The constitution debate

In recent days, the debate over the ASM constitution has become increasingly heated.  The blogosphere has also gotten in on the fun. (CB and Forward thinking) Accusations and ad hominem attacks have begun to characterize both sides.

Here is a recent email sent out by PAVE:

Defend Student Rights!

Vote NO on the new ASM Constitution!

Monday (from 8AM) and Tuesday (until 9PM)

Why vote NO?

~~The creation of a powerful executive that will transfer power away from student committees~~
~~A centralization of power that will increase the likelihood of cronyism and corruption~~
~~Jeopardizing the funding of student organizations through the presidential veto and removal of waiting periods for changes in the financial code~~
~~Increased bureaucracy and greater inefficiency in enacting budgets~~
~~A destruction of the grassroots framework of ASM in favor of a top-down system~~

We need real reform in ASM.

The problem with our student government is not its structure, but its current leadership.

And it goes on… But the most noticeable phrase is this last clause.

The problem with out student government is not its structure, but its current leadership.

I guess I find it sad that we have such a short memory.  I would never claim that ASM is perfect.  I think that it has many flaws.  However, I find it almost nauseating for groups which I believe have benefited from the dividends of competent leadership to demonize the current leadership because they are unhappy with the constitution.

I first came to ASM in the fall of 2006.  I was appointed to SSFC not having any idea of what a seg fee even was.  In my first meeting on the committee, it became very obvious that there was a deep chasm which divided the committee down the middle.  On one side there were those who disliked segregated fees in any form and would vote no whenever they got the chance.  On the other side was the group fighting for each dollar GSSF groups asked for.

I have to admit that my first year, I felt a little lonely.  While I certainly saw the value in what these groups were doing, I also felt it was my fiduciary responsibility to look at each request critically.  I guess current GSSF groups don’t remember this, but fights were vicious.  We spent hours (and I mean hours) fighting over the number of condoms Sex Out Loud should receive.  I wasted another evening of my life arguing about planners for MCSC.  The content of debate was nonconstructive and unsubstantial.  Here we had a committee sitting on $7 million of allocable segregated fees and they spent hours arguing about complete insubstantial items.  It was insulting to the groups which presented and it was insulting to me as a committee member.

Around this same time, the rent debacle started.  I would think that PAVE would remember how ASM leadership, and MCSC (making Elton cry!)  worked to ensure that these groups had space.  In fact, SSFC was personally fronting the bill for PAVE’s space until they moved into the SAC.  But I digress.  I could write a missive on the rent debacle, which would not be constructive at this time.  In summary, the University, armed with a memo from System Legal, decided to forbid segregated fees from paying for rent in non-university buildings.  Reversing years of common practice, this memo argued that using segregated fees for non-university facilitates was inconsistent with 36.09(5) and the statutory history. However, ASM at that time was completely capitulating to the administration.  They did not have the capacity or insight to defend segregated fees, one of its primary functions.  It was only in a last minute ditch effort to stand up to this dictum that we started to address this issue.  An unlikely coalition, composed of ASM, WISPIRG, CFACT, MCSC, and a few others, formed to address this decision.  Ironically, our biggest opponent at the time was former SSFC Chair Zach Frey.  Until this point, SSFC had basically rolled over on this issue.

It was around this same time that Patrick McLeod was running wild with shared governance.  They were hardly filling seats, people would attend meetings, they did not even keep minutes at their own meetings.  In sum, shared governance was a mess.

So, quick summary: It is the January 2007 and:

  1. SSFC is bitterly partisan and spends hours fighting over mundane items
  2. Shared governance is a mess.  People were not being appointed to committees and the process was tainted by cronyism.
  3. ASM would not advocate for the defense of students’ rights in the segregated fee system.  Even worse, the SSFC chair was advocating for the administration.

I have just recently learned that by the Spring of 2007, Coordination Council stopped meeting.  They would not even have meetings between the central leadership of ASM.  While this semester is easily remembered by the victory of the study day campaign, the truth was that ASM was seriously dysfunctional.

I was almost gleeful when I resigned to go to Russia.  And during my four months in Russia, SSFC was one of the furthest things from my thoughts.  I am not sure why I decided to run again for SSFC.  Maybe I thought I could make it better.  I do know that I did not intend on running for leadership.  However, when the election results where in and the only person I recognized on SSFC was Katrina Flores, I decided that sitting on a committee with incompetent leadership would simply be a repeat of the previous year.  So, from Russia, I ran for chair.

Narrowly defeating Kurt Gosselin for the chairship, I returned to Madison to continue the battle around rent and to try to make my experience on SSFC this year a little better than the previous year. The first thing I got to was learning how the system worked.  The rent debacle was still in full swing and when I took over the reins of SSFC, we were moving into mediation with the Chancellor at the system level.  While ruffling through documents, in the pile left by my predecessor, I discovers a letter from Chancellor Wiley.

