Accountability and the future of ASM

The election is over and everything is back to how it was.  By this point, both the vote yes and vote no crowds are probably sobering up.

The question remains: What is to be done with ASM?

The Badger Herald suggests disbanding it, but this would not be in the best interest of the student.

While I find the speculation of what went wrong interesting, I feel like one point is not being discussed.  When it comes down to it, this was not a referendum on the old constitution versus the new constitution.  I think we all agree that 99% of those who voted had not read either.  This was a referendum on people.

The “Vote Yes” group represented current ASM leadership.  They provided the constitution as a component of a larger reform package. This was a package at least preliminarily drawn up by Brittany, Jeff, Kurt, and me.

On the other side, the “Vote No” group also provided a message of reform.  While their solution was to vote no to the constitution changes, their message was still one of change.  Essentially, they said: ASM needs to reform, just not like this.  It is not the structure that is wrong, its the people. One would assume that if the current leadership were the wrong people, then they would be the right people, or at least they know who the right people are.

In this election, it was a referendum between two groups with different reform packages.  The student body voted for the “Vote No” platform.  I think it is now important that the “Vote No” people are brought into student government so they can work their magic. They can’t simply run a progressive slate and get a couple people elected, the “Vote No” coalition should be responsible for the student government.

The current ASM leadership tried to spearhead the most comprehensive reforms that ASM has ever seen.  They invested countless hours into these reforms, but the “Vote No” people thought they could do a better job.  If they do not step up now and take the reins of ASM, they will have destroyed ASM’s opportunity to reform for nothing.

In other words, the “Vote No” coalition must be accountable for their campaign.  They cannot simply walk away now.  They must provide the reforms they have promised.

I do not harbor any hard feelings towards the “Vote No” side.  They won the election fair and square.  They were able to convince more students that they had a better plan for the campus, and I am enthusiastic to see this plan in action.

I think it is important that within the next few days, they come out with their plan to reform ASM.  Last year we provided our 5 steps.  I strongly encourage them to let us on their big plans.  However, I worry that they might not be considering everything right now.

So, I am going to take some time to explain some of the challenges and imperatives involved with reforming ASM.


The first challenge you are going to have is to reconcile a structure that is inherently contradictory.  You must figure out how to mesh the broad open system of the campaign model with the hierarchical leadership necessary to run the seg fee system.  To better understand the dichotomy of these organizational models, I suggest reading, The Starfish and the Spider, by Brafman and Beckstrom.  I think the book does a good job reflecting on the different tendency of these leadership models.

Essentially what you will find is that ASM has two distinct organizational charts (not the one on the website, but in practice).  You must find a way to reconcile an activist entity which looks like this:


with a financial wing that looks like this:


While the outside media tear into ASM for not working on important issues, not being in tune with the student body, etc. (which may all be true), I believe these diagrams sum up the biggest obstacle for ASM, something I have asserted for a long time.

Let me explain.  The challenge for ASM leadership is to create an organization grounded grassroots mobilization necessary to enact change while providing constant and reliable support for student organizations.  This duality presents numerous challenges:

  1. Internally, the dynamic in ASM as always been isolating for the “closed” committee chairs.  Because half the leadership is informed by a grassroots mentality, while the other half is trying to work with organizational structure, these two sets of leaders have little to work together one.  Last year, my biggest frustration was the inability to get any long-term strategic planning.  After complaining for most of the year about the need to think about the long term ambitions of the organization, I was finally granted an hour during a Coordinating Council retreat to help lead the group in some planning.  However, the grassroots committee chairs soon revolted and my session ended early with nothing accomplished.  As hard as we tried to bridge this chasm, there is simply a different set of values which inform these groups.
  2. If you favor the activism side too much, you will alienate the finance part of ASM. Until this year, under Brittany, the finance sector has always been segregated from the daily workings of ASM.  I think things have drastically improved this year because Brittany came from the finance perspective and much of the organization as a whole has moved to a more hierarchical design (cumbersomely, given the structure). Diversity committee has gone from an open to closed group.  Campus relations was replaced with the press shop. Legislative affairs is essentially defunct. And while Academic Affairs is doing well, a lot of duty of advocating on academic issues has been championed by leadership.
  3. I think this election has shown the tight-rope ASM must walk when dealing with student organizations.  On one hand, grassroots activism is anchored in the ability to form coalitions.  On the other hand, groups are often suspicious of forming coalitions with the people who control their budgets.  It is hard when you are the “Man” to truly gain the trust of groups.
  4. This system fosters programmatic redundancies.  Because you are advocating on issues that often dealt with by student organizations, you tend to repeat things which are already being done.  Case in point: Diversity Committee.  Before this year, ASM felt it was important to advocate on issues of campus climate and inclusion.  This meant that many of the things done by diversity committee could have been better preformed by other groups on campus. It was only by closing diversity committee and inserting it into a governmental hierarchy that these issues were addressed.  By opening it back up, you run the risk of reenacting these redundancies.
  5. Administration: The question of how to deal with university administration is extremely challenging for ASM.  On most subjects, the administration will be more of an ally than a foe.  They are not a profit driven bunch and in general, they want what is best for students.  The better the relationship you build with the administration, the more successful you will be.  While this is true all around, it is an imperative when dealing with segregated fees.  This system requires a lot of nuanced accounting and specialized issue management.  If your SSFC chair does not have allies in the university administration, your budgets are doomed.  This being said, you still need to stand up for students when the student position is at odds with the administration.  The challenge is using the correct mixture of tactics which will allow you to win on student issues while not alienating the allies you have in the administration.  This will be partly decided by what issues you decide to take up.  Remember though, the actions of your grassroots wing will reflect on your finance wing, even if they are unrelated.

