For anyone who follows national politics, there is no shortage of scandals and harrowing economic figures to buttress the opinion that our leadership is corrupt and incompetent. My own pessimism about government, however, is born of experience. I was foolish once and young; I even believed in The System. That was before I spent time in student government, a corner of campus life that is directly responsible for accelerating the degradation of our broader political culture. If, as P. J. O’Rourke once quipped, giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys, then giving actual money and power to teenage boys (and girls) is as predictably disastrous as you would imagine.
Before I explain what happened during this spring’s campaign for student government at the University of Oregon, my alma mater, know that there are good reasons why you should care. The student government president who emerged from the tragicomic thunderdome I’m about to describe now presides over a $15 million budget that runs 413 pages, with almost zero professional oversight or legal accountability. That’s more than many municipal budgets in the United States. The UO is located in Eugene, which has a population of 157,000. The annual budget for the city’s Department of Public Works is around $6 million, and for fire and EMS services $25 million. If such financial stakes seem absurdly high for a student government, they’re not atypical for a major public university—and the cost of student government, like the cost of everything else in higher education, is exploding.
As a former journalism major who cut his teeth reporting on the UO student government—the Associated Students of the University of Oregon (ASUO)—before briefly being elected to a position with it, I am qualified, if not exactly eager, to revisit this topic. Like most other forms of government malfeasance, corruption in student government is perpetuated by the fact it is largely opaque even to those who are victimized by it. Your typical college student government is riven with Judean People’s Front vs. People’s Front of Judea factionalism, and to understand it requires a superhuman tolerance for politically correct posturing and a willingness to decipher reams of inscrutable bylaws. But if you really want to fathom how broken America’s political culture is and why higher education costs so much, it’s necessary to consider the microcosm of student government corruption.
Three undergraduates ran for president of the ASUO this spring, and the controversy centers on two of them. Ben Bowman was the former opinion editor of the campus’s influential Oregon Daily Emerald, president of the College Democrats, and president of his fraternity—your basic Big Man on Campus. Thomas Tullis was a freshman affiliated with the Oregon Commentator, a libertarian and right-leaning student magazine that has historically combined irreverent lampoon-style humor and investigative journalism into university affairs.
On March 12, Bowman and two of his supporters, Marshall Kosloff and student senator Alex Titus, met with Tullis in his dorm room. A 70-minute audio recording of the conversation that transpired there—presumably made secretly and leaked to the Emerald by Tullis—revealed that Bowman and his associates had threatened to blacklist Tullis from both Greek life and student politics unless he dropped out of the race. They went so far as threatening to have the charter of Tullis’s fraternity revoked and to keep Tullis’s girlfriend from pledging the Gamma Phi Beta sorority. Bowman was also heard promising to use his connections to have negative articles written about Tullis at the Emerald. Those were the highlights, but most of the conversation was taken up with arguments about esoteric matters of student government. “Throughout the conversation there are multiple references to third parties not present in the room,” notes the Emerald’s summary of the recording. “Masturbation is used as a metaphor to illustrate the impact those third parties have on the ASUO process.”
Tullis submitted a transcript of the recording when he filed a complaint with the ASUO elections board, and on March 20, the board voted to disqualify Bowman and his running mate from the ballot. Bowman appealed, and his appeal was denied by the student Constitution Court on March 30. On April 3, however, the university administration intervened and overruled the student government’s decisions. Bowman would be on the ballot, and the student government election would be delayed one week, from April 7 to April 14. The president of the student government elections board resigned in protest, and by April 5, all five members of the board had resigned and the student government was threatening to shut down.
As if this weren’t dramatic enough, the next day, two campus police officers showed up at Tullis’s door and dragged him to the Lane County lockup for making an illegal recording. Hidden video is perfectly legal in Oregon, but for some reason secret audio recordings can run afoul of the law. The district attorney, however, has not filed charges, and the arrest is mired in controversy. Campus police were only recently authorized by the state legislature to carry guns and make arrests, and the arrest and jailing of a student for a nonviolent crime is highly unusual.
