For the three semesters I have been at The University of Connecticut, I have seen my fair share of complaints about different aspects of the university. From restaurant reviews in the Buy or Sell UConn Tickets Facebook group to general complaints in the subreddit, there is always something to be upset about. However, I cannot understand or get behind one of the more popular things to hate on: The UConn Public Interest Research group, or UConnPIRG. I often see the term “purge the PIRG” thrown around, with accusations that students are being “robbed” by the Tier III organization. When the time comes around each year, there is almost always a post in the subreddit reminding people to waive the fee on their fee bill.
Students have accused PIRG of many things: Being wasteful with the amount of flyers they put up, having a fee automatically applied to every student, being favored when it comes to funding student organizations (being on the fee bill as opposed to anything else), being “clearly nonpartisan,” being entitled, spending “six figures” on consultation fees and having no real impact on campus other than just advertising their organization. While it is popular to jump on the bandwagon against PIRG just because you cannot be bothered to waive a $5 fee, it does not mean the students on the bandwagon are correct.
I worked with PIRG for one semester on the New Voters Project campaign, and even that was enough to see how much of a meaningful impact they are making on campus and why the $5 fee is worth keeping.
The group itself is incredibly transparent with all they do: Their governing documents and meeting minutes are linked to their website, so students can see what they have talked about and decided at each meeting. It is not as if they are operating behind students’ backs and working their campaigns in the dark; they even table, flyer, chalk, talk in classes and more extremely often to make students aware of what they are up to. Even though some might see this as excessive, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Clearly if people complain about PIRG being too visible, then PIRG is doing a great job with their marketing campaign. It just shows how great their organizing skills are and how committed they are to making change on campus and across the state. Say what you want about their techniques, but they are incredibly effective.
Secondly, the $5 fee on the fee bill is how they get their funding. If you look on Student Admin, it takes all of 30 seconds to waive. There is no excuse to complain when in reality, you are just being lazy. PIRG also holds a reaffirmation drive every three years in which students on campus vote whether or not they want PIRG’s fee on the fee bill. If the majority votes no, then the fee is taken off; but the majority has voted yes consistently, and so PIRG continues to get their funding from students. They are also notably the only Tier III organization that allows you to waive its fee; WHUS, The Daily Campus, UCTV, SUBOG, Nutmeg Publishing, the Graduate Student Senate and USG all are Tier III organizations with non-waivable fees. If anything, PIRG should be lauded, not hated on, for this feature. There has been anger and annoyance in the past over articles published in the Daily Campus, events hosted by SUBOG and decisions made by USG; but as much as you may dislike these organizations, you still are forced to financially support them. PIRG clearly isn’t a “favored” organization just by being on the fee bill; they are a student-run organization whose existence depends on student fees and votes for reaffirmation.
Third, if you know anyone in PIRG, they will tell you that the organization is completely nonpartisan. Are certain students biased? Yes, of course — but there will always be these kinds of students in every organization, no matter which way they lean on the political spectrum. Part of PIRG tabling training emphasizes the organization’s nonpartisan existence, and they take strict measures to enforce this on their members. This includes not using your laptop during an event if there are political stickers on it, and avoiding talking about politics in such a way that would suggest bias. Just because you might know a super liberal person in PIRG does not mean they will act that way when they work to represent the organization at events.
Lastly, the notion that PIRG has not enacted real change on campus is absolutely ridiculous. The Zero Waste campaign convinced the Dunkin Donuts in the Union to end styrofoam use by 2020 and also worked with the town of Mansfield as well as the Union Street Market to ban plastic bags from the entire town — and hopefully, the state of Connecticut will be next. Their Textbook Affordability campaign is working on the pressing issue of the rising cost of textbooks, access codes and online subscriptions, and how that affects students. They were able to get a $5 million allocation in the federal budget for open educational resources so colleges can apply for funding and get free resources like textbooks for their students. The Hunger and Homelessness campaign worked to raise awareness for those who are homeless or lack a reliable source of food. The Save the Bees campaign made UConn a nationally-recognized Bee Friendly Campus, and is working to make Mansfield a Bee Friendly City. The 100% Renewable Energy campaign wants to push the University to be 100% renewable by 2050. The New Voters Project, registered 2,000 new voters before the 2018 midterm election and was able to increase voter turnout in the Mansfield midterm election by over 90%. If you look at all of these accomplishments and still see nothing being done, I have no idea what to tell you.
PIRG is arguably the most necessary activist group on campus — they have and will continue to make great change, thanks in part to the $5 fee we pay them each semester. This small amount makes all the difference in our lives, even if immediate change is not evident, and it pales in comparison to any other fees students have to pay.
Liz Collins is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.