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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Student PIRGs Growing

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.