The day of Tullis’s arrest, the Emerald reported that the student government had reopened an old investigation into Bowman. Back in February, student Rachel Gowland, formerly a member of the College Democrats organization Bowman headed, had filed a “bias response” with the Office of Student Life. According to the complaint, Bowman had tried to “silence me by shaming me” and was inappropriately “calling out my personal, private relationship with Marshall [Kosloff],” though the nature of Gowland and Kosloff’s relationship is unclear. Kosloff just happened to be the Greek coordinator for Bowman’s slate of candidates and had been a participant in the conversation Tullis recorded. Also notable: Gowland serves in student government as the ASUO Tuition and Affordability director and had worked on Tullis’s campaign.
In addition, it was revealed that, following the initial complaint against him with the Office of Student Life, Bowman had been placed on paid leave from his job as opinion editor at the Emerald in February, while the student paper’s news team investigated Gowland’s allegations. Having concluded their investigation, the paper was going to reinstate Bowman. Instead, Bowman announced his resignation from the Emerald so he could concentrate on running for student body president. Having put Gowland’s charges behind him once, Bowman denounced the student government’s new inquest as “an absurd continuation of the ongoing witch hunt against me.” But the damage was done. Bowman bowed out of the race for ASUO president, this time voluntarily, on April 8.
For the sake of brevity, I’m omitting various other dramas heading into the ASUO elections, including at least one complaint filed against Beatriz Gutierrez, the third and ultimately victorious candidate for president. Gutierrez beat Taylor Allison—the poor soul who replaced Bowman on his candidate slate after he dropped out of the race—in a runoff election on April 25. If you’re really masochistic and/or obsessive, the journalists-in-training at the Emerald have put together a slick interactive timeline on the paper’s website that will allow you to keep track of any contretemps I may have missed.
Now, the University of Oregon student government might well be more dysfunctional than most, but the size of its budget is not unprecedented. UCLA’s student government budget is $90 million. San Diego State University—whose enrollment, at about 28,000 students, is comparable to Oregon’s—has a student government budget of more than $20 million.
Nor are concerns about the corruption of the UO student government unique. Earlier this year, former members of the student government at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—enrollment 27,813—sued the university administration following its decision last year to disband the school’s student government and replace it with a board of trustees. The university justified the decision by citing the student government’s inability to follow its own bylaws ensuring a fair election process, not to mention “ballot irregularities” in student government elections. In March, at the University of South Florida—41,000 students, with a student government budget of $14 million—the winner of the general and runoff elections was declared invalid after the runner-up filed 14 election grievances. Last year at the University of Florida, an email was leaked showing that fraternities were being paid $250 apiece by candidates for proof that their members were voting in student elections. In 2012, a county judge in Texas suspended University of Texas student elections after a dispute over election rules. Examples of student government corruption at major universities go back decades.
The amount of electioneering for student government is becoming commensurate with the ridiculous sums of money at stake. The ASUO president for the 2013-14 academic year was Sam Dotters-Katz. He was serving his second, nonconsecutive term as ASUO president, this time as a law student. Dotters-Katz raised $13,000 for his 2013 campaign, made 20,000 phone calls, and parked the RV he used as his campaign headquarters next to the student union building for weeks. In the not-too-distant past, congressional campaigns were won with similar resources. Also of note, the University of South Florida’s student government elections this year were deemed significant enough that the disqualified winner, Jean Cocco, had been publicly endorsed by a former Florida governor running to recapture the office, Charlie Crist.
Naturally, the exorbitant cost of student government and students’ inability to responsibly manage the political process for distributing funds affect the affordability of education. Student governments are typically funded by mandatory student fees. Student government at the UO is funded by an inappropriately named “incidental fee” that must be paid by each of the school’s nearly 25,000 students. Next year the fee will be $208 a term, and if you’re going to school full-time and paying in-state tuition, it represents a 7 to 9 percent premium over the basic cost of tuition (depending on whether you’re taking the usual 16 credit hours or the minimum 12 hours required of a full-time student). You can rent a room off-campus in Eugene for under $300 a month without too much trouble, and that $200 is what a student would take home working 30 hours at a typical minimum wage job.