Essentially, the letter said that the Chancellor had been concerned with the direction of the segregated fee system for many years.  If the process continued like it has, he does not see a future for the GSSF.   The rumors at the time had similarly suggested that the Chancellor was considering abolishing the GSSF.  In light of the UWRCF lawsuit, the two Southworth decisions  (a few years earlier) and an annual growth rate of nearly 20%, the Chancellor did not feel that such a system was able to continue as it historically had.

While I am sure that the Vote No people would declare any move of this nature to be a blatant violation of student rights (a position I am certainly sympathetic with) the fact of the matter is, I would much rather have student look at the system internally than to receive another edict that destroyed the system. If that edict were to come, I would be on the front lines fighting it, but I could not guarantee victory.

While the problems with the segregated fee system are numerous, the overarching problem with the GSSF was that there was nothing that really distinguished a GSSF group from the rest of campus.  The variety of groups funded in this stream made it nearly impossible to make consistent evaluations on whether groups should get into the stream or not.  This is why SSFC had an awful record in SJ.  In fact, most cases did not make it SJ because SSFC was too scared and would reconsider and approve groups.

Now, I feel that this basic premise is where many people, both on the right and left, misinterpret our objective. (I say our because Katrina played an equally important role in encouraging this shift of ideology) From the both sides, this was interpreted as a move to eliminate groups and lower seg fees.  (I can get to the issue of  seg fee rates later, but allocable seg fees went up when I was in office, actually at a higher rate than necessary)

The rationale was that seg fees, and the GSSF in particular, facilitate a lot of important activities on campus.  The services provides by groups such as CWC, Vets for Vets, MCSC, GUTS, ALPS, and others are essential for enhancing student life.  For example, on most campus the administration runs the Women’s Center, and veteran’s counseling, they run the tutoring services and fund most of the multicultural programing.  At Wisconsin, we were unique because we essentially delegated these functions to student groups who could provide far better programming and services to students at a fraction of the cost.

It would be tragic if this capacity was lost. However, the proliferation of the GSSF put all these groups in danger.  The last thing we wanted was to fight for the continuation of these basic services.  However, the GSSF was now flooded with groups like CALS Student Council, Engineers Without Borders and others.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I have unbelievable respect for these groups and I think that there programming is worthy of receiving segregated fee support.

But I don’t think they provide a service in the same manner as the aforementioned groups.  And the list did not stop there.  More and more groups were applying and because the criteria were so unspecific about what constituted a GSSF group, almost all these groups, with rare exception, were granted eligibility.  While the segregated fee system had the capacity to fund truly service oriented groups at a rate which GSSF groups were funded, we could not support this proliferation.

So, Katrina and I tried to change the tenor of SSFC.  We tried to turn the dialogue from one of fiscal responsibility vs. group support (should we fund condoms or not fund condoms) to one of sustainability.  The objective was to create a fund that could last.  This fund would require criteria which were specific enough to define what should and should not be in there.

This meant we had to be more creative with how we look at funding.  We could no longer say, “Ok, big groups should go to the GSSF and small groups to finance committee.” (ASM’s old mantra).  Now we looked at service.  If it didn’t fit this model, then we had to think about other ways to fund them.  This was the intention of the RCC contract, the ancillary fund, and the College Council Funding Stream.

Rape Crisis Center very obviously did not fit our criteria for GSSF funding.  While they did provide an essential service, they simply were not a student organization.  We had a mess the year before with TRC.  So instead of dumping seg fee support for RCC, we wrote a contract for services.  This is an example of looking for new ideas to fund essential services.  If the RCC was in the GSSF, it would have tainted the entire fund.  By pulling it out, we had better control over how we managed this component of the segregated fee budget.

The ancillary budget was a similar set of circumstances.  While WSUM provides unbelievable experiences for students, it did not fit the model of a GSSF group.  What WSUM did was different.  So, we created the ancillary fund to handle groups like WSUM.  Note: We lost control of CCTAP for this very same reason.  We called CCTAP a GSSF group, which was completely inappropriate.  Consequentially, they were moved to the non-allocable, were students get only a ceremonial role.

The diversification of the segregated fee funding streams gave the student government a greater capacity to fund group with unique characteristics and to deal with groups with different needs, differently.

I believe that this was possible for two main reasons:

  1. We made SSFC, and the seg fee process, less partisan.  During the previous sessions, the debate was between the conservatives and progressives.  Now the debate was over how to make the fund sustainable.  This added a microcosmic level to the debate, which de-emphasized the funding of particular line items.
  2. In the long run, this evolution would make the process easier for groups.  With better explanations on how each funding steam addressed the needs of different groups, students could self-select the funding which was appropriate for their group.

Now I certainly do not think that last year’s (or this year’s) SSFC process was perfect.  In fact I think that both years, the eligibility process has been a nightmare, in part because it is hard to say no to a group you feel does good work, and in part, because I did not account for the pressure groups can apply to individual groups members.

