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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > the New Campus Activism

Student activism has come a long way from that day in February 1960 when four Bible-carrying black students sat down at a lunch counter in North Carolina and refused to move until served. They and the thousands of white and black civil rights workers who followed their example ushered in a decade of campus social concern about issues such as peace, ecology, and women’s rights. This surge of activism affected colleges and universities themselves. At numerous campuses dress codes and parietal rules have been abandoned; courses are more diversified; and, in many schools, students have won a voice in policy matters. Despite some successes, student activities are plagued by recurring problems. Students’ lives suffer from gaping discontinuities: Activities follow the academic cycle. Campus-led voter registration drives, tutorial programs for the poor, and environmental projects are interrupted by examination periods and too often ended by summer vacations. Who ever heard of a July peace demonstration?
In addition to lack of continuity, lack of know-how hampers student efforts. This is especially true when they attempt to deal with complex issues such as industrial contamination of the environment, employment discrimination on the basis of race and sex, inequities in the tax laws or defective consumer products. Such problems are not readily solved by symbolic demonstrations, marches or sit-ins. Scientific, legal, engineering, or medical expertise is needed to discover the extent of the problem and to bring it to a solution.
In 1970-1971 students in Oregon and Minnesota developed a way to provide continuity and expert knowledge to their efforts and to enhance their educational experiences. The vehicle was a student-funded Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). The theorybehind the PIRG was uncomplicated. Students in schools throughout each state hired their own full-time staff of lawyers, scientists, and other advocates. These professionals provided continuity and focus to student efforts. In turn, through class work and staff supervised projects, students learned the techniques of public interest research. Each participating school elected student directors who set policy for the group. The money to pay for salaries and expenses came from student activity fees.
However, students who formed PIRGs insisted that the PIRG fee should be refundable, first, to protect those not wishing to support PIRG activities and, second, to give students a means of restricting the PIRG should it prove unresponsive or ineffective.
Fortunately, the first PIRGs have been so successful that in Minnesota, where the best figures are available, refunds total less than 5 percent of the money collected. Moreover, as word of the success of the first groups spread, new PIRGs were organized. All follow the same basic formula, but each is independent and concentrates on issues within its immediate area.
In Vermont, for example, students and staff have published exposes on the ski industry, Blue Cross health insurance, and are in the process of creating a statewide lobby. The Western Massachusetts PIRG has sued a large utility. In Minnesota MPRIG took action on more than 60 projects during its first year of operation. The Missouri PIRG drafted a new consumer code to protect poor people in St. Louis. The fledgling New Jersey PIRG, with only two staff members, led a fight against a transportation bond issue which ignored mass transit needs. In each case student researchers gathered data and prepared reports, and when necessary, the professional staff drafted new legislation or filed suits. In some states, within a few months of their establishment, PIRGs became important representatives of citizen interests.
When the PIRG concept first was proposed on campus, skeptics wondered whether students would support the program or whether regents or boards of trustees would grant their approval. Both questions repeatedly have been answered yes. Others feared that professionals wouldn’t work for students, but most PIRGs have had their pick of qualifiedapplicants. Some people worried that PIRGs were not legal or would endanger universities’ tax status. However, favorable opinions by state attorneys general and approval of tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service eliminated these concerns. Today in state schools such as the University of Minnesota, Oregon State, the University of Massachusetts, and Rutgers and in private schools such as St. Louis University, Syracuse, Rice, and Williams, students and PIRG professionals are working on projects designed to make government responsive, preserve the environment, protect the consumer, and guarantee equal opportunity to all.