Many student governments have the power to raise their own fees and are not exactly frugal. The University of Oregon’s student constitution allows the ASUO to raise fees by as much as 7 percent a year. ASUO’s budget, around $6 million when I graduated in 1998, is now two and a half times larger. Attempts to reduce fees almost always fail. In 2009, during his first go-around as ASUO president, Dotters-Katz actually attempted a onetime $100 reduction in student fees, but this resulted in an “accounting error” that caused the ASUO to overspend its budget by $400,000. In response to the problem of ever-growing fees, the Oregon legislature passed a bill last year capping the growth of university tuition and fees at 5 percent per year. The really cruel irony here is that in virtually every student government election, each and every candidate promises to lobby the administration and, if it’s a public university, the state government vigorously to lower fees and tuition costs for students.
What exactly do college students get for all this money? Well, it varies wildly depending on the school. But it’s safe to say that the money typically flows in three directions. First, there’s money that the school’s administration should be providing but prefers to shove off its own books. At Oregon, the student government pays for the operation of the large student union building—at a cost to students of $5,849,673 last year. The fact that student government alone is responsible for an essential building on campus has caused the administration a great deal of consternation. In 2012, the UO administration hired an outside consulting firm to run a campaign to get student voters to approve a $135 million renovation of the student center that would have raised fees by $100 a term. The administration’s campaign planned to spend $20,000 to $30,000 just on T-shirts, drawstring backpacks, stickers, and other tchotchkes promoting the campaign. After students twice rejected the plan and held it up with an election grievance, they ultimately approved an $84 million renovation partly funded by a new “facility fee.”
And in another egregious bit of manipulation, Oregon’s athletic department, flush with cash from one of the most consistently successful football programs in the country, gets $1,645,968 from student government as a way of making students pay to attend their own school’s athletic events.
Second, student government usually pays for basic services and/or perks provided to students. These range from sexual assault support programs to free bus passes.
Third, student government supports various student activities, including student government itself. Often, stipends or even salaries worth tens of thousands of dollars are paid to students serving in student government or running student groups. The proliferation and politicization of student groups has been enough of a headache that in 2000 it spawned a Supreme Court decision, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth. The original plaintiffs asserted that mandatory student fees shouldn’t be used to support anything that violates student beliefs. Ultimately, the Supreme Court affirmed that funding mechanisms for student groups must be “viewpoint neutral,” though in practice they remain nothing of the sort. Conservative and pro-life groups are regularly hassled or subjected to egregious funding disparities.
At Oregon, the ASUO and 180-some student groups are funded to the tune of more than $6 million, and a number of those groups have seven-figure budgets. There are few barriers to students’ attaining funding, and groups hoovering up student fees range from the ridiculous—see the Belegarth Medieval Combat Society—to the plausibly educational, such as student publications or the International Business and Academic Club. The bulk of the remaining groups land somewhere inside a largely overlapping Venn diagram of groups dedicated to exploiting public money to fund left-wing political causes or financially validate absurd gradations of identity politics. If you think fiscal sanity is a laudable goal, this presents all kinds of questions that left-wing campus politics makes nearly impossible to answer, such as: What’s the difference between the student Multicultural Center and the Multi-Ethnic Student Alliance, and why do students need to pay for both of them?
Tullis’s leaked conversation didn’t just threaten the integrity of the student government’s election process. It threw the campus into an uproar because, when the four students caught on the tape weren’t arguing and threatening each other, they had a candid and reasonably honest discussion about the diversity racket in student government. Student senator Alex Titus bemoaned the wasteful spending of certain student groups one dare not criticize in public. “Literally the same 10 people took $5,000 for a conference in Orlando, $4,000 for a conference in Colorado, and $15K for an Asian diversity conference about why Asians shouldn’t be oversexualized,” Titus said in the recording. “That’s $20K in one night that those motherf—ers just took.”
