So I hear there's a new student government on campus.
Amid ASM's election woes, it's not surprising to see dissatisfaction bubbling to the surface. This new movement, however, calling itself simply the “Student Government," appears to be more than mere whining and protesting. It's bold, it's dynamic and even its name is refreshingly clever. It looks like a real vehicle for change — a genuine dose of competition for a moribund student government.
Even if the Student Government, with its minimalist approach, did nothing while holding the reins of power, students would win. It's far better to have a student government that does nothing for free than one that does a great deal poorly and expensively. ASM's classic "breaking the chains" icon seems now to have been an eerie harbinger of its own demise all along. It is the weakest link.
Admittedly, Student Government has a long row to hoe before it can claim legitimacy. Historically, though, it can take campus events of the past to heart. Student governments at UW-Madison have fallen before.
In 1993, a coalition of students brought an end to ASM's predecessor, the Wisconsin Student Association (WSA). While WSA fell through an official disbandment process, the current movement seems to be taking a more novel approach — simply begin operating as a government without paying the existing government any heed. While most of the members of the Student Government would probably avoid revolution in almost any setting outside of the university, their decision to rebel within the confines of the campus is based on a few solid realities.
First, reform efforts have failed. As someone who worked within ASM for three years as an internal critic, I can confirm the sentiment. Second, other than its power of the purse, ASM has no executive powers to stop a rival student government from rising to challenge it. Third, Wisconsin state statute 36.09(5), which outlines shared governance at UW schools, does not seem to preclude a competition for status as the official student government: "The students of each institution or campus shall have the right to organize themselves in a manner they determine and to select their representatives to participate in institutional governance."
A court ruling on the language of the statue involving UW-Milwaukee prevents the student body generally from selecting shared-governance representatives but does not seem to address competing student-governance organizations.
To achieve legitimacy as the shared-governance entity of campus, the Student Government must take a number of steps toward consolidation. It must demonstrate greater support from students than ASM can muster. Given the latter government's pitiful turnout in past elections, it shouldn't be a terribly difficult hurdle. It must also seek official recognition from the administration without being too cozy, as was a problem with ASM. A meeting last Friday with Interim Dean of Students Lori Berquam marked a notable advancement on this front. It must set its ideals and form down in writing. It must seek recognition from other student governments across the state and nation, as any revolutionary government must do.
Most importantly, though, The Student Government must reach out to all students in ways that ASM has been unable or unwilling to do in more than a decade since its rise from the ashes of WSA. A student government should speak for all students instead of merely taking the money of all students.
To get to every student on campus, the Student Government needs to continue in the vein of brilliant simplicity, reach students by speaking with them in a creative way rather than at them with a heartlessness born of thousand-dollar salaries. The Student Government has to cut through the clutter if it wants to succeed. To do so, it should take a few tips from the more memorable student government movements of the past.
Two groups stand out more than any others when it came to slapping student apathy in the face. In the late 1970s, the notorious Pail and Shovel Party turned student government on its head when it promised to bring the Statue of Liberty to Lake Mendota and flamingos to Bascom Hill. In the late 1990s, the zany antics of the Ten Fat Tigers, a troupe of street performers-turned-satirical politicos, grabbed student attention by unorthodox means. In both eras, politics-as-usual had to be discarded to re-engage a transient student population.
Brad Vogel ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science and journalism.