The fate of Binghamton University’s chapter of New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) appears to be in the hands of the Student Association’s Judicial Board.
The J-Board reportedly will meet Wednesday evening to rule on grievances the group filed earlier this month that allege, among other things, that the SA acted outside its authority. The grievances also allege that the SA denied the group due process when it recently sought to have NYPIRG removed from its office in the New University Union and to revoke the group’s charter.
NYPIRG is an organization with chapters on about 20 New York college campuses, most of which are SUNY and CUNY schools. It was established in the 1970s to “effect policy reforms while training students … to be advocates,” according to the organization’s website.
The Rules Committee of the Assembly held a hearing Feb. 3 to review whether NYPIRG deserved to keep its office. The Committee issued NYPIRG an “Order to Vacate” that said the group’s charter would be rescinded if it did not comply by 5 p.m. on Feb. 11. The Assembly approved the decision at its subsequent meeting.
NYPIRG refused to recognize the order’s validity, and Assembly Speaker Randal Meyer announced the following week that NYPIRG had been de-chartered.
The group argued in grievances filed on Feb. 10 and Feb. 14 that none of the allegations made against NYPIRG at the Committee hearing were sufficient grounds for de-chartering a group under the SA’s bylaws, in addition to other claims.
The J-Board now consists of four members. Two members of the Board — Eitan Adler, a freshman majoring in computer science, and Cody DeMarco, a sophomore majoring in biology — were appointed and confirmed by the Assembly on Feb. 14, and have not previously heard a case.
Meyer e-mailed NYPIRG on Feb. 1 asking the group to appear at the hearing on Feb. 3. The group asked for a postponement to have more time to prepare its case, but Meyer denied its request.
SA Executive Vice President Jenna Goldin, who is responsible for overseeing all student groups, attempted to intervene on NYPIRG’s behalf. She stated in an e-mail to Meyer that “NYPIRG has not been given ample time to prepare for this hearing,” and she requested that the hearing be “postponed by … at least one week.”
Meyer replied on Feb. 2 that he did “not see a compelling reason to take this off the agenda for tomorrow night.”
According to Brenden Colling, a non-student employee of NYPIRG who has been working closely with the BU chapter this year, the Committee never informed NYPIRG what the hearing’s procedure would be.
“We didn’t know what we would have to defend against out of the allegations Adam Shamah made to the Rules Committee,” he said.
18 representatives from NYPIRG’s BU chapter arrived at the Committee hearing on the night of Feb. 3 to speak in defense of their organization, but only seven were permitted to enter the room, according to both the first of NYPIRG’s two grievances and the Assembly’s official letter of response to the grievance.
“They had chosen a very small backroom that not many people could fit in, and only seven were allowed in,” Colling said. “We asked for a room change, but [Meyer] would not change it. 11 students who wanted to represent and defend NYPIRG weren’t allowed to speak.”
NYPIRG ORDERED OUT OF OFFICE
Colling claimed that no reasoning was given for the decision to have NYPIRG vacate its office, nor would the Committee chair give a record of the vote.
In addition to procedural complaints, NYPIRG raised complaints regarding the Committee’s decision-making process.
On the one hand, the Committee’s report to the Assembly described four criteria on which it based its decision: “membership totals,” “impact on student life,” “age of group” and “need for office space.”
But NYPIRG’s grievance claims that the Committee never disclosed that these were the criteria it used, nor were these criteria set forth in any publicly available guidelines posted by the SA or in its bylaws. It further objects that no effort was ever made by the Rules Committee to discover from NYPIRG how it measured up in those categories.
“The criteria they listed for a group to have office space on campus is not laid out anywhere,” Colling said. “I think they made it up just for us. They never even asked us for our info to see if we met the criteria.”
Meyer said that the criteria was devised at the hearing, calling their drafting a cooperative work among the members of the Rules Committee.
SA President Jared Kirschenbaum countered many of NYPIRG’s claims that the criteria were not made known to the group.
“NYPIRG was notified of the criteria at the Rules Committee hearing. They were also given the reasons why their space was being investigated. It was due to specific reasons they were told, not due to them being singled out or whatever,” Kirschenbaum said, even though he did not attend the meeting himself.
What was said at the hearing could not be verified because minutes are not taken at meetings of the Rules Committee.
QUESTIONS OF BIAS
NYPIRG leaders and members claim that their group has been singled out for attack based on the political biases of some members of the SA.
According to NYPIRG’s website, the organization is officially described as nonpartisan, as it is not affiliated with any political party and the issue areas it focuses on are selected by the students. But because NYPIRG’s work has involved topics such as the environment, education and poverty, some suggest that the organization has a liberal leaning.
This semester, the Rules Committee convened its hearing investigating NYPIRG’s use of office space at the request of a petition written by SA Vice President for Finance Adam Shamah.
Meyer, the acting chair of the Committee at the time of the hearing, said that a change in the SA’s bylaws last spring gave the Committee authority to review groups’ use of space. He added that the Committee only undertakes a review when someone makes a complaint about a specific group’s office allocation. So far the only complaint the Committee has received was against NYPIRG.
Shamah has been a vocal opponent of NYPIRG on campus during his time at BU.
As editor in chief of Binghamton Review, a self-described publication of conservative thought on campus, Shamah published an issue in spring 2009 with the title “The Death of NYPIRG at BU!” on its cover, as well as a picture of a gravestone inscribed with the words, “Here Lies the Binghamton Chapter of NYPIRG Squandering Money From 1975-2009.”
Shamah’s article in the issue, written in response to the Assembly voting to reduce NYPIRG’s yearly budget from $14,200 to $200, celebrated the role he and other members of BR’s staff played in cutting NYPIRG’s funding from the SA every year over a four-year period, including a successful motion Shamah made as an Assembly representative the previous spring to reduce their budget from $50,000 to $14,200.
Daniel Rabinowitz, SA vice president for academic affairs and treasurer of Binghamton Review at the time Shamah’s article was published, acknowledged during the Feb. 7, 2011 Assembly meeting that Shamah appeared to be acting out of ideological motivations.
According to an audio recording of that Assembly meeting obtained by Pipe Dream, Rabinowitz said, “Was this [the petition to revoke NYPIRG's office] presented to the Rules Committee by someone who was biased? Sure. But does that mean it was wrong? No, it doesn’t. Does that mean the Rules Committee was biased? No, of course not.”
THE ASSEMBLY VOTE
In spite of the SA’s revocation of its charter, NYPIRG has continued to carry out programming on campus, including an event last Thursday to discuss hydraulic fracturing, a method of drilling for natural gas that NYPIRG contends is harmful to the environment.
The Assembly voted 16-14 at its meeting on Feb. 7 to approve the Rules Committee report, which contained a one-sentence footnote containing the language of the ultimatum: “if refuse to vacate: de-chartered.” However, it is not clear that this consequence was ever made clear to the Assembly representatives.
“The actual ‘Order to Vacate’ letter was never seen by the Assembly, and there was never a vote to de-charter NYPIRG,” Colling alleged, arguing that if the Assembly were unaware of that footnote, they were not aware of the implications of their vote.
George Hadjiconstantinou, the vice speaker of the Student Assembly, confirmed that the letter ordering NYPIRG to vacate its office was not passed out to Assembly representatives at the meeting.
“That they’d be de-chartered was mentioned in the report, but personally I don’t think that a lot of people were aware,” Hadjiconstantinou said.