MassPIRG’s unwillingness to make inroads is both telling and troubling

Andrew J. Sciascia
Connector Editor

Recently, around the country we have seen a dynamic, and much needed, shift in the way we discuss predatory behaviors and actions – and it all begins with the idea of affirmative consent.

For those unfamiliar with the term, affirmative consent is the idea that we should all be discussing and understanding consent as an explicit, verbal affirmation one party gives to another for something to transpire. It is “yes means yes” not “no means no,” to put it in simpler terms.

Having recently adopted the concept of explicit affirmative consent as the cornerstone of our discussions and education efforts surrounding predatory behavior and prevention efforts here at UMass Lowell, I cannot help but ask: why do we allow an organization that blatantly rejects this principle in its funding practices to exist on campus and fund itself through our student finance accounts? Why do we not identify their behavior as predatory?

With Student Government Association elections looming close on the horizon, I feel it is time to once again reframe the MassPIRG discussion and provide follow-up on my recent interactions with the organization.

Two weeks ago, I penned an op-ed entitled ‘MassPIRG is a partisan scam, and we should vote to defund them’ in which I addressed the objectionable history of the national Political Interest Research Group (PIRG) system and its predatory funding practices on college campuses.

In the days and weeks that followed, there has been a tremendous student discourse surrounding the op-ed and UMass Lowell’s own MassPIRG chapter – a discourse which prompted MassPIRG Campus Organizer Julia Seremba to reach out to me, shortly after the op-ed’s release, in pursuit of a sit-down meeting about the organization and the facts and concerns I addressed.

It was a meeting I very much looked forward to, still clinging to hopes that perhaps this growing campus discussion might lead MassPIRG to, at the very least, work toward a less predatory feeing model in the future.

Unfortunately, when I sat down with Seremba and one of her student organizers on Wednesday, February 27, those hopes were quashed categorically and unequivocally.

Seremba was incredibly personable and spoke to my concerns about MassPIRG’s status as a non-partisan group – a legal standing the group maintains by not directly affiliating itself with political parties – and also briefed me on MassPIRG’s campaigns here on our campus.

As I said in my initial op-ed, these campaigns, from voter registration and food drives to sustainability and affordable textbook initiatives, are all things I obviously believe to be worthy of merit.

However, it was the way Seremba – a paid MassPIRG staffer – addressed student concerns about the $11 waivable fee which truly left a bad taste in my mouth.

As I have said previously, it is inherently predatory for any organization – particularly one which claims to support student’s best interests and claims to protect their finances – to take what they want from students each year unless those students actionably say no.

Thusly, throughout the meeting, I floated the idea that MassPIRG could make inroads with students by placing itself on the SGA ballot this Spring with an opt-in fee rather than the current line-item waivable fee. More than once, this idea was explicitly shot down by Seremba. Apparently MassPIRG finds that it is just “more efficient” to “affect change” this way as opposed to “chasing students down” and “begging” them for money.

This unwillingness to make inroads with the student body and pursue a fee which operates on affirmative financial consent is equal parts telling and troubling.

MassPIRG is an organization that would rather risk being voted off our campus come April than do right by the student body. I would have made an about-face and advocated that students vote in favor of MassPIRG had they been willing to make inroads, but they would rather operate in the dark.

They know full well that they will take in far more money this way than if they decided to ask that students actively and charitably donate to their cause. So much for “Standing Up To Powerful Interests” that “threaten” our “financial security.”

Now, I will once again implore those students who disagree with this sort of predatory behavior to have their voices heard, and to vote against MassPIRG’s UMass Lowell chapter and fee in the annual SGA elections.

For those detractors who would will inevitably beg the question, “What about the advocacy and activism we would lose were MassPIRG’s chapter to disappear?”

To those students I would say this: Each and every campaign MassPIRG runs already has an established equal on campus.

College Democrats, College Republicans and SGA are more than capable of running a voter registration drive on campus. We all know they do most of the work on MassPIRG’s voter drives anyway.

The Office of Sustainability already works to decrease UMass Lowell’s footprint by making it carbon neutral and energy efficient, and they’re already funded by a fee that you cannot waive.

The Office of Residence Life and the UMass Lowell Food Pantry already do food drives and a “Support our Students” program to aid our food-insecure students.

It is for these reasons that I suggest we vote against MassPIRG – at least until they step away from predatory feeing practices. Until they have learned that any sort of transaction in which a party is willing to forgo affirmative consent in the pursuit of their own selfish ends is wrong.

Should they learn from student outcry down the road and choose to make their fee opt-in rather than opt-out, we can always vote to reinstate them next year.

The annual SGA elections will take place online on Wednesday and Thursday, April 3 & 4. Remember to vote.

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