After Titus’s comments were leaked, angry students flooded the ASUO student senate meeting on April 9 holding up signs saying “Diversity is Beautiful!” and “We are not motherf—ers,” while Titus looked on shellshocked. The obeisance of the UO student government to such demonstrations of political correctness from student groups is so total that Taylor Allison found herself assailed by audience members at the ASUO presidential candidates debate on April 14 for insufficient dedication to The Cause. Specifically, questions were raised about her attendance at “privilege walks,” a depressingly Maoist exercise popular on campuses in which students stand side by side in a straight line and are asked questions about their level of privilege relative to the oppressed. Some actual questions taken from college privilege walk materials: “If you were sexually active with several people and it would improve your social reputation in other people’s eyes, take one step forward” (hint: guys advance a step, girls stay put) and “If you are able to drive carelessly without someone attributing it to your gender, take one step forward” (hint: ditto). Allison pleaded her case: “I’ve participated in multiple privilege walks in my time on the ASUO,” she protested. “I actually had to leave that retreat early to visit my family, so that’s why I wasn’t there.” Nice try, Allison. If you have a loving and supportive family, take one step forward. It’s not coincidental that the winner of the election, Beatriz Gutierrez, ran heavily on identity politics and is the co-director of the student Multicultural Center.
Subsidizing large numbers of student activists is problematic for one obvious reason: Student participation in campus elections is historically low. About 17 percent of students voted in the first round of student government elections at the University of Oregon this year, and only 12 percent voted in the runoff, and those totals include relatively effortless online voting. In 2005, University of Iowa researchers published a paper, “Voter Turnout in Undergraduate Student Elections,” that concluded the mean voter turnout was 18.8 percent, with a standard deviation of 14.7. Adding to our collective confidence in the educational value of student government, researchers noted the low response rate from student governments asked to provide their election data. Still, the Iowa findings roughly jibe with the claim made by Butch Oxendine, the executive director of the American Student Government Association (ASGA), that public universities typically see a turnout of 10 to 15 percent in student government elections.
Low turnout means there’s little accountability. The mandatory fees funding student government are paid mostly by oblivious stakeholders, such as parents and/or taxpayer-subsidized financial aid. And with student governments funding scores, even hundreds, of student groups to the tune of millions of dollars, it stands to reason that of the small percentage of students who do participate, most have some sort of direct or indirect financial interest in the outcome. Student government isn’t representative so much as it is captured and controlled by special interests.
The combination of low turnout and special interest politics also means that student governments can be easy marks for outside groups seeking funds. The ASGA, with 1,281 members, is the national lobby for college student governments. According to the organization’s website, “ASGA provides the resources, research, and support you need to grow your SG.” Tellingly, an entire section of the website is headed “Ask the Lobbyist.” It’s there that the ASGA encourages student governments to consider, “Should our SG hire our own lobbyist to be our champion in the state assembly or legislature? Is the expense worth it?” Many student governments have decided the answer is yes.
The ASGA’s attempts to grow the influence of student government through lobbying may be unwarranted, but at least it’s transparent. For years, one of the highest-funded student groups at the University of Oregon has been the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group or OSPIRG, which last year received $151,000 in student fees. OSPIRG was a controversial topic in the conversation Tullis leaked to the Emerald.
Founded by Ralph Nader in the early 1970s, PIRGs are essentially a way to funnel money to liberal political causes. The University of Oregon has the distinction of having one of the first college PIRGs. There are now dozens of PIRG chapters in 15 states that are funded through either student government budgets or a separate fee on tuition bills. Sometimes the fee is mandatory, sometimes students can opt out of it, but more often than not, students have no idea they’re paying to lobby for left-wing legislation just by virtue of going to college. PIRGs lobby for a slew of predictably liberal measures—for rent control and pharmaceutical price controls and against nuclear power. If you thought saving a billion people from malnutrition was in the public interest, well, OSPIRG is quixotically involved in a major campaign against genetically modified food. To add a patina of legitimacy to their scheme, PIRGs do mix in a few student issues, such as lobbying for more financial aid.
