When Matthew Mitnick first set foot on the University of Wisconsin campus as a freshman, he aspired to take part in the acclaimed shared governance system, which provides legal grounds for academic staff, faculty and students’ involvement in decision-making processes at UW System schools.

Within shared governance, Mitnick hoped to make real change on the UW campus, and three years later, Mitnick now sits as the chair of the Associated Students of Madison — UW student government’s highest office.

But, instead of aspiring to make change within the shared governance system, Mitnick now finds himself asking a new question altogether.

“If you want to create change, do you work within the system and acquiesce to what they want … or do you just say ‘you know screw it, this whole system is corrupt as hell, let’s just create a new one?’” Mitnick said. “That’s something that we, even in ASM, have been talking about, and I personally think we should change the system because the system isn’t working.”

In a year where UW’s student government has publicly clashed with the university on several hot-button issues, student leaders are questioning the university’s approach to represent the student voice in the face of administrative opposition and the erosion of shared governance systems.

Breaking down (of) shared governance

With any decision made by ASM, Mitnick and other student representatives rely on a short but powerful statute in Wisconsin legislation §36.09(5).

§36.09(5) makes UW System student government organizations like ASM official parts of the Wisconsin state government through the principles of shared governance, according to the ASM website.

While the statute requires UW System schools to obtain student approval of certain policies before they can go into effect, Mitnick and other student leaders across campus have recently raised concerns that the university is not elevating the student voice on current issues such as COVID-19 and social justice.

In the fall semester, ASM passed a vote of no confidence in UWPD and endorsed a “Moral Restart” — both resolutions directly contradicted the university’s public stances on social justice initiatives and the pandemic, and students thought it might result in UW administrative action.

As it turns out, these resolutions alone do not bind the university to any action. Mitnick said the university’s failure to act on these resolutions and their exclusion of student voices may tie back to recent restrictions on shared governance laws.

Mitnick said legislative changes made to §36.09(5) in 2015 watered down the powers of shared governance, directly affecting the current state of student-university negotiations and contributing to the lack of action on those prominent ASM resolutions.

§36.09(5) originally stated students “shall be active participants in the immediate governance of and policy development for such institutions.” But in 2015, under the Act 55 budgetary bill, former governor Scott Walker’s administration changed the statute’s wording to state students “shall have primary responsibility for advising the chancellor regarding the formulation and review of policies concerning student life, services and interests.”

This change in the statutory language shifted students’ rights from governing themselves to providing input to university administrators, according to an ASM report on shared governance at UW.

Mitnick said this change invested more power in the chancellor and administrators by allowing those individuals to selectively listen to — or if they so choose, to ignore — students.

“I sometimes think we’re just sitting there for an hour to check their box that ‘oh yep, we had that meeting,’ but there’s no guarantee that anything we say is going to actually be utilized … it really drastically undermines [student government], and it makes ASM just a blanket organization,” Mitnick said.

In an email statement to The Badger Herald, university spokesperson Meredith McGlone said the active participation of faculty, academic staff and students remains a crucial part of the decision-making process at the university.

McGlone said shared governance partners are involved in campus decisions about academics, research, campus climate and safety, diversity and inclusion initiatives and other campus-wide issues.

“Although shared governance is no longer enshrined in state law, UW-Madison continues to abide by its principles,” McGlone said in the statement.

A UW Timeline

Former ASM director Jena Olson worked with UW’s student government from 2004 to 2008. The professional staff — employed by the university — works with student government representatives to help them understand their rights and facilitate their navigation of the university system.

Olson said there was often tension between the university and ASM during her time as director. With this tension, Olson said administrators attempted to undermine the student voice consistently.

“I didn’t generally have the impression that a lot of staff and faculty felt like students needed to be taken seriously,” Olson said. “[They thought] they were too young, too inexperienced to be able to speak to things that were concerning to them.”

Olson said she believes students were often only included as a formality because administrators were legally bound to do so by §36.09(5). During her tenure as director, Olson said ASM professional staff frequently referred back to state statutes in order to convince administrators that students had the right to be a part of decisions.

Administrators would try to work around the statute when it was in full force by arguing certain decisions did not affect student life, Olson said. These tactics tried to exclude students from shared governance processes.

“The statute was the thing that gave everything teeth, and to have that gutted, I am not surprised to hear that shared governance is not as strong,” Olson said. “We already had trouble with people even giving more than paying lip service to it.”

Former ASM chair Austin Evans said “36095” used to be the answering machine code for ASM’s landline. While perhaps an insignificant anecdote, Evans said it was a testament to how ingrained the statute is within ASM, as the root from which all their work takes power.

Chair of ASM from 2003 to 2005 before changes were made to shared governance laws, Evans said the ASM leaders had a good relationship with the university administration during his tenure. But, he still witnessed some similar student advisory board tactics and workarounds to avoid listening to student complaints.

