Last semester, the Student Finance Committee began evaluating Article XI of the Student Financial Charter, which provides for a “special funding mechanism” by which student organizations can tithe an essentially automatic donation from student term bills every semester, provided that they distribute opt-out slips to students via OCMR mailboxes.
According to student senators, Ohio Public Interest Research Group is the only student organization that has successfully received funding through this mechanism. In fact, according College senior and student senator Charlotte Landes, the special funding mechanism was likely created specifically for OPIRG.
“My understanding is that in the ’70s … this funding structure was set up for PIRG specifically. … I’m unclear if they ever went through the initial process [to receive the funding], which is really lengthy,” said Landes, who is also co-chair of SFC.
Last semester, SFC found OPIRG in violation of their charter by failing to provide opt-out slips in the mailboxes of students, and subsequently withheld their funds for the spring semester. The review of Article XI was doubly prompted by a survey of the student body conducted by SFC last fall, which found that a mere 26 percent of students surveyed were aware of the existence of the special funding mechanism, and even fewer students — 13 percent of those surveyed — were aware of their ability to opt-out of the donation to OPIRG.
According to Joe Condon, College senior and student senator, structural flaws with the special funding mechanism may incentivize organizations to fail to provide these opt-out slips.
“In short, there were concerns about the accountability because the fact that it’s a negative check, that students have to voluntarily opt out of payment, SFC felt that that set up these poor incentives where the organization that was receiving the funding from the system has really very little incentive to inform the student body of those decisions, and were failing to do so,” Condon said.
Condon also said that this is not the first time that OPIRG and the special funding mechanism have been under evaluation by SFC and Student Senate.
“There have been repeated conversations over the last 20 years. But it makes sense, right? The incentives are not there and it’s also a situation in which there’s not institutional memory because kids graduated and there’s a new PIRG,” Condon said.
“Often what happens is that there’ll be a push for accountability, and they’ll do a good job, and then students pass on and that gets forgotten. … So that was, I think, a big motivating factor for eliminating Article XI.”
In fact, the $8 donation OPIRG receives from students every semester adds up to roughly $50,000 every year. And as Oberlin is the only remaining OPIRG chapter left in the state of Ohio — and has been for over a decade — this sum, presumably padded by funds from the national PIRG organization, almost single-handedly funds the operating budget for the entire state organization.
But according to Aaron Appel, College first-year and current board chair of Oberlin’s chapter of OPIRG, Oberlin will hopefully soon be joined by other state colleges and universities to help share the burden of funding OPIRG.
“It’s a difficult situation. … Honestly the only way that this could work now is if we create more PIRGs,” Appel said. “I’m really happy that we’re at a position where we can talk to SFC and reason through what our mutual interests are, because the system isn’t sustainable. I don’t think anybody believes that. And we don’t want to put that burden on the students.”
Additionally, Appel said he sees this as an opportunity for OPIRG to re-evaluate how it has run itself over the last 40 years and perhaps take the organization in a new direction.
“There’s a lot of questions that could be raised about PIRG, about the money, about the sense of activism,” Appel said. “It seems more of a top-down process than it really should be. But I’m still in this organization because I want to make a difference and I think that PIRG can still be a mechanism for that. It’s important to decide a role that we can play and the main role that I can see in the coming years is one of a coordinator.”
Appel said that he sees a need for OPIRG to harness the influx of student interest it receives at the beginning of each year, and coordinate campus groups to increase student participation in a number of organizations.
“There’re tons of people doing amazing things all over campus … so why not connect them in some way? Because I think that’s a need.”