For the first time since 2013, students from several University of Wisconsin campuses gathered in front of legislators and staffers at the Wisconsin State Capitol Wednesday to share how they think the legislature could help improve the UW system.

A total of 49 students attended the event. Each campus met with the legislators representing their local campus and later joined together to meet with Democratic leadership, Republican leadership and the Secretary-Designee of the Department of Administration, Kathy Koltin Blumenfeld.

UW-Madison Legislative Affairs Committee Chair MGR Govindarajan said re-establishing UW Lobbying Day was first proposed around November and started in collaboration with UW-Steven’s Point. By late January, UW-Madison and UW-Steven’s Point started planning the event and inviting other schools.

“By early March, we had Madison, Steven’s Point, Superior, Stout, Eau-Claire and Green Bay signed up,” Govindarajan said.

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Students spoke to Democratic and Republican legislators about several issues related to the UW System, requesting their support, thoughts and legislative action. With Democratic members led by Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, one main issue the students advocated for was improving the UW System’s approach meeting students’ mental health needs.

A former resident hall employee specifically talked about their concerns that the students in their dorm did not have adequate access to mental health professionals. Another student was frustrated with the current ratio of counselors to students on UW campuses.

Though the university is looking to expand these services, they are not expected to meet the national average of 1 to 1600. The students requested the legislature’s support and investments in mental health for the UW system.

“The time to start investing in it now,” Govindarajan said in an interview with The Badger Herald. 

Govindarajan said the group also talked about mental health services with Republican legislators, who were led by a staffer of Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ staff joined the meeting later on.

For about 30 minutes, students shared testimonies and described the need for improved mental health services. Govindarajan said the Republican legislators seemed to be receptive to the issue and students’ concerns.

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The students also emphasized to the Democratic leaders the need for the university to invest in more sustainable energy. Across several UW System campuses, students have called for the UW System and some of its donors, such as the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association, to divest from fossil fuels.

“Students want to attend schools they feel good about attending,” one of the student representatives said in the meeting.

Some students said that they wanted the legislature to pass a bill prohibiting the UW System from investing in non-environmentally safe policies. Rep. Neubauer said she strongly believes in the importance of sustainability, citing her role as part of the Gov. Tony Evers’ climate task force.

But Neubauer said there was not much the legislature could do for the students because they do not have the ability to regulate non-state governed organizations. Neubauer recommended the students lobby the UW Board of Regents, who could make system-wide changes.

Because of the Democratic response to fossil fuel divestment, Govindarajan said the group decided not to bring up the issue in much detail with the Republican legislators. 

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Another topic they presented was the restoring and strengthening the values of shared governance. Wisconsin state statute makes UW System student government organizations official parts of the state government. This is often referred to as the concept of shared governance in which students, universities and governmental officials must all collaborate on policy decisions.

ASM is working on creating a statewide shared governance system and are hoping to garner funding from the legislature, Govindarajan said in an interview. Last semester, UW-Madison student government leaders and other UW campuses publicly supported reforming a statewide student council.

A former statewide UW System body, known as the Wisconsin’s United Council, was defunded in the aftermath of 2013 changes to the shared governance statute. The students said at the Wednesday meeting that they want a forum to convene together so all campuses can have a voice on important topics impacting the UW System.

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Neubauer said the Democratic legislators would definitely support a statewide group, but she told the students they would need to convince the Republican-controlled legislature.

Shared governance was also discussed with Republican legislators. Govindarajan said that he was confused about what the Republican legislature thought about the shared governance issue because they seemed to listen carefully but did not ask many questions about the students’ initiatives.

The Badger Herald was not present for the students’ meeting with Republican legislators due to a lack of staff availability.

The Democratic legislators and staffers emphasized at the end of their meeting how important it is for students to continue and build on conversations about these topics. They advised UW students to send physical letters and make phone calls to legislators’ offices.

Neubauer said receiving communication from many students actually does make a difference.

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Govindarajan said the students were very nervous going into UW lobby day, but coming out, they were very excited. 

“It went amazing,” he said. 

Going forward, Govindarajan said the campuses are hoping to have the lobby day event twice a year and are already planning to host one again in October as an educational experience for students.