You are going to find this balance to be untenable and time consuming.  While your objective may be to resort more resources to advocacy, it will significantly damage your capacity to provide services.  This of course is a value question that must be considered.

-Student democracy:

ASM does not constitute a democracy.  Currently, students are elected by mobilizing their friends to vote.  Issues are not discussed during elections.  Obviously, one of the hopes of the presidential system was to address this very issue.  As we saw during this election, when there is a simple choice (either A or B) students can be mobilized to vote.  While 15% is not a stellar number, it certainly represents an improvement over previous elections.  My feeling is that if it were actual candidates with easy to digest platforms (and not a complex constitution) even more student could be mobilized to vote.  While I know that slates have been attempted in the past, these informal parties are not nearly as effective for providing clear options.

Student democracy is important for a number of reasons:

  1. It is good to have student input into how the government is run.  This makes a difference for the campaigns that are conducted and how seg fees are managed.
  2. Democracy would bring new ideas into ASM.  Historically ASM has suffered from the staleness of ideas.  Students are recruited young to be interns, then move up to leadership.  The only leadership ASM ever gets is career ASMers.  This does not provide a lot of opportunity for people with outside experiences to have access to the decision making apparatus of the organization.
  3. On a related note, the lack of democracy means ASM fails to attract talented leaders from across campus.  Ideally student leaders from organizations would see the opportunity to serve in ASM as a step up.  However, a position on ASM holds no status.  As a result, ASM’s ability to recruit talent is stifled.

We felt a presidential system would address many of these issue.  I look forward to hear the solutions you come up with.

-ASM Staff:

ASM staff are a blessing.  They provide the closest thing we have to institutionalized memory.  They are true believers in student rights.  However, it also means you have another stakeholder to work with.  This can prove tricky when trying to reform the organization in a way that is not within the current paradigm of staff.  You need to be able to talk about your decisions and justify them, because their jobs are tied into this organization.

For a better idea of where staff will be coming from, make sure to bone up on Saul Alinsky and Ed Chambers, esp: Roots for Radicals.  This provides the foundation for their organizing philosophy.  I am not sure if you prescribe to Alinsky or Midwest Academy.  Either way, it is helpful to know where your staff is coming from.

Also remember that because ASM hires 9 full-time staff and dozens of student staff, you are also going to have to have competent HR.

-Student Council:

Student council is a mess.  Brittany has made great strides in improving the body and retaining members, but by far in away this is the most defunct entity in ASM. The first thing you will have to do is define a purpose for Student Council.  This becomes complex because having an elected body of students does not mesh well with the decentralized grassroots map I provided earlier. A few pieces of advice about SC:

  • They will not be your activist core.  Students run for SC because they want to make decisions, not because they want to be another link in the activism front.  I am sure that you have some people you will run who have this activist spirit. More power to you.  Those who do not will not be satisfied by their time on SC and will quit.
  • SC members are largely unqualified to make a lot of the decisions that are presented to them.  If student council has ever made had a situation where someone has not spouted off a blatantly non-VPN statement during a budget proceeding, it is only because they passed the budget without discussion.  No matter how many times they are trained, it is never enough.
  • Student Council is in desperate need of some staff time.  Currently the chair of ASM is expected to do all the development for Student Council.  (This is one reason that it has failed so badly)  Student Council truly needs a staff member devoted to it.   Brittany and others are currently moving the vacant campus organizer position to one that deals with SC.  However, this means you have fewer organizers.  (I guess that will be your call to make)

-Lastly, Seg fees:

Segregated fees are a mess.  I do believe that things have gotten better over the last two years.  I, and later Kurt, was working to phase in some much needed reforms, but they are far from complete. However, with both of us out of the organization, I fear that these reforms will slowly disappear.

As my earlier post states, the GSSF is untenable.  If left to its own devices, I do not see how it is sustainable.  This is why it is imperative to diversify student funding.  I cannot understand why we want to fund so many diverse organizations but rely on such a monolithic funding apparatus.

If we continue the standard that all big groups are tracked into the GSSF, I think we will lose it.  With the Southworth decision, it is nearly impossible to use only one funding stream to fund all the groups you want appropriately and keep control of the stream.  I don’t think ASM has ever had control over the growth in the GSSF.  It simply had not grown large enough to be problematic (until it hit $3.6 M three years ago).

