintained by constant self-promotion and an internal culture in which, as one departing staffer put it, "dissent is disloyalty." Don joined NYPIRG as a believer but found his efforts fulfill his responsibilities as a board member frustrated by staff at every turn. He tells one story, confirmed by a fellow board member, of trying to get ahold of something as simple as the organization's budget (for mismanagement of which, as a board member, he could have been held personally liable).
"When I was on the board, staff gave out numbered copies of the budget, and counted to make sure that they got them all back at the end of the meeting. [When they realized I still had my copy], they sent the Executive Director over. I said, "I'm not giving back the budget" [and he] said "Just give it back to me and we'll work out something." Fifteen minutes later they come back with a copy of the budget that has all the headings blanked out… How could this be the same organization… that passed so many open government laws in New York?"
Unfortunately the truth was that, where students were concerned, the NYPIRG could get away with just about anything. In 1993, students at the College of Staten Island found a 27-page memo, written by Claude Rolo, a departing NYPIRG Project Coordinator, which contained personal information about staff, faculty and student leaders, who were identified as "friends" or "enemies" of NYPIRG. Students were furious and, according to a story in the Staten Island Advance, the student government "passed a string of resolutions in an effort to break the 16 year affiliation between [NYPIRG] and the school." Yet Staten Island students were no match for NYPIRG, which had 30 organizers, a printing press, and 20 years of "student" organizing experience. Not only did NYPIRG retain its annual $80,000 take from CSI, but the organization never issued an apology and Claude Rolo was subsequently promoted.
Ivan Frishberg who now directs the Higher Education Project of USPIRG, bridles at the suggestion that PIRGs are not really student run, citing his own experience as Chair of the Board of Oregon State PIRG (OSPIRG). Yet the evidence suggests that student involvement in decision-making is uneven at best, even at Frishberg's Alma Mater. For example, when Eli Rosenblatt, founder of the Prison Activist Resource Center, served as Vice-Chair of OSPIRG in 1988, he says that "Ostensibly, the student board did oversee the state staff, but it was apparent immediately that it was a rubber stamp. We were encouraged to generate ideas, but nothing really went anywhere." Rosenblatt's cites the problems raised by Don, as well as OSPIRG's lack of autonomy vis a vis the national Fund structure, and poor treatment of campus staff by state staff-the latter problem so severe that he and his fellow officers threatened to resign in protest.
Despite these internal problems, from a progressive perspective, the net impact of the PIRGs in the late '80's was still positive. If they weren't exactly laboratories for democracy, they did contribute significant resources-including skilled and experienced staff and an impressive ability to mobilize (if not exactly organize) students-to important struggles. Furthermore, the PIRGs were, and are, very good at training staff-as WashPIRG organizer Steve Charbonneau puts it, "I feel like I was kicked in the ass as an organizer the way I needed to be. I was an organizing personality in the closet. I'm walking out with some organizing skills I can change the world with."
In the early to mid 90's something changed. Concerned about lack of student involvement, or simply hoping to get in on rapid growth of student environmental activism, the PIRGs created Green Corps to, in the words of "Emily," a former Green Corps organizer "explore new ways of recruiting people to the movement." Green Corps organizers were recent graduates who spent a year running national campaigns on college campuses. At that time, the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) was the biggest student environmental organization in the country, with affiliate organizations on hundreds of college campuses. Naturally, the first thing many Green Corps organizers did when they arrived on campus was to call the local SEAC contact, and try to involve them in Green Corps campaigns.
Problems arose, as Green Corps organizers and SEAC activists-SEAC tended to be more action oriented and concerned about race, whereas according to Emily, Green Corps wouldn't use the words "environmental" and "justice" in the same sentence-clashed over issues and tactics. Miya Yoshitani, then SEAC's Executive Director, recalls receiving complaints from local activists about Green Corps organizers who had effectively "taken over" their chapters. Yoshitani says that SEAC tried to express these concerns in meetings with PIRG and Green Corps, but the discussion never got very far.
By the end of 1994, however, bigger things were afoot. The Republicans had gained control of the Congress and were promising to roll back dozens of environmental laws. The PIRG and Green Corps announced an emergency drive to gather a million signatures on petitions, to be kicked off by a national student environmental conference at the University of Pennsylvania. SEAC's leadership was initially less than enthusiastic, but eventually decided to sign on as co-sponsors and provide the SEAC database for recruitment purposes.
The conference was attended by 1,800 students who, according to Peter Chowla-who helped organize conference logistics as a U Penn student and who eventually went on to become a SEAC staffer-were drawn in roughly equal proportions from Green Corps, PIRG and SEAC contacts. There was some friction between conference planners and local SEAC activists over the program, but Chowla describes the conference as otherwise uneventful. "As things move on, they do their little campaign which is supposedly this million signatures thing. That gets over at the end of the summer, and that was supposed to be the end of it."
