The following are the facts.
Associated Students of Madison’s Student Council established a Constitutional Committee during the end of the last academic year. This committee was charged with revising the ASM constitution and creating a strong executive position. The composition of this committee included no active members of large student organizations and lacked diversity in almost every important respect.
Not surprisingly, a concerned group of students, including many of their representative organizations, formed a coalition dedicated to creating a more inclusive, democratic process by which the new constitution was constructed. Their concerns with the new document were three-fold: Funding for student organizations would become jeopardized, the new executive would centralize power in the most undemocratic and dangerous way, and the grassroots power of ASM would be significantly undermined.
These concerns were brought both directly to committee meetings as well as the final two Student Council meetings last semester at which the finalized document was approved for referendum. By the admission of the committee itself via its blog, no fundamental changes were made to address the objections of the coalition. Those students who did voice their concerns during the Student Council Open Forum — theoretically a venue where students can speak freely about their student government — were treated with dismissal, scorn and little else. (Admittedly, this last bit is more of a subjective, rather than purely factual, account of the events).
As a result of both the undemocratic process by which the constitution was constructed, as well as the gaping flaws within the document itself, the coalition concerned with ASM “reform” morphed into a coalition to defeat the new constitution in next week’s referendum.
While those who first raised objections to the “reform” efforts originated from the usual ideological quarters, the Vote No Coalition has since expanded into an objectively diverse and committed movement of students dedicated to remaking ASM in a way that actually uplifts the student community. Currently, the coalition includes such groups as the Teaching Assistants Association, Promoting Awareness and Victim Empowerment, Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow, Campus Women’s Center, Student Labor Action Coalition, Sex Out Loud, MEChA, Student Progressive Dane, Working-Class Student Union and several others. These organizations are more aware than anyone else of the potentially detrimental impact the proposed structure could have on campus social, cultural and political life.
By comparison, I am not aware of a single campus organization which has committed organizing resources to the Vote Yes faction.
Much has been and will be written about the details of the constitution, including by this writer, on these pages and elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on the nuances of the Vote No coalition’s objections. Suffice it to say that it opposes a dictatorial executive and supports a healthy garden of campus organizations, nourished by a student government unabashedly embedded in the grassroots. More information can be found at www.takebackasm.blogspot.com.
The coalition’s essential contention is that ASM’s structure is not what currently ails the organization. Recent history tells us that our student government was actually responsible for achieving a tuition freeze in 1999 and won a major victory against the university’s complicity in sweatshop labor in 2000. These victories were achieved by mobilizing large numbers of students, a strategy that relies on the activist-friendly structure of the current ASM — and precisely what the revisions intend to destroy.
Though the Constitutional Committee will tell you otherwise, our student government will not be a more effective advocate for students by modeling itself — in supremely pretentious style — after the U.S. constitution. What they fail to recognize is that the powerless Student Council will continue to be ineffectual if it goes on making pathetic attempts at governance; it will only mean anything to students if it acts as an aggressive advocate for their interests and the issues about which they care — this means activism.
What currently ails ASM is not its structure, but the people who occupy it. It is nearly impossible to imagine the current leadership of ASM leading walkouts and demonstrations as their predecessors once did so successfully. For this reason, the coalition is proposing a constructive alternative to the Committee’s version of “reform:” It will be running a progressive slate of candidates during the April elections intent on restoring grassroots energy to our student government. Only by connecting ASM to the broader community of campus activists will true reform ever be achieved.
The alternative is the new constitution, a document which even ASM Chair Brittany Weigand, in an editorial last semester, stated will only result in “more bureaucracy.” If a top-down, authoritarian structure is what you want as the culmination of ASM “reform,” then voting “Yes” makes the most sense. But if you want a democratic, activist-based advocacy group to qualify as your student government instead, voting ‘no’ is only the first step in making this vision a reality.
Kyle Szarzynski (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in Spanish and history.