If this is allowed to repeat itself, I believe you will jeopardize all the groups which helped you in this election.

So what do I mean by diversifying the fund.  Well, create more funding streams:

  • I created the ancillary fund to give ASM to the capacity to deal with long-term (in student-world, anything longer than a year) financial obligations.  ASM has invested a million dollars in capital into the WSUM tower.  We write multi-year contracts with Rape Crisis Center and Madison Metro.  This gave us an easy way to fit these budgets together.
  • College council funding stream: Currently ASM does not do an adequate job serving its constituents in non-L&S colleges.  Many of these colleges have established their own councils to give students in those colleges opportunities get involved and plan programming specific to their college or school.  However, these organizations do not have cash.  This is why CALS SC and Polygon both consistently look to the GSSF for funding.  These are very different from a GUTS organization.  To keep the fund consistent, provide these groups funding through an alternative stream.  It will allow you to build relations with these other colleges, promote student activities for students not in L&S, and expand the reach of student government.  Since student power if rooted in numbers, this will help you reach out to other schools and get more numbers.
  • Centers: CWC, LGBTCC (when it was a group), Wunk Sheek, MEChA, and WCSU look similar in that they provide safe space and programming around issues of underrepresented minorities.  I think that you could capitalize on this similarity and create a stream which could provide funding for their unique needs.  Rather than pretending that they look like GUTS or ALPS, this will allow them to be treated like centers.  You can use the exact same budgets as you do for GSSF groups, if you want, but you can change the criteria to fit these particular types of services.
  • Activism: WISPIRG and CFACT certainly don’t fit the mold either.  Neither of them fit the current GSSF criteria.  Instead a fund could be created that emphasizes the importance of internship opportunities.

You might look at this list and imagine seg fees sky-rocketing, but these are all groups that we currently fund. We just don’t deal with them well.  This makes eligibility unwarrantably painful.  If it was split into several different funding streams, the student government would have far more control to set criteria which are exclusive, identifying unique characteristics in groups, and then formulating funding mechanisms to provide for these unique needs.

Secondly, you must make every effort to keep SSFC as nonpartisan as you can.  The members of SSFC must see their role as stewards of segregated fees, not agents for particular groups.  If we go back to those days, it will make things more difficult for groups and the committee at large.  Please work to make SSFC more nonpartisan.

Lastly, you need to deal with ASM’s structural deficit.  Because of years of over-allocating (or under-spending) ASM has accrued a pretty severe structural deficit.  ASM currently has four budgets: ASM Internal, GSSF, Ancillary, and Bus Pass.  ASM Internal and GSSF both have sizable structural deficits.  This puts your seg fee ability at the whim of group spending.  If groups decide to spend all their money one year (even if you don’t budget more for the next year) seg fees will sky-rocket.  This lack of control endangers your ability to think long term and strategically about how seg fees impact student expenses.  It also means that you may unintentionally exceed system-established thresholds, because groups spend more than usual.  To address this, you must do a combination of these three things:

  1. Do a better job allocating the money that groups will use,  so there is not a significant amount left over at the end of the year.  (This might also mean putting more pressure on groups to follow through with what they promised)- The same applies for ASM’s budgets.
  2. Cut the amount budgeted without cutting the current seg fee rate.
  3. Increase the current seg fee rate at an amount larger than necessary.

I have racked my brains trying to think of a tactful way to handle this one.  Good luck.

Well, I am sure this is enough for you to ponder for now.  I look forward to hearing your initiatives.  If you would like to talk more about anything here, please do not hesitate to contact me.  I want to be as helpful as possible as you manage this transition.

Best of luck.



5 Responses to “Accountability and the future of ASM”

  1. The Critical Badger Says:

    On a related note, the lack of democracy means ASM fails to attract talented leaders from across campus. Ideally student leaders from organizations would see the opportunity to serve in ASM as a step up. However, a position on ASM holds no status. As a result, ASM’s ability to recruit talent is stifled.

    Very interesting point. I can tell you in the “moderate Dem” circle, being Chair of the College Dems, running a campus-wide campaign (think Obama), or running for office (city or county) is given higher prestige. The later, especially in a post-Judge world, the District 8 City Council seat, is in my view considered the “top” spot, amongst politicos and interested students who might otherwise rise to the top of ASM. This is not necessarily bad, but in any space with limited resources — as UW has 40,000 potential bodies — ASM has to win some of these competitions for attention.

  2. The Critical Badger Says:

    Can you like, put quotes on my comment where I site your post? I forgot.

  3. wilounge Says:

    There you go.

  4. Critical Badger Says:


  5. Fact Check: MPOWER Reps Claim Seg Fee Reform ‘Rushed’ » North Park Street Says:

    […] Accountability and the Future of ASM, February 25, 2009 […]

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