I think the budgetary process is always painful and more complicated then it needs to be.  I wish SSFC members were more able to look at budgets programmatically, rather than trying to clean up a budget line item by line item.  I also wish that there was more cooperation between SSFC members and GSSF members.  Currently, I feel the process is far to acrimonious to be healthy.  The fault for this falls both on SSFC members, who are too self-righteous to understand the legitimate opinions of these groups, and on GSSF members who feel entitled to their budgets and are unwilling to think about the larger task which confronts SSFC members.

All this being said, I think that things have improved overwhelmingly for GSSF groups.  I also truly feel that if this constitution fails, ASM/SSFC will return to the partisan battle group it once was. This would most certainly damage GSSF groups and jeopardize their funding.

But I was talking about the changes in ASM leadership.  It has not just been SSFC which has made noticeable, albeit incomplete, reforms. Shared Governance, under the eye of Jeff Wright, now fills all the shared governance committees (I think this comes to about 100 seats a year).  The shared governance process has improved exponentially.

Also, advocacy has improved.  I will again discuss seg fees since this is the area I know.  Recently, ASM was told that they would have to register as a student organization.  This sounds like an insignificant item, but forcing ASM to register, would 1) give the administration the ability to set up criteria that ASM would be forced to meet, 2) potentially deny ASM recognition on this campus (What would happen to all the $$), and 3) (most scary) could then be interpreted to de-legitimate ASM ability to provide event and travel grants.  While these issues are more complex then this list provides, requiring ASM to register would endanger its ability to allocated seg fees in the way it has historically.

This issue was not given any press attention, because ASM was able to identify the problem quickly, communicate with other campuses who were being told the same thing, and formulate a response, which has thus far ended any discussion of the matter.

A similar story could be told about the amendments made the to the Union renovation budget.  The Board of Regents was ready to amend the budget without any student input (outside of Union Council, which should not constitute legitimate shared governance).  Regardless, the responsiveness of Kurt and Jeff on this matter, will lead to the creation of a policy which ensure that SSFC has an opportunity to provide input in any changes to seg fee funded budgets.

While small examples, they do demonstrate a real improvement in the ability of ASM to identify concrete issues which will marginalize students’ power and to address them.  If we use the rent debacle as a point of reference, then this constitutes improvement.  Again, I would never argue that ASM is where is should be in terms of advocacy, but it has certainly made noticeable improvements.

What the leaders of the “Vote No” coalition are trying to say is: We value mass mobilization as a tactic to enact change on this campus.  ASM leadership does not share these values.

If that is their message, then they are probably correct.  ASM has devoted far more energy in recent years to improving the segregated fee system, to making shared governance viable, and to using its capacity to stand up for students on issues that would otherwise be ignored (Think chpt 17&18 revisions).

This is a different value system.  The new structure is designed to improve these functions.  What frustrates me is that they have recruited GSSF groups en masse using claims that this new structure will jeopardize their funding.   These claims are misleading and false.

  1. ASM would be foolish to create a document that would disrupt its power over the segregated fee system.  This system represents ASM’s biggest form of institutionalized power.  Why would they try to limit that?
  2. As presidential systems go, this one is extremely weak.  There are numerous checks on the system to ensure that the president does not have undue say over a the budgetary process.
  3. This system, in general, focuses more effort and time of ASM’s on budgets and segregated fees. While groups may be weary of the increased attention. In general this will provide for a stronger system.

I think what many do not realize is that GSSF groups suffered largely by the neglect of SSFC in the ASM structure.  Rather than working to integrate the work of seg fee funded groups into the larger functionality of ASM, groups only made contact with SSFC members, who had limited contact with the rest of ASM.  Before I was Chair, the SSFC chair did not even attend coordinating council meetings.  There was no discussion of long term planning.  These meetings were used to exchange ice-breaker ideas.

As I see it, the decision over the constitution basically comes down to this: A vote “Yes” will help ASM create clear narratives about its goals and objectives.  It will provide a person in the position to give clear leadership.  It will also allow the work of GSSF groups, and other student orgs, to be better integrated into the central functioning of ASM.  With this relationship, we can see a mutually beneficial result.  Those groups most versed and able to advocate on particular issues would take the lead and be able to collaborate with ASM on these campaigns.  ASM can continue to look for those issues which effect the quality of education but are flying under the radar of student orgs.

A “no” vote almost guarantees a return to where we were two years ago.  The problem is not that progressives have not tried to take over ASM.  My first year in ASM, progressives certainly had a majority.  That did not make the organization functional.  And now, GSSF groups are alienating their allies in the student government with messages that the leadership is wrong.  If they feel this way now, then I think they are missing a key component of the historical narrative of ASM.



2 Responses to “The constitution debate”

  1. A gang of links « Says:

    […] Gallagher: So, quick summary: It is the January 2007 […]

  2. anonymous Says:

    I just BP’ed! I love it!

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