Funding for UMD’s MPIRG chapter might decrease by more than 60 percent next year following a decision by the Student Service Fee Committee. The committee denied a motion to support the use of student service fees to compensate non-university staff. Out of 12 voting members, nine voted against the motion.
MPIRG (Minnesota Public Interest Research Group) has three campus organizers overseeing its nine chapters. Two of those organizers are stationed in the Twin Cities and one in Duluth: Kara Skahen is Duluth’s campus organizer and could be relocated due to the committee’s decision.
“If we don’t get the funding we need, we won’t be able to have a staff person in Duluth,” said senior MPIRG member Jamie Ebert.
Committee co-chair Corbin Smyth said the decision was made with the idea that organizations can utilize campus employees to perform the same tasks as non-university staff. Smyth is not a voting member.
But Ebert said MPIRG doesn’t work without independent staff. She said they have to hire people like Skahen to coach them on advocacy issues and teach them how to lobby for change. The group also hires lobbyists and lawyers to provide professional advice.
On January 31, MPIRG members proposed a budget to the committee asking for $44,000, nearly double what they received this year. Since the majority of their proposed budget is used to compensate non-university staff like Skahen, the committee recommended they receive only $7,975, almost $15,000 less than what they received for the past two years.
Without a campus organizer in Duluth, Skahen said, it’s like sending a group of students into a physics lab without proper instruction ... it doesn’t work. She said they need an MPIRG staff member on location to help organize grassroots campaigns.
So this week, members of the student advocacy group gathered signatures from more than 4,000 students (roughly one-third of the student body). It’s all part of a petition to support an appeal for more funding. They also received letters from alumni and city councilors backing their appeal. Duluth Mayor Don Ness sent a letter to Vice Chancellor Jackie Millslagle stating that he supports the appeal. Millslagle makes the final decision in the appeals process and received the group’s letter on Wednesday, March 23.
“The group is effective in engaging students on important issues,” Ness said. “MPIRG’s model is one that works and should be supported.”
Ness said that if the model is not broken, then it shouldn’t be fixed. As mayor, he has worked with Skahen on student-related issues in Duluth and said that losing her would “be a loss not only for the organization but for the university and the broader community of Duluth.”
Appealing the committee’s recommendation is something MPIRG is used to doing, the group appealed for an increase the past three years. Last year’s appeal resulted in an additional $4,500 in funding.
The group lobbies for lowering tuition and is responsible for the Complete Streets ordinance passed in Duluth last year. They also helped pass a statewide ban on a toxic chemical found in baby bottles and pacifiers.
Overall, 27 organizations applied for student service fees and 25 were allotted funds. MPIRG is the only student organization to see a decrease in recommended funding from last year while 11 groups saw an increase. Students will pay a service fee of $293.61 next year, the same amount as this year.
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