Last night brought shocking news for supporters of student involvement in university governance in the United States, as a Republican-controlled budget committee of the Wisconsin state legislature moved — with little debate, and after refusing a stand-alone vote — to eliminate the primary funding stream of the nation’s oldest and most respected statewide student association.
The United Council of University of Wisconsin Students (UC) has been the democratic voice of students in the UW system since 1960, and it has earned a strong reputation for effective advocacy for students’ rights and interests.
Last night’s change to state law, if approved by the full legislature, would bar United Council from funding itself through campus student referenda, as it has done for decades. The move to defund United Council was made with no notice or warning, and comes at the end of a budget process in which United Council worked closely with Republican legislators to enact a two-year tuition freeze (a freeze which ironically was approved in the same omnibus budget proposal as the attack on UC itself).
Where did this assault on UC come from, and why is it happening now? One Wisconsin politics blog reports that Republican committee-member John Nygren said last night that the committee received a letter from the UW-Eau Claire student government calling for an end to the funding referenda. Wisconsin student activists I’ve spoken to since yesterday confirm that account.
As to why the student government at Eau Claire — which is, bizarrely, a United Council member campus — would want to cut off funding for their own statewide student organization, that’s an interesting question.
Campuses become members of United Council via referendum, as noted above. At the moment the students of a robust twenty out of the state’s twenty-six public colleges (nine of thirteen four-years, and eleven of thirteen two-years) have chosen to affiliate.
The Eau Claire student government has been unhappy with United Council for some time, and released a lengthy critical report on the organization last year. Dissatisfied with UC’s response, the student senate this spring voted to disaffiliate from the statewide organization. That vote appears to have had only symbolic effect, however, given that the referendum mechanism for UC membership is a matter of systemwide University of Wisconsin policy.
So why didn’t the Eau Claire student government run a UC referendum? Well, it turns out that they did just that, barely a year and a half ago. In the fall of 2011, with nearly two thousand voting, the Eau Claire student body endorsed UC — and a 50% increase in the per student membership fee — by a 65-35 margin, despite a campaign against UC by the statewide group’s critics. What’s more, the turnout for that referendum was more than double that of the student government election that brought UC’s current antagonists to power.
As a result of that 2011 precedent, when the Eau Claire senate took up the issue this spring, the UC opponents on the body declined to even propose a campus-wide vote. Instead they declared that they “did not see a referend[um] as a feasible means to accurately gauge student opinion,” given their expectation that UC and its supporters would be present on the campus organizing for its passage.
To recap: UW Eau Claire is a member of United Council. Its students voted overwhelmingly just nineteen months ago to maintain that membership, and to increase the dues they pay from $2 per semester to $3. The current student government opposes UC, but has no confidence in its ability to prevail in a campuswide vote on the question.
So instead they voted as a student senate to withdraw from UC in a manner apparently disallowed by university policy. And when that tack failed, they asked state legislators to eliminate referendum funding altogether.
Now, I don’t consider campus referenda sacrosanct, and I certainly think there’s something to be said for empowering student governments to control student activity fee money directly. I don’t have any objection in principle to a rule that would, for instance, grant a student government the authority to override a campus referendum under certain circumstances. And I certainly believe that state student associations have an obligation to maintain good relations with member student governments, too — it’s quite possible that some or all of the responsibility for the breakdown in the relationship between the Eau Claire student senate and statewide United Council leadership rests with UC.
But that’s not what’s happening here. What’s happening here is a state legislature and a student government seeking to destroy a democratically empowered and elected student association because they don’t like the outcomes of the democratic process that the university itself created.
If the students’ right to participate in university governance means anything, it must mean that students have the power to make decisions about who will represent them, and how. For the state government to dismantle a respected student advocacy organization with fifty years’ of history — and the freely chosen support of the vast majority of UW student bodies — under circumstances such as these is a travesty.
The Joint Finance Committee made a huge error last night. The Wisconsin state legislature and Governor Walker should rectify it.
Update | Governor Walker has signed the defunding provision into law.