The Associated Students of Madison cannot reform. At least
it cannot reform without a new conceptualization of its role on campus. Fifteen
years ago, when students created ASM out of the ashes of the Wisconsin Student
Association, they premised the structure of their new student government on WISPIRG.
This organizational style promotes the cultivation of power through organizing
and activism. It comes from a culture in which groups without institutionalized
power advocate for change.
This structure has been the root of significant friction.
ASM has been given two hats to wear. On one hand, ASM has institutionalized
power: appointing students to dozens of university committees and allocating
millions of dollars of segregated fees. On the other hand, this same group of
students is running campaigns for grocery stores. I firmly believe each of
these functions has retarded the progress of the other.
If ASM is simply to be a campaign organization, then it
seems reasonable to run an internship program. In this case, it makes sense to
allocate significant amounts of time to large kickoffs each semester. This is
an organization that can prioritize inclusiveness. If you want to get involved,
you can join a campaign and run with it. Essentially, ASM would be another
If ASM is to be a real student government, then the focus
has to change to student services and institutionalized participation. This
structure does not allow mass participation. To get here, ASM needs to become a
little more authoritarian. In a system in which ASM focuses on providing services
and representation to students, we do not have the liberty to spend a semester
discussing whether it is more important to discuss long-term or short-term
If ASM is to become legitimate, it must drop one of these
functions. ASM must either strip down to an organization with a $100,000 budget
and a couple interns, or it must give up the idea that it is a grassroots
ASM may implement all the reforms recently outlined and not
make any significant progress. Even if it adopts a presidential system, the
grassroots strains in ASM will ensure the president is not granted enough power
to make the position meaningful. ASM would be left with a poor figurehead who
would be accountable for a system he or she has not control over.
It comes down to this: I want a divorce. My reason:
irreconcilable differences.? If we want to see any functional government,
let’s have two. Let’s separate the functions of ASM. One group will allocate
segregated fees, appoint students to shared governance committees and manage
the Student Activities Center. Then the other group can run campaigns and work
with the United States Student Association?. These groups will have
nothing to do with each other. Then we can stop pretending our student
government is a grassroots organization.
This will allow each organization to sink or float on its
own terms. Additionally, a little competition for student participation will
provide incentives for outreach to the broader student body.
I hope this can be an amicable separation. For years,
grassroots committees complained about the bad press gained by the Student
Services Finance Committee. Now that SSFC is doing better, they are worrying
about how the rest of ASM reflects on their progress. Either way, it seems both
sides could benefit by going their separate ways.
I know it may be difficult at first. ASM will have to put
the separation on a ballot for a referendum (and change the status on
Facebook). But in the end, it is what is best for both parties.
ASM has reached the bottom of the bucket. But look on the
bright side — this is a good time for a change.
Alex Gallagher ([email protected]) is the
former chair of SSFC. He resigned from ASM last week.