This week, Mudd, Wilder Bowl and the Science Center atrium came to feel more like midtown Manhattan than a small liberal arts campus, as Ohio Public Interest Research Group canvassers have become a ubiquitous presence. The canvassers have asked students to sign a petition supporting the continuation of an $8 fee, included in each tuition bill, that goes toward funding OPIRG. Students may opt out of the fee (officially the Alternative Student Funding Mechanism), but that obviously requires that they be aware of it first — Article XI of the Student Finance Charter leaves advertising the opt-out clause to OPIRG itself, and in a recent poll only 13 percent of students said they knew the clause existed.
It may seem axiomatic that a group who stands to benefit from keeping a campus uninformed should not be the sole party responsible for educating that campus, and events of the past few months certainly bear that out. At the beginning of last semester, OPIRG was supposed to leave a form in every OCMR explaining the fee and the opt-out option. The group failed to immediately do so, and when they finally did, the relevant information was a single sentence buried in three paragraphs of fine print. OPIRG’s ability to use the Alternative Student Funding Mechanism has now been revoked by the Student Finance Committee.
But the funding controversy points to a larger issue surrounding the organization: OPIRG answers to no one at Oberlin. Because it doesn’t rely on SFC for funding, its budget is not subject to review by any campus body and is entirely out of line with other comparable student organizations. The group’s finances are largely shrouded in secrecy, which is all the more worrisome given the fact that it is bankrolled by students who, for the most part, do not realize where their money is going. “It’s a matter of students’ rights in that students should know what they’re paying for, and it’s a matter of equality in that no other student group uses this method,” said Student Secretary James Foust. “OPIRG is essentially exempt from oversight.”
Despite having a lobbyist and office space in Columbus, Oberlin is the only Ohio chapter of PIRG, meaning that funds taken from students’ tuition are put to use in a variety of ways, some of them far removed from the Oberlin community. “The vast majority of their money goes toward paying an on-campus organizer and overhead for the office in Columbus,” Foust said, but again, an exact number can’t be determined because no financial statements are released.
It is important to note that this petition is not a referendum on OPIRG as an activist organization — the group leads many admirable projects, and it should be commended. No one is advocating for their disbandment; if OPIRG came under SFC’s purview, it’s not as though they would cease to exist. They would simply function in the same manner as countless other student groups, from OC Dems to Anti-Frack to the Oberlin Film Series. This is not an attack on OPIRG but an attack on a backward funding system. An overwhelming majority of students are unaware that they have the ability to opt out of a tuition fee, and the group funded by that fee — a group without any oversight — bears sole responsibility for educating them. Despite their history of service, OPIRG has developed a quasi-parasitic relationship with the College, and a change is needed.