But within six months, SEAC activists discovered that their database had been used to create a whole new organization. The new Free The Planet! organization was an almost perfect copy of SEAC: SEAC was organized in 17 regions; FTP had 14; SEAC's publication had Regional Roundups, FTP's publication had regional updates. FTP even tried to borrow SEAC's activists-"If you looked at their regional or state-wide coordinators, a lot of them were our regional coordinators, some of whom never even heard of FTP. That continued for over a year." There was only one flaw, where SEAC was run by student representatives elected through a Regional Council structure, FTP was run by Green Corps (which administers it) and USPIRG
(which houses it). And the original petition drive? After it was finished, it disappeared without a trace. "They spent eight months getting a million signatures on triplicate carbon paper and didn't even get a major article."
Frishberg disputes this version of the story, pointing to the energy and enthusiasm generated by Free The Planet! as evidence an unmet need. "Tons of people went to the conference. It's an absurdity to think: we have SEAC, we have PIRG, we have Campus Green Vote, and we should just pack up and go home." He also denies that FTP is a PIRG front group. "FTP is in no way like PIRG. We supported a lot of the project up front, but it's struggled to raise its own grants and eke by. I don't know how it's run, but we've provided a lot of support."
Frishberg also rejects the notion that the PIRGs are, as a senior staffer with one D.C-based environmental organization put it, "known for not playing well with others." He argues that USPIRG works, "incredibly well in coalition with a lot of groups," and he offers three examples: Youth Vote, student fee autonomy, and the Student Environmental Collaborative. All of my sources agreed that Youth Vote is an effective coalition, although a number pointed out that it's effective precisely because the presence of other major organizations prevents USPIRG from throwing its weight around.
The other two examples, however, help to illustrate the difference between what "coalition" means to the PIRGs and what it means to most other organizations. There is no question that the PIRGs-particularly USPIRG and NYPIRG, whose success in overcoming their differences to collaborate on the issue may be what Frishberg really means by a successful coalition-have taken the lead in fighting a right-wing assault on the right of students to use mandatory fees to fund "political" activities (a huge issue for PIRGs, which are the major recipient of such fees). And the Center for Campus Free Speech, USPIRG's vehicle for student fee autonomy work, has assembled an impressive Advisory Board representing various student and non-student organizations.
As far as anyone can tell, however, the coalition only exists on paper-the CCFS letterhead, to be precise. The Advisory Board has never met, some members seem to feel that their "advice" was not taken very seriously. The "coalition" suffered a blow when the Center for Campus Organizing from the Advisory Board a year ago. It suffered a much more serious blow when the United Council of Wisconsin Students withdrew, reportedly as a result of differences over legal and political strategy. Wisconsin is crucial, because the landmark student fee case now before the U.S. Supreme Court originated at UW Madison.
Frishberg's third example, the Student Environmental Collaborative, began with more promise. With the support of a major environmental funder, five organizations involved in student environmental organizing-USPIRG, Green Corps, Free The Planet!, the Center For Environmental Citizenship and Sierra Student Coalition-came together to launch an ambitious $2 Million program. The original conception was that half of the fundswould go toward a joint project, while the other half would be divided among the participating organizations to be used on projects each organization had developed.
Two problems became apparent fairly quickly. First, SEAC, the only student-run, grassroots environmental organization, was not invited-reportedly at the behest of the PIRGs-and was only allowed to participate after extensive lobbying. Second, the SEC wasn't going to be able to raise anywhere close to $2 Million. In January, 1998, the SEC met to prioritize the proposed projects based on the new funding constraints.
Unsurprisingly, the three PIRG-affiliated organizations (USPIRG, Green Corps and FTP) got together around FTP's plan for an ECOnference 2000 conference (a reprise of Free The Planet!) and the Green Corps plan for a job boycott. This plan left little or nothing of interest for two of three organizations outside the PIRG umbrella-SEAC, which withdrew from the collaborative shortly after the meeting, and CEC, which withdrew sometime later some. There are rumors that the only remaining non-PIRG affiliated organization, SSC, may soon be leaving as well. Adding insult to injury, my sources tell me that, while SEAC and SSC were initially promised access to the ECOnference 2000 participant contact list, the organizers have now reneged on that agreement.
All This Will Someday Be PIRG's.
Perhaps the PIRG perspective on student organizing can best be summed up in the two words that haunt grade-schoolers everywhere: Manifest Destiny. Like the early pioneers, they ride their covered wagons across the campus organizing plain, forever discovering some new piece of "uninhabited wilderness" that's just begging to be developed. Of course, it's not an easy thing if you've been "inhabiting" the "uninhabited wilderness" for years. Just ask SEAC. Or the Student Association of the State University of New York (SASU) which, according Kazim Ali-a former President of both SASU and the U.S. Student Association-suddenly "had to contend with this hugely staffed organization" claiming to represent students on higher education issues, despite the fact that NYPIRG "did not become interested in working on the SUNY budget or financial aid until the romance with the environmental movement ended in the early nineties."
