Funding of student-run groups comes before regents
HELENA - The state Board of Regents will be asked next week to settle a debate over how student-run organizations at the University of Montana get their money, an issue that could affect a sometimes controversial group based at the Missoula campus.
Montana Public Interest Research Group, MontPIRG, financed mostly through a voluntary fee collected from UM students, has proposed expanding a regents' policy to allow the school to collect fees in support of any valid nonprofit, student-run organization. The current board policy provides that service only to MontPIRG.
The proposal also would more than double the amount of the maximum possible fee, from $3 per semester up to $7.50. Additionally, it would require periodic measurement of student support to determine whether an organization can continue to have the administration handle fee collections from students wishing to contribute.
But a competing recommendation will come before the regents as well.
UM student Tom Figarelle of Great Falls has asked the regents to end the practice of allowing UM to collect student fees for any student-run nonprofit organizations, including MontPIRG. Under his proposal, all such groups would have to obtain funding through the student government, competing with one another for the pot filled with student activity fees.
''It's not right that one organization should be given rights and privileges over other groups,'' Figarelle said. ''I'm trying to create an equal playing field for all student groups. It's not the university's responsibility to fund raise for an organization.''
But David Ponder, MontPIRG director, said Figarelle's plan is meant to target his organization and hamstring its ability to raise money.
''Part of his motivation is ideological,'' Ponder said. ''It's no secret that Tom's politics and his position on the issues don't jibe with where we would fall on the issues.''
Figarelle, chairman of the Montana College Republicans Federation, said he disagrees with MontPIRG and its stands, but that his effort is aimed at creating more fairness in the funding system.
''We don't have a problem with MontPIRG; we have a problem with the policy,'' he said, adding that the college GOP organization is not involved in his proposal.
MontPIRG, an affiliate of the national organization U.S. Public Interest Research Group, says its goal is to be a ''voice for the public interest in support of a clean and healthful environment, a fair marketplace for consumers, and an open and responsive government.''
Many of the group's studies and reports attack environmental pollution, and its positions have sometimes clashed with those of Republican leaders.
Ponder's plan would allow any student-run group to have UM collect a voluntary fee on its behalf, but only if the organization can demonstrate enough support among students. That would occur if a majority of voting students approve a referendum creating the fee or 20 percent of students sign a petition endorsing the fee.
The proposal also requires student support be maintained at certain levels in order to continue the fee each year. MontPIRG's current fee is subject to a student vote every two years and usually gets approved by 80 percent or more, Ponder said.
He said his new policy recognizes that other student-run organizations want the same ability as MontPIRG to collect voluntary fees from students through the UM tuition billing system. The proposal requires the administration to deduct its cost of collecting the fees. Ponder said MontPIRG pays the school about 5.5 percent of what it collects.
Broadening the ability of groups to have UM collect voluntary fees makes sense, he said.
''Part of the mission of the university is to create a marketplace of ideas and to offer students the opportunity to get involved in academic life,'' Ponder said. ''The more opportunities that students have to fund those activities, the richer the marketplace is going to be.''
UM President George Dennison said Tuesday he had not yet taken a position on either proposal. The campus has no objection to collecting fees so long as it is reimbursed for the cost, he said.