“We have a great system to elect people, and if the university thinks that they’re just going to select pictures of voices they want to hear, again, that’s bullshit, and that’s the kind of stuff that’s offensive to people who are elected,” Evans said.

Evans added the statute changes to shared governance have uprooted the proper roles of administrators and students. With a background in public policy and corporate governance law, experience as a partner at a law firm in California and time as a leader for the UW Alumni Association chapter in San Diego — his views on shared governance converge multiple areas of his expertise.

Evans said it is easy for administrators to suppress the student voice if they choose, so the university-student relationships must be mutual for the system to work the way it is designed.

“We really do make a lot better decisions as a group, when we can hear each other out and come to that level of mutual respect that we expect from each other,” Evans said. “And if there’s gonna be some systematic way of reducing the students’ input from mandatory to advisory, it’s disappointing, and it’s going to foster these breakdowns we’re experiencing right now.”

Consequences of shared governance breakdowns

Based on his observations of administrative conduct and his view of eroded shared governance, Mitnick said UW administrators pick and choose which student leaders to meet with. Mitnick said the university creates student advisory committees that selectively exclude opposing voices from within student government and the broader student body.

While ASM does appoint some of the student representatives on certain advisory boards, Mitnick said university administrators’ control over these boards does not guarantee any student input given at meetings is actually taken into account for decisions.

“Administrators present at those meetings have a say in how that agenda is crafted and essentially have control over the process determining who’s in the room and who isn’t,” Mitnick said. “So is it a way for them to authentically hear us? Or is it a sham [to] make it seem like they’re listening to us?”

Co-founder of the UW BIPOC Coalition Juliana Bennett said student BIPOC leaders have faced many barriers in scheduling meetings with Chancellor Rebecca Blank and other administrators. The BIPOC Coalition had their first meeting with the chancellor in late October after semester-long calls to meet with Blank.

Mitnick and Bennett said Blank was invited to an ASM meeting in early October, but did not attend the meeting. Mitnick said Blank notified him that she would not be able to attend after finding out the BIPOC Coalition was set to speak. Blank did not specifically credit that to justify her lack of attendance, citing scheduling issues in an email to Mitnick.

Mitnick said UW’s refusal to meet with students and their tactics of deflection show the administration’s priorities in its approach to students. Bennett said the student advisory groups and bureaucratic levels of communication try students who want to make change.

“We know that these advisory groups don’t really do anything, and in the long run, they don’t actually have change,” Bennett said. “It’s just another means to use the free labor of BIPOC students to pretend like ASM and the university at large is listening.”

Mitnick said the weakening of shared governance continues to play a role in campus COVID-19 decisions as well. Mitnick said voices from organizations such as the Teaching Assistants Association and the BIPOC Coalition have been left out of university conversations on the pandemic.

Mitnick said he tried to invite TAA representatives or other students to student advisory meetings about COVID-19 plans on several occasions. The individuals were denied permission based on the university’s processes for the committees, Mitnick said.

According to an internal ASM report from this summer provided to The Badger Herald, there were no student representatives included on the COVID-19 Smart Restart Project Team. While the UW Smart Restart website states there are other individuals not listed in the plan that do work “behind the scenes,” the ASM report said the official structure references no student entities involved in decision making.

The report found the lack of student representation and communication about the pandemic plan violated the shared governance state statute for students’ right to have input in policy regarding student life, services and interests.

“The sheer lack of information on this subject implies either a complete failure of communication or more likely, a near-complete failure to include students within the Shared Governance process pertaining to the reopening plan,” the report stated.

UW Dean of Students Christina Olstad attended the student council meeting that Blank did not attend in October. Olstad said herself and other administrators listened to the BIPOC Coalition’s feedback, and they look forward to working with BIPOC leaders on their concerns.

Olstad said she believes the university makes significant changes through resources like the advisory committees and her virtual office hours.

“I welcome the opportunity to work with student activists. I love elevating and advocating for the student voice on campus,” Olstad said. “I don’t want everybody who just thinks everything’s perfect on my advisory boards.”

Olstad said she personally reached out and shared information to colleagues about the BIPOC Coalition and TAA Moral Restart demands. All information about COVID-19 strategy teams can be found on the Smart Restart website, Olstad said.

Olstad said the university is focused on the data and testing strategy in place to keep students safe.

“Our goal is to make sure that we listen to the concerns of all of our students,” Olstad said. “We’ve been receiving a lot of a lot of feedback, a lot of messages of support as well, from students or from parents.”

But when it comes to hearing out student feedback, the lack of action on ASM’s recent resolutions highlights why they feel left out of the loop, Mitnick said. Evans added that students deserve a say when it comes to policies that affect them.