Or ask USSA what it felt like when, in 1995, according to Ali "Suddenly this person is at all the meetings and he's not a student. You have to include him because he's at all the meetings." The person in question was Ivan Frishberg, who launched the Higher Education Project, USPIRG's first foray into higher education organizing. According to Frishberg, there was, "more work than two organizations can handle," but he also recognized USSA's primary role as "the primary voice for students on student issues," and he claims that "not in five years have we diverged from USSA's goals."
While on a personal level Ali has great respect for Frishberg, who he says "works really hard and is really smart," he also says that USSA had mixed feelings about USPIRG's newfound interest in student issues. "USSA is the only national student organization where students elected the leadership and set the platform. [It was difficult] to have this other amorphous organization which is not directly accountable to students [and] not with you 100% of the time on everything." USSA's leadership was also aware of the difficulties other organizations-as well as USSA's own member campuses and State Student Associations-had experienced with the PIRGs. Nevertheless, Ali explains that "there was a strategic decision within USSA leadership to accommodate [Frishberg] rather than fight him, because he was obviously going to stay."
And stay he did, making HEP a major player in student and higher ed politics despite the fact that, as Ali points out, USSA "never saw anyone from PIRG except for Ivan. [There was] no real organizational commitment to the issue." For the next few years, the two organizations managed to, in Frishberg's words, "present a united front" on Capitol Hill, and USSA cooperated with the efforts of USPIRG's Center for Campus Free Speech to develop a legal and political defense of student fee autonomy as the Southworth case wound its way through the courts.
Nevertheless, the relationship was somewhat strained by what Ali describes as the PIRGs failure to "respect other organizations' internal processes." To a staff-run organization that prides itself on legislative victories, such oversights seemed like small matters. To a grassroots organization that emphasizes student empowerment, however, issues of decision-making and representation are quite serious.
And there's another issue as well. USSA has an historic commitment to diversity which is reflected in its leadership, structure and activism, That commitment has fostered the active participation of women, people of color, queers and the differently-abled at all levels of the organization, and, most significantly, it has made it the only truly multi-racial national student organization in the country.
The PIRGs, on the other hand, are (with the exception of NYPIRG) overwhelmingly white. For example, during a national training, a WashPIRG staffperson describes introducing himself as Steve "Whitey" Charbonneau to highlight the absence of people of color. Not only did most PIRGers miss the joke, but the nickname stuck and ended up in a PIRG newsletter. The differences don't end with race, either. A number of activists who have worked closely with PIRGs, say that it's normal to sit in meetings where the white men of PIRG sit in meetings nodding sagely while women scurry about doing their bidding.
USPIRG Makes Its Move
In the fall of 1998, USSA received a call from the Colorado State Student Association inviting them to an upcoming State Student Association (SSA) training organized by USPIRG and close allies among the SSA's. No doubt for USPIRG the SSA training represented yet another "huge need" to fill (and an uninhabited wilderness to colonize). But for many USSA activists, which has been involved in SSA development for years, it represented an attempt by a large, white, staff-run organization to muscle in on a smaller, diverse, grassroots organization. The fact that USPIRG had never even consulted with or advised USSA made it difficult for them to see it any other way.
While USSA participated, the PIRGs sent the agenda with the result that, as one USSA insider put it, "the whole thing went off poorly. Most of the trainers were white men. I was embarrassed to be part of it." Based on the response of members who attended the training, USSA's Board decided to focus its energies on reviving its own SSA Development Project.
The issue is far from over, however. Last summer, another training was scheduled, following USSA's annual Membership Congress, by USPIRG and friendly member SSAs-two of three, Oregon and Minnesota run by older white male Executive Directors). Three of USSA's member SSAs-New York, California and Wisconsin, run coincidentally by two white women and one woman of color-were given little or no notice of the training. As before, it was hard for USSA activists to see this as anything more than a hostile maneuver on the part of USPIRG.
When Ralph Nader began organizing and advocating around "public interest," he had a theory that worked like a charm: ignore ideology, ignore the big picture, bring a majority of people together around a specific thing that they want. In the bygone days of the American Welfare State (small though it may have been), all he and the PIRGs had to do was get the wheels to squeak, and lo and behold, the politicians would get embarrassed or scared and come through with the grease.
In these days of Limited Government, Devolution and Bootstraps, however, all wheels squeak and it is the lobbyists who are supposed to provide the grease. The dominant ideology says that there is not enough to go around, and Nader's citizens are less willing to fight for what they want-not only because they think it's impossible, but also because it would be irresponsible to demand more when everyone is making do with less. The consequence? Diminishing marginal returns for the PIRGs and their ilk.
While many would be loathe to admit it, I think the PIRGs are in crisis. Tied to a crumbling political strategy and alienated from its original student base, it becomes harder for PIRGs to justify their existence. Clearly, PIRGs are doing good work in many places, but when you compare the resources of the PIRGs-experienced and talented staff, energetic volunteers, a large and diverse funding base-with their output, it's clear that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The hope is that PIRG staff-their greatest resource-will recognize the need for new strategies, and resist the urge to subsume each grassroots organization into another PIRG "project."
When Not Editing HX, Kevin Pranis works as a non-profit consultant and volunteers with the Prison Moratorium Project.