Back in the late ’60s when students were demonstrating or sitting-in on many a college campus, embattled school administrators would urge students to work for needed changes in society through conventional political and legal channels.
Why be so disruptive, they would plead, when students could use their democratic rights as citizens through traditional branches of government?
SOME STUDENTS listened. Five years ago they began to do just that.
Organizing themselves as public interest research groups (“PIRGs”), the students have funded and directed full-time staffs of lawyers, scientists, health specialists and other researchers to analyze consumer, environmental, governmental and corporate problems. They then try and do something to correct these conditions.
These PIRGs are operating in more than 20 states with some 500,000 students contributing a few dollars a year to support their statewide (as in New York) or urbanwide (as in St. Louis) organizations.
For some corporate interests, the student PIRGs have been too successful. Chemical pesticide interests do not like Minnesota PIRGs’ advocacy of safer pesticide controls and are trying to upset the group’s funding mechanism at the University of Minnesota.
PIRGs are usually funded after a majority student petition asks the school’s trustees or regents to assess a small student fee. Those who do not want to be assessed have the right to an easy refund, thus protecting minority as well as majority student rights. Since corporate interests are vastly overrepresented on university or college boards of trustees, industries that cannot stand student citizenship find willing allies.
College students have always been met with opposition when they try to assume adult citizen responsibilities. They are told to confine themselves to their books and “get an education.”
IT IS as if “getting an education” does not include studying society’s problems and testing their understanding in civic activities. What is education if it is not learning about important matters, both specific and theoretical, and developing citizen skills that reflect a mature blending of analytic and human value training?
As long as higher education operates like elevated trade schools preparing students for a corporate job market that will buy their skills but reject their desireto exercise independent ethical judgments about their work, the surrounding economic interests are pleased.
But more students are becoming serious about their years at college in terms of developing themselves as sensitive and effective citizens. At Penn State, usually known for its football team, thousands of students are signing petitions to establish a large PIRG.
Instead of welcoming this initiative as a breath of long overdue fresh air blowing against student apathy, some trustees and administrators are trying to undermine or block these students.
AT BOSTON University, several Florida universities and Emory University (Atlanta), the key administrators thus far have been adamant against any such student expression. At such institutions, the questions of who governs and who selects those who govern these schools become paramount inquiries.
At other colleges, where the trustees are more representative of popular interests and the principles of meaningful education and student motivation, the approval for PIRGs is hearty and prompt.
Oberlin College is a luminous example. In a 48-day period last fall, the students achieved a solid majority petition for a $5 per student assessment (with right of refund) and secured the approval of the trustees. Thus the nucleus of an Ohio PIRG was established as a spark to other schools in that heavily student-populated state.
THE GROWTH of student PIRGs has not been without difficulties before and after their establishment. But they signal a rejection of the convention that college students have to be victims of prolonged adolescent stretch-out.
They show how students and their young professional staffs can use their talents to uncover abuses affecting the elderly (hearing aids and drug prices), workers (job hazards), consumers (utility rates, pollution, fraud and credit abuses), tenants (housing practices and discrimination against students) and other injustices.
They propose and advocate constructive solutions and gain headway by means of imaginative citizen strategies. Some faculty, sensing heightened motivation, have approved course credit for student PIRG research projects.
Quietly and thoroughly, students are defining a genuine form of patriotism called citizenship.