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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Campus Activists Showing a New Look

It’s springtime on the college campus. A few springs ago students streaking naked across the quadrangle received front page and TV network news coverage. The popularity of a recent movie, “Animal House,” further reinforced the public’s image of college students returning, after the turbulence of the ’60s, to the traditional folds of prolonged adolescence, beer blasts, frat parties and political indifference.

But some students contradict the image and are taking their educational and citizenship opportunities seriously. They are streaking for justice–a preference which has escaped the national (but not local) media’s attention.

A few examples will reflect what is happening.

–In southern California students sparked what has become a nationwide investigation of price fixing and meat grading fraud in the red meat industry. Billions of consumer dollars are at stake. Congressional committees, local prosecutors and, finally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture are digging into these business crimes.

–In North Carolina, students petitioned the U.S. Labor Department to protect textile workers from cotton dust damage to their lungs. Student research has been helpful to the affected workers and need for broader public awareness of this long-neglected disease called dysinnosis.

–In Minnesota and Ohio, students have uncovered serious failings in the evacuation plans that are supposed to be used in case of a nuclear power plant accident.

–In Washington, D.C., students researched and published a health care directory for women.

–In New York, students are working with community groups to reduce bank red-lining of neighborhoods. They are testing pollutants in the Hudson River that find their way into drinking water, exposing property tax abuses in Albany, providing winterization advice to homeowners and improving small claims court procedures.

–In Texas, students are conducting a study on wetlands regulation of the Texas Coastline.

The list could continue and include court victories, legislation, agency rulings and other concrete successes for consumer protection, tenants’ rights and more responsive government.

These achievements were made possible by a simple organizing method. A majority of students petitioned their college or university for an added few dollars ($5 or so per. year) on their tuition bill. The funds are pooled to form a statewide Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), run by students who hire the full-time staff. With such a staff of young lawyers, scientists, health specialists, organizers, writers and researchers, the student groups can aggregate expertise and civic impact.

Given rising educational and living costs, the research groups are tackling auto repair and insurance rate abuses, issuing guides to housing and local bank service and advocating truth-in-testing legislation.

Students involved in these causes find their educational experiences widened. They relate enthusiastically how they are connecting what they learned in school with what they are doing beyond the campus and vice-versa.

For years I have been encouraging students to unlock their potential in this manner both for self-development and assistance to the community at large. It was while recommending the creation of such a group that I met then Gov. Jimmy Carter who became an early supporter of PIRGs.

Earlier this year President Carter showed that he had not forgotten: “PIRGs have improved the quality of life for many citizens,” he said, “by working for consumer rights, environmental protection, government responsibility and social justice. Academic education alone does not provide the training for good citizenship that is so necessary to our country’s future.

“I hope that students, faculty, university administrators and all• concerned citizens will continue to provide the support necessary to PIRGs, so they may further expand their valuable work in solving some of the pressing political and social problems of our country.”

Students wishing to obtain more information about PIRGs can write to National PIRG, Suite 1127, 1329 E St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20004.