Binghamton University’s chapter of New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) has been forced to face the possibility this week that its 37-year existence as a campus institution may be in its death throes.
The Student Association has moved in the past two weeks to have BU’s NYPIRG chapter removed from its office in the New University Union and to de-charter the group, igniting a procedural challenge in which the group has cast itself as the victim of ideologically motivated attacks.
NYPIRG is a statewide advocacy organization with chapters on many SUNY and CUNY campuses that carries out political advocacy on issues selected by its student board of directors. So far, the BU chapter has not vacated its office. The group continues to work on its advocacy campaigns and run programs on campus, including holding a general interest meeting to attract new students on Tuesday night. The GIM was held in another New Union room and was attended by nearly 50 students.
The Student Assembly’s Rules Committee sent an e-mail to Briana Hussey, president of BU’s NYPIRG chapter, on Feb. 2 notifying her that the Committee would conduct a hearing the following day “to decide on the continuance [of NYPIRG’s] office space allocation.” At the hearing, the Committee voted 7-2 to order NYPIRG to vacate its office, and the full Student Assembly voted 16-14 to ratify the Rules Committee’s report at its meeting on Monday, Feb. 7.
NYPIRG leaders said that they found an “Order to Vacate” signed by Assembly Speaker Randal Meyer posted to their office door on the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 8. The order stated that if NYPIRG failed to comply by 5 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 11, “the Binghamton University chapter of NYPIRG’s charter … shall be considered rescinded.”
Instead of leaving, NYPIRG leaders filed two grievances, one on Thursday, Feb. 10 and one on Monday, Feb. 14, with the SA’s Judicial Board. They allege that the Rules Committee did not give sufficient grounds to even hold an investigatory hearing on the group. They further allege that the Committee used arbitrary sets of criteria to determine NYPIRG’s office space allocation, did not make the criteria available publicly or to NYPIRG and did not make attempts to discover if NYPIRG met this criteria. They also argue that the Committee lacked constitutional authority to remove groups from offices in a University building, among other claims.
At the next meeting of the Assembly on Monday, Feb. 14, Meyer made an announcement at the beginning of his Speaker’s Report that NYPIRG had been de-chartered by the SA and would no longer be recognized because they had not vacated their office by the deadline.
Yet the group’s status remains uncertain. James Koval, director of the University Unions, called the situation “wait-and-see.”
“The SA does not have the authority to make anyone vacate any office on campus,” Koval said. “[The SA] can only de-charter the group, in which case they cannot use space.”
Koval said the University had not taken any action yet, as it was not sure that the revocation of NYPIRG’s charter was justified or that the group had received due process from the SA.
“NYPIRG has been a very active group on the campus and we don’t know if this was an isolated instance where [the SA] just went after NYPIRG,” Koval said. “I don’t know if all the other groups were consulted to make sure that everyone else was in accordance with whatever it is the SA is saying NYPIRG didn’t do.”
He indicated that the University would not act to force NYPIRG to vacate its office until the SA Judicial Board had heard NYPIRG’s grievances and ruled on them, a process that may take up to two weeks from the dates the grievances were filed.
“I want to hear what [NYPIRG] has to say first,” Koval said. “We have to go through the appeals process and make sure they were treated fairly.”
As NYPIRG continues to occupy its office, the group has also continued to conduct advocacy on campus, with focus on four main issue areas: higher education, the environment, hunger and homelessness and voter registration.
Hyo Kim, vice president of BU’s NYPIRG chapter, said that most recently NYPIRG has been collecting signatures for a petition that will be sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, asking him not to allow plans for hydraulic fracturing, a method of natural gas drilling that some allege will have negative environmental consequences, to go forward in New York. She also said members of the group volunteered in a soup kitchen last Friday, participated in a charity walk on Sunday and is preparing to hold its annual Trashion Show event to encourage recycling.
Brenden Colling, a nonstudent employee of NYPIRG who has been working closely with the BU chapter, stressed that not only was the group having an impact through its work, but was also helping students to learn organizational and political campaigning skills.
“We have students interning for NYPIRG who are learning the nuts and bolts of grassroots activism,” he said.
Colling, a regional coordinator for the group, called the SA’s attempts to force NYPIRG out of its office and revoke its charter “a clear case of bias.”
Adam Shamah, vice president for finance for the SA and the student who authored the petition asking the Rules Committee to investigate whether NYPIRG deserved to hold its office space, said that all proper procedures were followed.
“The J-Board will hear the grievance, but it has no merit,” he said. “NYPIRG got what they deserved. Their status will be the same a week from now as it is today.”
Colling noted that Shamah wrote an article in Binghamton Review — a self-described publication of conservative thought on campus — in May 2009 when Shamah served as the Review’s editor in chief. The article, titled “Score One for the Good Guys!: The End of NYPIRG at Binghamton,” cheered the gradual reduction of NYPIRG’s budget from more than $100,000 in 2005 down to just $200 in 2009 and called NYPIRG “a left-wing sham.”
Meyer, who as Assembly speaker and acting chair of the Rules Committee at the time it convened its hearing on NYPIRG, was also the managing editor of the Review when that article was published.
Shamah defended his position and categorically denied that he acted out of personal bias.
“If any group was inactive for a year they’d also be de-chartered. NYPIRG had no budget, and no treasurer registered with the SA,” he said. “The decision wasn’t mine, it was the Rules Committee’s. We had many voices against NYPIRG.”
Kim said that despite the lack of funding for NYPIRG from the SA, the group had always continued its activism.
“In one week, we registered more than 1,000 students to vote,” she said.
Colling said that the group had roughly 20 members who attended meetings regularly, and 46 who turned up at the latest GIM. NYPIRG had 64 members registered on its PAWS student group page on Wednesday evening, though the group’s PAWS page was deleted by Thursday morning.
When describing the rationale for NYPIRG’s de-chartering, SA President Jared Kirschenbaum discussed additional reasons that were never included in the Rules Committee’s report.
“Their being chartered would create big problems, since they broke a lot of rules and thereby jeopardized our insurance and our entire organization,” he said. “NYPIRG committed activities that were not known to the Student Administration and are absolutely not allowed. They were a major liability to the SA, we told this to the Assembly and they agreed with the removal.”
According to Shamah and Colling, these allegations briefly entered into debate in the Assembly, but the Assembly’s vote reflected only what was in the Rules Committee’s report, which made no mention of these insurance violations.
When asked for specific examples of how NYPIRG had violated the SA’s insurance policy, Kirschenbaum claimed that the group had chartered a bus without informing the SA, and had operated a bank account off campus outside of the SA account, constituting violations that could result in a group being automatically de-chartered.
Colling said no one had ever made these allegations against NYPIRG at any point in these proceedings, and he said they were untrue, citing that they had no money to even put into an account.