As someone who has had a long undergraduate and graduate career at the University of Wisconsin, I’ve literally seen it all with ASM. Conservative takeovers, liberal takeovers, whatever the hell (besides absurd) the Ten Fat Tigers were, election debacles, scandals, full scale replacement or abolition attempts and, yes, the occasional success. Each year tends to have a unique, pithy summary (beyond ‘it sucks’.)The narrative of ASM this year follows how the far left tried to take it over, failed and now is bogged down with infighting and incapable of anything. To a small degree, this is true.

To understand what’s really going on in ASM, though, you need to understand the underlying philosophical mismatch of the organization. ASM is the unhappy marriage of two functions. The first is to serve as the group that students use to fulfill their obligations and responsibilities to the entire student-body, faculty, administration and State in the governance of parts of the University — the boring paper pushing role. The second is as an organization used to identify issues beyond the narrow scope of immediate campus governance and to take action when things need to be done — the organizing protests role.

To solidify this, consider an example from this year: ASM is overwhelmingly in favor of LGBT equality. Given that ASM cannot legislatively decree that equality, what, if anything, should it do? There is a range of answers, depending on which of the two functions of ASM you believe is more important.

Alex Gallagher wrote about this arrangement extensively two years ago in a piece called “Don’t Kill ASM, Just Cut It In Two” and a follow-up blog post. His thesis was that each role would try to pull ASM in a direction that would harm the other, and that it would be best to split ASM in half.

Gallagher was a bit too fatalistic, as you can have both functions in the same organization. What ASM can’t have is long nights debating what the right balance of activism should be on every single agenda item. That’s what makes meetings intolerable and unproductive. (Well, that and ASM members never reading meeting material, making long speeches instead of just rubber-stamping that which should be rubber-stamped, wasting time trying to debate the use of leading questions during question and answer time and an inability to use Robert’s Rules without shooting themselves in the foot.) Most ASM council members want nothing more than to just get the hell out of the room. I have wasted more of my life arguing with ideologues on both sides of the activist ASM worldview trying to pass completely innocuous items than should ever be necessary.

Gallagher got the core issue right: most of what ASM wants to accomplish, and is charged with doing, requires administration cooperation and trust. That trust can’t be maintained if ASM is ready to pounce on the administration straight away and when broken, takes years to rebuild. (Even today, years after the last student occupation, the Chancellor’s office is still permanently locked.) At the same time, a participatory government that engages and relies on the talent of its citizens is compatible with a representative government, be it Congress or ASM. That participation, beyond just voting, is vital to ensuring a healthy civic debate, and not demagoguery. ASM needs both roles, and needs them to be balanced. The ASM leadership has done a good job of striking that balance, but not all members have matched it.

The narrow-focus side can be brought, even if begrudgingly, toward more action. The activist left, however, is unlikely to ever be happy in a balanced marriage. The truth is that they tried to take over the wrong organization. Their target should have been the United Council (UC), and there should be a “grand bargain” in ASM to ensure such a take over.

UC’s prime focus is advocacy, mobilization, and campaigns — all things the left is good at, and none of the procedural crap the activist left hates, and aren’t very good at anyway. UC has a budget, staff and philosophically aligns with the activist worldview, but lately the activist strength has atrophied. UC desperately needs reinvigoration, and because it’s headquartered in Madison, strong UW-Madison leadership is ideal. UC has seen its membership gutted in the four-year universities and really needs committed groups to network its way back to many UW schools. In short, UC would love the renewed attention.

Both sides would see this as a sort of Faustian bargain, but there are some confidence building steps that all of ASM could get behind to help it along. First, there is an opening on the UC board that Madison is responsible for filling. That should be immediately filled with someone from the far left. The activist left is convinced funding for “their” groups is always precarious, even in a viewpoint neutral system. I’ve made some proposals in the past that would do more to ensure fairness, and those could be fast-tracked to reduce worries. In the spring, there wouldn’t be a competing slate of candidates, but instead one that had the endorsement of all sides, and most importantly, promised to support a Vote Yes campaign for UC when it’s next due in 2011. That support is crucial — UC nearly lost in 2009 with no organized opposition. The slate would also promise to send enough attendees to UC General Assemblies to ensure the Madison delegation had enough support to accomplish its goals.

The far left would be much happier free in UC than trapped in the confines of ASM, and frankly, there’s no one better on campus or in the state to turn UC around. The new arrangement would reduce tensions in ASM, and both organizations functioning better will result in more progress for students.

Erik Paulson ([email protected]) is a Ph.D. student in computer sciences.