It seemed more than a bit pathetic when the Associated Students of Madison leadership first announced that its proposed new constitution was to be released “publicly” this Monday. Then, Hillary Minor, a member of the Constitutional Committee, expressed hope for significant student feedback on the document when she said, “It’s going to be really nice to have 40,000 sets of eyes on it,” according to a recent The Badger Herald article.
It seems appropriate to ask, who are they kidding? Obviously, most students not affiliated with student government or the campus press neither know nor care about the ASM constitution, new or old. It’s apparent to everyone that the body designed to represent and fight for student interests does little of either, and it’s hard to see how even significant changes within the existing structure will alter that.
With that said, I give some committed members of the ASM leadership credit for trying. Over the last several months, fueled by widespread criticism and recognition that large chunks of ASM don’t do much of anything, a belated identity crisis has ensued. I have no doubt that the new constitution is the product of genuine concern for student interests and represents a sincere attempt to create a governing body that actually functions effectively.
The principal problem with ASM comes not from its institutionalized power. Statute 36.09(5), the product of major campus activism 40 years ago, probably gives UW students more control over campus life than most American universities allow. Through ASM Shared Governance, students have representation on dozens of committees that have significant influence in the university. Similarly, the Student Services Finance Committee allots students the responsibility of funding major portions of extracurricular life. Debate and criticism of this half of ASM can be necessary and helpful, but, at its core, it functions well enough to make it worth defending.
The same cannot be said of the ASM Student Council, an invariable magnet for those who wear their r?sum? on their sleeve. SC is supposed to serve as the proactive arm of ASM, running various campaigns, theoretically grassroots, on behalf of students. The truth is that it is largely a do-nothing body, rubber-stamping meaningless resolutions and sometimes not even that — attendance rates are definitively abysmal.
The new constitution aims to inject a dose of adrenalin in this legislative side of ASM, now to be renamed the Student Senate. It will give an increased role to legislative committees and require more dedication from elected representatives. Perhaps most significantly, it will create a powerful executive position that will become the face of ASM and (hopefully) improve its functionality.
And yet, for all this effort, I can’t help but feel it’s missing the point. Even a Platonically ideal student government will be fundamentally powerless in the absence of student mobilization — the only agent for meaningful change on behalf of those this university is supposed to be serving. If a loud, threatening student voice is the intended goal, the ASM constitution is significantly less important than organizing around the issues.
Even if one day ASM learns how to lobby at the Capitol, it won’t amount to much. Would clowns like Rep. Steve Nass suddenly take notice that students are pissed off about declining state support? He has already made it more than clear that he could care less about our mounting debt and declining political science department. He has the power, and that’s what really counts — not ASM’s functionality.
Things would be quite different, however, if ASM was able to take student demands to the Legislature with not just the well-spoken voice of a new president, but with the threat of, say, a student strike as well. One need only to look at the history of this very campus — from demilitarization in the ’60s to divestment from South Africa in the ’80s — to know that student power principally comes not from government, but from political activism.
ASM certainly has a place in a viable student movement, so any improvements to its structure should be welcomed. But until it starts to effectively engage with student activists and works to build the type of campus presence that will actually make a difference, the response of most students to the constitutional changes — indifference — cannot be blamed on mere apathy.
Kyle Szarzynski ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in history and philosophy.