UW’s COVID-19 plan, he says, falls in that category. The policies directly impact students, hitting them both in their personal life, as they have to return to campus and abide by UW rules, and in their finances when it comes time to pay the tuition bill.

Evans said UW also must repair harm done to ASM student leaders and the general student body following UWPD’s tweet that targeted Mitnick’s personal Twitter account.

After Mitnick tweeted a UW BIPOC Coalition Letter to the Editor, UWPD tweeted that Mitnick said it was not ASM’s aim to defund or abolish the department.

UWPD said in the tweet that Mitnick’s post went against the chair’s stated position with the university police department, ending the tweet with #mixedmessages and an emoji. Mitnick replied by saying he was entitled to his own opinion outside the chair position, and his personal feelings on the subject didn’t mean all of ASM had to abide by it.

Evans said the UWPD tweet was offensive and upsetting as a former student government leader, and many former alumni in his network were shocked by UWPD’s response.

He said others were not surprised by the university’s actions, claiming the university did similar things to them during their time at UW. Evans sent an email to UW administrators following the event about the university’s “petty and adolescent” response and its effect on shared governance relationships.

“As someone who sat in that chair … If I had people who are armed and who are supposed to be in charge of our safety and protection, tweeting stuff like that to me, I would have been really frankly scared,” Evans said. “I think it is absolutely sad, but even more so in the background of the role of policing … I think it was a very ignorant way to respond to what is a legitimate concern by someone who’s in that position.”

Evans has not received a response to his email. Olstad and McGlone said the university is committed to repairing the relationship and rebuilding trust following the incident. After UWPD’s tweet went live, Olstad said she personally apologized to Mitnick and reached out to other student leaders.

Mitnick said in the apology email, Olstad sent him mental health resources. Olstad said she frequently sends out mental health resources to faculty and students, especially amid the challenging times of the pandemic.

“I understand the sentiments, but I felt like that was almost making it seem like I’m the person who needs help and I’m the problem,” Mitnick said. “I just thought it was inappropriate for an administrator to do.”

Olson said that in her experience as ASM’s director, administrators are not going to include students in conversations about contentious issues out of the “goodness of their heart.” She sees many similarities between her time at UW and the present in how much students have to fight for their voices to be heard.

The UW administration always talked about their dedication to social justice during her time as ASM director, Olson said. Fifteen years later, many of the same conversations are still taking place, which she found concerning and frustrating.

Transforming the system

Moving forward, Mitnick said he hopes to gain back students’ trust and restore faith in student government. Since he believes many students view ASM as a mouthpiece for the university, Mitnick said there has been a lot of distrust with ASM in the past.

Within the organization, Mitnick said some representatives are pushing back against some of ASM’s decisions to challenge the university this semester. Mitnick said he knows the system of shared governance has not worked for many populations of the student body, and ASM must use the control they have to advocate for those students.

“We need to change the culture of this organization into being one that is here for students, that does not shy away from controversy, and in fact, almost welcomes it because if we are not making administrators uncomfortable … then we’re not doing our job,” Mitnick said.

As a student of color at UW, Bennett said it never seemed like BIPOC students’ goals were addressed by ASM. She believes the standing precedent was for ASM to have a very close relationship with the administration, as opposed to the students they’re supposed to speak for.

Bennett said actions taken by Mitnick and other members of ASM this year — notably, dissenting against the UW administration — have helped uplift BIPOC voices. Bennett said this year is the first time she has felt represented by student government. Looking forward to the organization’s future, she hopes ASM starts to challenge the university and establishes themselves as an independent entity.

“I think ASM is kind of rising to the occasion now and just going against the status quo. They are kind of thinking, ‘look, the systems that are in place aren’t working out for BIPOC students,’ they aren’t,” Bennett said. “I think that through having those tough conversations, ASM itself is evolving, and people are thinking internally about those tough questions.”

Mitnick said he hopes this year will mark an organizational shift for ASM amid the challenges of shared governance erosion and administrative resistance. Mitnick said he believes the organization must mobilize ways to elevate the student body’s voice through more collaborative mechanisms while simultaneously holding the administration accountable.

Mitnick said he believes ASM and UW can accomplish this through establishing public comment sessions in student advisory committees and creating more Chapter 6 shared governance committees that allow students to have a direct vote on these bodies.

With the willingness to challenge existing systems, Mitnick said he hopes ASM can bring grassroots organizing power back to ASM and the student body. While his current conversations with some UW administrators have shown they do not support adding public comment sections, Mitnick said ASM will continue to work toward re-establishing the student government’s representative role.

“We want to use our role to challenge that and say that the status quo has not been working, the system has not been working,” Mitnick said. “So, let’s redefine what that system is.”