At first, when another alumni sent me a link to the Emerald story about ASUO Vice President Katie Taylor and former OSPIRG Board Chair Charles Denson’s “secret marriage,” I was speechless. But then I realized that I don’t really need to say much, because it’s just too damn perfect.

As it happens, I attended the University when most of you reading this were in short pants. Even worse, I was actually on the Programs Finance Committee@@ back in the late ’90s. The big issue in the student government then, as now, was the fact that OSPIRG was puppeteering the ASUO politburo.

It was a sweet little scam really — dole out what amounts to petty cash at most lobbying enterprises to fund some ASUO campaigns, and in return get a few well-meaning and entirely naive patchouli-soaked Tracy Flick-types elected to student government; a relatively easy feat in an election where a small minority of the student body even bothers to vote. In appreciation, these kids then dole out a fat six-figure donation to OSPIRG’s nonprofit arm. That, in turn, is inevitably laundered in various ways into OSPIRG’s 501(c)4 group. Sure, this may be of questionable legality, but who cares about the tax code when those plucky Naderites are fighting the legislature to pass that mandatory composting law that Oregon so desperately needs?!

But if I may paraphrase a popular protest slogan, this is not what democracy looks like. This is wholesale capture of the student government by a special interest with a state and national agenda that is frequently at odds with the concerns and political sympathies of the broader ASUO student body. In fact, right now I cover politics for a living in Washington, D.C. (I know, a University journalism grad with a job! Who knew?), and if you indulge my assumption of professional insight, I can tell you that whether you’re talking about the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street — this is a perfect microcosm of the same issue that has both the grassroots left and right taking to the streets.

Except it’s worse than that, because often the cost of funding OSPIRG isn’t being borne by the students themselves. It’s being paid for by taxpayers and parents who have no say in the ASUO process, yet are forced to underwrite the ever-skyrocketing activity fees. And all so a bunch of 20-year-old do-gooders with little legitimate claim to authority, let alone expertise, get to play at being a grown-up politician and redistribute hard-earned dollars that would otherwise ameliorate the cost of the education many struggle to pay for. And in recent years, as the challenges to OSPIRG have mounted, the ASUO has actually taken steps to reduce its accountability.

Until reading the aforementioned story, I hadn’t thought about any of this stuff in years, as I generally want to revisit the internecine nonsense-on-stilts of OSPIRG and ASUO roughly the same way I want to be dipped into a vat of boiling Karo syrup. But I just thought someone should say that, even after 14 years and 3,000 miles, they absolutely cannot believe that this goat rodeo is on-going.

Mark Hemingway

Class of ‘98

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