Every semester as a part of their tuition and segregated fees, students pay $2 toward the University of Wisconsin’s membership to United Council, a statewide lobbying group, which represents student from a majority of UW System campuses.
While this institution has existed for 50 years, very few students know what this organization is and what it does for students here on campus.
What does it do?
United Council is a coalition of students that work together regularly on issues of higher education, representing two- and four-year UW Systems schools that include more than 110,000 students across Wisconsin.
“It is in our mission statement to represent all students of UW System and advocate for them on issues pertaining to value, quality, and the student experience,” Executive Director Nicole Juan said.
Some of the issues United Council has worked on in the past include lobbying at the Capitol for affordable tuition, working for domestic partner benefits for UW employees and overturning some changes made to the Chapter 17 and 18 conduct code changes.
Currently, one of United Council’s big campaigns is looking at the geographical representation of the Board of Regents, which, according to Communications Director Sisi Chen, is highly weighted toward Madison and Milwaukee — something they hope to spread out.
United Council has also recently undergone restructuring in order to make themselves and their services more available to students.
“We updated our mission statement, reevaluated our policy platform, and based on those changes we wanted to provide structural changes to help support that,” Juan said.
The most important of those structural changes includes changing the way UW colleges and universities are represented within the institution. Originally, two-year colleges had a disproportionate number of votes compared with larger four-year universities.
Now the United Council is comprised of three caucuses: a research caucus representing UW-Madison and until recently UW-Milwaukee, a comprehensive caucus representing the four-year universities and a college caucus representing the two-year colleges.
“Madison and Milwaukee tend to have sets of issues very different from its two-year counterparts, so they now have more representation, which is more representative of its students,” board member and UW junior Cristina Trevino-Murphy said.
United Council also established a Board of Directors comprised completely of students so all important institutional decisions must be approved through students.
“We’re trying to have stronger focus on letting students know who we are, being more visible within United Council and making sure students know we are here to fight for their rights,” Juan said.
Why is the university a member?
UW is currently the largest member of the United Council, with its students representing 25 percent of the total number of people represented by the institution.
According to Associated Students of Madison Rep. Kurt Gosselin, the main benefit of being a member of United Council is their presence at the state Capitol.
“They have someone who is up at the Capitol as a lobbyist on student issues as a full-time registered [lobbyist] — that’s the primary benefit we get from them,” Gosselin said.
The $2 paid by students each semester is a Mandatory Refundable Fee, meaning each student is required to pay the money, though they can formally write United Council and request their money back.
“Honestly I don’t know why someone would send something in the mail for 42 cents to request $2 back,” Gosselin said. “My guess is because they don’t feel direct impact of United Council on campus, which is something ASM has struggled with in the past.”
He added historically United Council had been much more involved in grassroots programs and advocacy training. However, with their recent restructuring process, they are looking to make changes.
“It looks like they are going away from a model of looking at individual issues toward one that looks like nonprofit organization with a board of directors with primary focus on (broader) higher education issues,” Gosselin said.
With more and more UW System schools leaving, most recently UW-Milwaukee, Gosselin said UW-Madison will most likely continue to be a member.
Why have other system universities dropped out?
While UW remains a member of United Council, other universities have decided to drop their membership, including UW-Milwaukee and UW-La Crosse.
Karly Wallace, UW-La Crosse’s Student Senate vice president, said her university dropped their membership because they felt they could lobby better on their own behalf.
“La Crosse is well known for its lobbying efforts,” Wallace said. “We felt we could more effectively lobby for ourselves instead of being part of group that didn’t always lobby for our own interests.”
Wallace cited UW-La Crosse’s Growth, Quality and Access Initiative, which is similar to the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates and seeks to provide additional financial aid to low- and middle-income students. According to Wallace, the United Council was less than willing to help the university pass their new initiative.
While happy with their choice to drop their membership to the United Council, Wallace stressed UW-La Crosse’s support of the idea of a statewide unified voice. She added the Student Senate will be keeping a close eye as the institution finishes its restructuring, always keeping the option open to rejoin should it be in their university’s best interest.
“Right now, we are happy with not being a part of United Council. … It’s more of just what is best for our university at this time,” Wallace said.
The News Explainer column will run every Wednesday, answering the questions and concerns of the student body. If you have any questions regarding a story that you would like to see further explained in this column, e-mail [email protected]