Wednesday, February 03, 2010

One of the PIRG culprits identified--read the justification and laugh!

Through the grapevine, your narrator learns that one of the organizers of the effort to charge all U of A students to subsidize the PIRG political organization is one "Pacifica Nicholson Sommers", a biology PhD student. The justification (to a friendly party), word for word:
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Pacifica Nicholson Sommers
Date: Tue, Feb 2, 2010 at 8:32 PM
Subject: Re: PIRG Info
To: [redacted]

Hey [redacted],

Thanks for writing. I am generally opposed to fee increases as well, but I
think ArizonaPIRG is a really cool program that I would like to see have a
more concrete infrastructure and presence on campus, which is why I am out
there asking people to support this one. There is a lot of talk about social
and environmental problems on campuses, lots of cool research and lots of
round tables and panels and forums. There are some clubs that take on social
issues, but the problem with all-volunteer efforts run by busy students is
that there is often very little accountability and things tend to fall
through the cracks. Leadership gaps open up between school years. The whole
premise of ArizonaPIRG is that we can hire someone to provide structure to
internships for credit, to do the gruntwork of scheduling and logistics, and
who has the experience to train the students in techniques for public

The idea of students assessing ourselves fees dates back to the 1960's and
1970's, when students wanted more ownership of their campus life, and wanted
to create women's resource centers, recycling programs, and other things
university administrations were not doing for them. One of those things to
emerge was the Public Interest network. Over eighty chapters in fifteen
different states fund themselves a variety of ways. For example, most
students in the UMass have a mandatory $11 fee - with no refund. Students
voted for it, in fact within the last three years students voted to raise
that from $7 to $11. New Jersey Rutgers students fund student PIRG chapters
through a waivable $11 fee on their tuition bill. In 2007, over 90% of
voting students in a referendum voted to keep that. We are proposing that
all the students on the campus at University of Arizona will benefit from
voting to assess ourselves a refundable $1.50 fee to support ArizonaPIRG

This fee would apply to all students on campus because having ArizonaPIRG as
a funded group on campus would benefit the whole student body. In the big
picture, students are supposed to be learning, engaged, active citizens.
Having someone ask you to take a stand on an issue like the Arizona Clean
Cars program informs you and gives you a chance to think critically. Whether
you file it away for later or you get in a three hour fight following your
rant about the Great Hoax of global warming, both you and the person you are
talking are learning something. We put on events like the panel discussion
on perception and substance in sustainability last semester that give
students a chance to learn something they never thought about before.

I understand the whole concept of grad students needing to be focused on
"piling higher and deeper." Undergraduate years are the time to get that
breadth of experience, to go out and campaign and protest and skip classes,
right? Still, I contacted the PIRG organizer on campus when I arrived here
and wanted to get involved. I have found a really useful niche in being a
part of ArizonaPIRG, in that I can interact with undergrads and inform
(yes, beyond being a TA for them, fun as that is). I have been involved in
reaching out to faculty to advise us and participate in events, which has
been neat since I end up reading about their work and finding out about
novel sources of funding and programs. Plus, I have learned public speaking
and planning skills that will be helpful if and when I run anything from my
own lab to my own department.

I am not sure what is "sneaky" about students funding a student-run advocacy
group - the whole point is that any students who are interested can join and
can help set the agenda. That includes tea-partiers if they are interested
in organizing change the status quo for the better. The defining feature of
campaigns we work on is that it's our interest against special interests. We
organize peers against monopolies for concert ticket prices, like would
occur if LiveNation and Ticketmaster are allowed to merge. We organize for
public transportation. That's not a partisan issue. There are plenty of
conservatives (Bob Walkup, Mayor of Tucson) and liberals (Al Gore) alike who
support alternatives to high gas prices. The whole point, however, is that
students join and set the agenda for that campus and that state. Arizona is
in no way required to conform to Massachusettes' or California's agendas.

And we certainly intend not to be sneaky about what we're doing. No one will
be paying a fee unless students vote for it. That takes getting the word out
to a lot of people. We have been doing class announcements and tables on the
Mall. We met with GPSC last semester and have been working with them on what
it would take for them to support this. We're hoping GPSC representatives
can help explain exactly what this is for to their department peeps. Our
goal is to do a poll of the student body and have at least three quarters of
the students know what ArizonaPIRG is and what we're doing.

The whole point of students being able to assess ourselves fees is so
someone with a proposal can give students the option. That's what we're
doing - putting in a proposal. I think it's a great organization, and a cool
idea, but I won't force anyone to agree. That's why we have votes, right?

Anyway, sorry this is so long. I just wanted to make sure I gave you some
concrete details. Does this answer your questions?


To sum up why a PIRG subsidy is ok:
  1. UMass has a mandatory fee and hasn't been spanked in the courts yet. (It's worth noting that Rutgers PIRG's fee is refundable because they were beaten in court. See Galda v Bloustein.)
  2. Students in the PIRG club can vote on what PIRG does.
  3. The issues PIRG concerns itself with are largely "nonpartisan" and that somehow makes them better.
  4. The organization is student-run therefore it's ok that students fund it. (Isn't that argument from equivocation?)

It appears that Ms Sommers either doesn't understand at all why people would oppose a PIRG fee or sees the cause worthy of "used car salesman" disingenuity, equivocation, and fast talk. I'd like to think that a PhD student isn't so flaky as to fall into the first camp, nor so unethical as to fall into the latter. It's tough to be charitable here.

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