PIRGs grasping for public money aren’t unique to Oregon—nine public universities in California, about a third of New York’s SUNY system, and numerous other campuses around the country are involved. It’s estimated that PIRGs siphon anywhere from $10 million to $20 million from students, and about 10 percent of that is kicked up to USPIRG, the national lobbying organization. Notably, PIRGs are despised even among the left-wing grassroots for the way they treat people. They are notorious for overworking and underpaying idealistic young organizers and generally fostering a terrible work environment. There are entire blogs on the Internet dedicated to exposing PIRGs.
“It’s time that those ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’ soon-to-be college grads got some truth about PIRG, before being shipped off and selling their life for no money,” notes the author of the Burned By the PIRG blog. The author adds, “I think the funniest part of training was when they had everyone read excerpts from Saul Alinsky and Cesar Chavez.”
Despite mistreating their employees, PIRGs are generally tolerated by their fellow travelers because of the money they raise. Of course, it is supposed to be illegal to channel public funds such as student fees directly into lobbying efforts. Here’s how the scam works at the University of Oregon. There are actually two OSPIRGs. One is the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group and the other is the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group. The student group has a 501(c)3 nonprofit tax classification, which allows it to accept taxpayer funds. The state group has 501(c)4 tax status, which allows it to spend money to influence legislation but not to collect public funds. The two groups share office space, letterhead, and phone number. They even have the same employees and board members. Functionally and organizationally, they are the same group, despite the fact that this arrangement might violate reams of tax code. Back in the 1990s, University of Oregon students brought a lawsuit against OSPIRG for the misuse of student fees. (The case was later subsumed by the lawsuit that led to the Southworth decision.) During a deposition, former University of Oregon president Dave Frohnmayer revealed he was unaware that there were two different OSPIRGs.
As of 2008, five public universities in Oregon were pooling over $350,000 to fund the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group. The student group rents its office space from the state group and finds other creative ways to launder money from the 501(c)3 into the 501(c)4. And where other student groups are required to track their expenditures with purchase orders, the University of Oregon student government has traditionally listed OSPIRG’s budget as a single cash line item with no transparency. If asked what OSPIRG does that is of direct benefit to Oregon students, the group could produce no paper trail showing how or even whether money had been spent on campus.
As bad as that is, here’s where it starts to get sinister. The salaries of professional lobbyists at the state PIRG depend on funding from the student PIRGs, and student governments can change radically from one year to the next. That’s why PIRGs pay professional on-campus organizers. It’s these organizers’ full-time job to get a few naïve Tracy Flick-types elected to student government by financing their campaigns, as well as getting out the vote for any referenda that might affect PIRGs’ funding. In other words, PIRGs get hundreds of thousands of dollars from student fees, which are then laundered into state and national political lobbies. Then the state and national PIRGs take some of that money back to campuses and use it to ensure that student government elections turn out so as to keep the money spigot open wide. Note that PIRGs, like all Naderite groups, are prominent advocates of “stanching the flow of special interest money in our elections,” as it says on USPIRG’s website. Given their fairly radical views on campaign finance, the hypocrisy is remarkable. Their official position is that private political donations are not free speech. But PIRGs have defended financing their own political lobbying through mandatory student fees as “protected by the First Amendment.”
How far will PIRGs go to gain control of student government? In 2012 at the University of Oregon, then-ASUO president Ben Eckstein and vice president Katie Taylor were dragged before the student Constitution Court and almost removed from office. Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group board chair Charles Denson allegedly donated money to their successful campaigns for student government, but the candidates did not disclose the source of these funds as required by ASUO rules. The accusation, by the way, was made after it came to light that Denson was married to Taylor, a fact they had concealed from the public, presumably because it would look bad if OSPIRG were literally in bed with student government. The year before, Taylor had cast the tie-breaking vote in the student senate to give OSPIRG a 97 percent budget increase. Despite these controversies, Taylor ran for ASUO president while still serving out her term as vice president. Mercifully, Taylor lost this election after it was revealed that her husband Denson had hacked into the campaign Gmail account of the winning candidate, Sam Dotters-Katz—a possible felony.
