Nearly 163,000 University of Wisconsin System students share one goal — education. That means earning a degree and getting a well-rounded college experience. Yet, we currently attend classes at our respective campuses in Madison, La Crosse, Green Bay or one of the other ten universities making up the UW System without proper representation.
Separated by space but not by goals, our student bodies are — at best — represented solely at the campus level. There is no statewide student governance at the system level. Not for a lack of trying, though, and recent developments in the Associated Students of Madison Student Council are a stepping stone toward re-establishing a system-wide governing body.
Over half a century ago, a council was founded that attempted to connect all the governing bodies in the UW System. The United Council of UW Students was established in 1960 to be, in effect, a statewide student governance body. Its membership of universities was established via campus-specific referenda held every other year.
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The United Council’s major accomplishments included the Wisconsin laws that preserve the rights of student governments to allocate segregated fees as well as establishing student seats on the Board of Regents and system-wide tuition freezes. Its work showed the power that came with collective student action across the System.
Eventually, funding became an issue. The United Council collected “Mandatory Refundable Fees” from campus members. This fee was passed down to students via segregated fees. Per its name, this fee was refundable, but that didn’t alleviate some of the disdain that interested parties in the System and state government had toward the United Council.
In 2013, Wisconsin Act 20 essentially defunded the Council by making the Mandatory Refundable Fee illegal. The United Council, without proper funding, dissolved in 2016 before it was soon replaced by the UW System Student Representatives — a short-lived group with no long-term impact — and the UW System Presidential Council, which was an extant group with no real authority or power.
As with many cases, money equals power and student representation is no exception. Lack of funding will continually undermine any attempts to organize as UW System students.
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But on Oct. 29, the 28th Session of ASM Student Council overwhelmingly passed legislation in the hopes of re-establishing a new system-wide student governance body. This new, unnamed organization would draft and enact legislation and sponsor initiatives aimed at the entire UW System student body.
While the legislation passed by ASM is no more than a show of support for the idea, its adoption by the body is a major step toward establishing a UW System student government. Funding sources still need to be identified before this idea becomes a reality.
As well, student governments at all relevant campuses need to show support. Without the support of all UW System student governments, this idea is dead on arrival. Of course, the support of state and local policymakers wouldn’t hurt either.
The next step in this process is gathering that support. UW-Stevens Point Student Body President, Will Scheder, is making the rounds to UW System campuses across the state to gather support for this cause. Several universities besides UW-Madison and UW-Stevens Point have adopted legislation supporting this idea similar to that of ASM.
The supporting legislation will be passed on to policymakers like Chancellor Rebecca Blank, Gov. Tony Evers, Rep. Francesca Hong, Rep. Sheila Stubbs, Sen. Kelda Roys and other members of the Wisconsin State Legislature leadership. Lastly, a student referendum will gather the support of students here in Madison, without which this governing body will be useless.
UW students — not just in Madison but beyond — will benefit from the creation of such a body. With the responsibility to fight on the behalf of thousands of students given the necessary resources, I predict this body will be able to do much more than just ensure tuition freezes.
Christopher J. Unterberger is a graduate student representative at Associated Students of Madison.