While the Student Services Finance Committee within the university’s student government currently holds responsibility of allocating students’ segregated fees to student organizations, they were not always in control of the funds. The path that led to student control of fees has had its fair share of obstacles.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, student activism played a large role in students gaining control of student segregated fees, John Morgan, the first finance committee chair in 1993, said. Eventually, their lobbying lead to the implementation of a state statute which granted students the rights and responsibility to oversee the distribution of segregated fees, he said.
As budgets tightened in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the concept of “user fees” or “segregated fees” emerged as the university’s budget shifted from state to external funding.
“So with that source of funding came this notion of ‘students are paying the piper so they should have more control of the tune’ so to speak,” Morgan said.
Multiple budgetary factors contributed to the notion of student control over segregated fees, Morgan said. Meanwhile, the student government system at the time was suffering from problems of its own, he said.
The Wisconsin Student Association preceded what UW students now recognize as the Associated Students of Madison. In 1993, a group of students gathered to build a new student governing system from the ground up, Joel Zwiefelhofer, former chairman of WSA’s student funding branch and the first SSFC chair, said.
“The big difference between the two was ASM had one governing body, the student council, and it was elected all at once,” Zwiefelhofer said. “The issue with WSA is they had two governing entities the WSA senate elected in the fall and in the spring they elected co-presidents.”
Since WSA operated on a party system, issues often arose when the co-president was elected from a different political affiliation than the acting president, Zwiefelhofer said. In the year WSA disbanded, he said a group of students ran almost jokingly with the slogan “Kill WSA.” The group’s motion ended up passing, and WSA disbanded.
In the fall of 1993, a group of students including Morgan and Zwiefelhofer gathered to build a new governing organization. Matt Blevin, the first chair of ASM, said a group of about 15 to 20 students sat down to begin drafting a new constitution.
“WSA had become the bad epitome of what student government or any government can be, which is highly partisan, highly ineffective and unable to address the needs of its constituencies — its students,” Blevin said. “It was clear WSA was not providing what students needed or deserved.”
The group’s main focus was moving away from “petty politics” and the “ridiculousness” WSA represented, Blevin said. They set forth with an emphasis on student representation and action, he said.
At this time, Blevin said the criteria was set for student funding through SSFC.
Morgan said one of the biggest challenges they faced during that time and during the WSA era was determining what standards organizations have to meet to receive funding fairly.
“The big question was, ‘What is and what should be a student service?’” Morgan said.
This question came to head with a Wisconsin Supreme Court case involving a UW student, Scott Southworth.
In that case, Southworth and other students argued the mandatory fee system forced them to support political and ideological organizations they disagreed with, violating their First Amendment right to free speech. Southworth’s suit was filed in 1996, and the court ruled March 22, 2000 that ASM cannot take the views of an organization into consideration when a group applies for funding.
Mike Dean, the ASM chair at the time of the ruling, said it required them to create a viewpoint neutral system, as well as provide proof the decision-making process was not influenced by ambiguous criteria.
“What this court case required us to do was be very explicit about how we made these decisions,” Dean said. “We created a process that required more transparency, accountability and had clearer guidelines on how we made these decisions. The primary guideline we created was that it had to benefit the student body.”
Now, 14 years after the Southworth case ruling, the eligibility criteria have been altered yet again.
The 20th session of ASM voted on two major changes. The first was to have a zero-funding option for groups that commit policy violations and the second involved changing the definition of direct services.
Formerly, groups would receive minimal funding worth $10,600. Under the new changes, a group is not funded if they either violate policy or lack evidence the funding is supporting necessary for its objectives.
Secondly, language which previously required student organizations to determine and prove that a majority of their services benefit students directly was changed to a core programming requirement.
These requirements include having an educational benefit, being open to all university students and students must be at least 75 percent of the beneficiaries of the program.
The new requirements also clarify accountability measures to ensure groups use funding in the way they intended.
As former ASM Chair David Gardner said in a previous Herald interview, “The climate in ASM this year has shifted so that people are really focused on getting work done and [eligibility criteria change] is one of our greatest accomplishments. I think we can really say that we took feedback. We worked for months with the actual groups and with general students to turn this into something that can be better for both.”