OSPIRG has struggled for funding in recent years, and it was completely defunded in the wake of Denson and Taylor’s connivance. The current ASUO president-elect, Beatriz Gutierrez, however, campaigned on restoring OSPIRG’s funding. There’s no reason to think OSPIRG won’t return to campus. The group has controlled the University of Oregon’s student government for decades.
What becomes of the students who run the unscrupulous gauntlet of student government is a question worth asking. Here’s where I should probably come clean: As an undergraduate in 1998, I was involved in the first successful campaign to defund OSPIRG. I participated in student government, both as an editor at the Oregon Commentator and as an elected member of the Program Finance Committee, a job that involved a line-by-line review of the budget for 160 or so student groups. This left me convinced my student government was at best ineffective and at worst OSPIRG’s piggy bank. Some friends and I banded together to crusade against OSPIRG’s funding. We called our effort the “Honesty campaign.” I won’t bore you with the election complaints that were filed by and against us, except to say they were tedious and many. At one point, the student body president put out a statewide press release making a variety of untrue accusations to the effect that members of the Republican statehouse were involved in our campus dispute. This press release was no small matter. At the time, student governments across Oregon were petitioning the GOP majority in the statehouse for a tuition freeze. The press release poisoned the well of a legitimate attempt to lower costs for students in a desperate attempt to save OSPIRG’s funding. Still, we defeated OSPIRG. Members of student government cried literal tears when the results came in. I won’t go so far as to say ours was a masterful campaign, but I will note that the college Republican who quarterbacked the effort went on to work for Karl Rove.
Yet my most vivid memories of this episode involve a grudge match with the kid who was then-ASUO vice president, Ben Unger, or, as he was affectionately known as a result of his unfortunate email address, “Bunger.” I learned a lot about covering politics by thoroughly documenting what I and several fellow students perceived as his dishonesty and corrupting influence. After graduating, Bunger became OSPIRG’s campus organizer. He helped engineer a special election and successfully restored OSPIRG’s funding.
Of course, a lot has happened since 1998, and my attempt to cast Ben Unger as a villain is unfair. The truth is, it was college, and I had more than a few self-righteous delusions about my own beliefs at the time. People grow up, or so I thought. In the course of writing this, I decided to look up my old adversary: Ben Unger is now an elected state representative.
As for Bunger’s political career, I’d be lying if I said I wished him well. But if it makes him feel any better, I will note that there’s one heck of a precedent for PIRG organizers who go into electoral politics. Barack Obama worked for NYPIRG at City College of New York in Harlem, though the community organizer in chief has been historically loath to mention this, perhaps because of the justly terrible reputation PIRGs have acquired. There’s a one-line description of his work at a “Ralph Nader offshoot up in Harlem, trying to convince the minority students at City College about the importance of recycling” in Dreams from My Father. Back in 2007 the New York Times gave a terse-but-priceless description of this footnote on the president’s CV: “The job required winning over students on the political left, who would normally disdain a group inspired by Ralph Nader as insufficiently radical.” Only in the pages of the Times would Ralph Nader be described as “insufficiently radical.” Still, the headline “Obama’s Account of New York Years Often Differs From What Others Say” was unhelpful to the future president. In fact, his description of his time with NYPIRG “surprised some former colleagues.” Obama’s former NYPIRG supervisor told the Times he was a “star” organizer who worked on other “bread and butter” issues, probably meaning that he agitated for PIRG’s broader agenda, which is sufficiently radical and goes well beyond recycling. That Obama was a star PIRG organizer should have been warning enough for voters. Instead, the experience worked out well for Obama. PIRGs and student governments across the country were heavily involved in the voter registration drives and other efforts that helped get him elected.
But whether you point to a state representative or the president of the United States, the evidence is considerable: As a way of training future leaders, giving college students millions in free money does nothing but encourage corruption and callousness about special interest politics. It may be called “student government,” but the kids are learning all the wrong political lessons.
Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.