Administrators at public universities across the country have granted unique campus privileges and funneled millions of dollars—in part, from mandatory student fees—to the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), a network of liberal lobbying organizations. At the City University of New York (CUNY), where I teach, off-campus lobbyists from New York’s PIRG chapter enjoy special rights, including the chance to compete for student-activity fees and an exemption from fiscal oversight. The result: NYPIRG raises more money than all other campus student groups and surreptitiously diverts those funds to its statewide lobbying operations. Compounding the problem, CUNY administrators exhibit blatant bias to promote the group’s interests.
Though CUNY has much to be proud of in recent years (see “The CUNY Revival”), the university has abetted NYPIRG’s accumulation of unrivaled power on its campuses. Other student groups stand little chance in political fights against its well-funded professional lobbyists. NYPIRG’s annual budget dwarfs that of ordinary student groups and is double that of CUNY’s student senate. With its unmatched resources, NYPIRG has succeeded in making dissent on campus against its positions practically nonexistent. During funding referenda, virtually every campus leader and club president signs statements supporting the group. Even the editors of campus newspapers—in violation of journalistic ethics—sign full-page ads (which NYPIRG purchases) in their own papers. At my CUNY campus (Brooklyn), students are permitted to claim a refund of their NYPIRG fee ($5 in each of four sessions), but almost none does.