Organizational Lessons from a Staycation

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As part of Student Government History Month, a study of power plays is warranted. One of the best-timed political grabs in my personal experience occurred during Spring Break 2005, when then-Speaker of the Senate Cristobal “Chris” Vega at UW-Milwaukee (UWM) opted out of the so-called “Legislative Congress” or LegCon hosted by the self-important United States Student Association (USSA, not to be confused with insurance group USAA). While the other established stars of the UWM Student Association (SA) were away at play, Vega and the hungry newcomers held their own university-recognized Student Senate meeting with just enough officials present to achieve quorum, or the minimum number of voting members — usually any amount over 50% — required to take binding action. This brings me to a lesson learned:

Never take a leave of absence without first committing colleagues to your cause.

Vega filled the power vacuum while the main players were away in D.C. with their busy schedules of partying, sightseeing, barhopping, and perhaps lobbying elected officials for a few hours out of the entire five-day trip. He spoke one-on-one with those in town about how the cliques in the SA were treating us like second-class citizens and how we could reverse the roles by holding a Student Senate meeting that weekend.

The first point of order on the Student Senate agenda was the approval of additional voting members. Because we achieved quorum before the additions and because we approved the same unanimously, the new student senators were approved by a majority of the committee of the whole (all sitting officials, whether present or absent) and hence were added to the voting roster. The soon-to-be surprised LegCon goers had become outnumbered by a new majority!

Vega showed how one could grow and rally the “B Team” to wrest control from the “A Team.” Note that I said “grow and rally” because mobilizing existing support players is not enough; one must expand the roster to have numbers on your side to win democratic power struggles. Let’s just say that the SA should have proactively amended its definition of quorum to be a super-majority or at least arranged for more student senators to be out of town during LegCon.

The student government elections the following month wiped clean most of the slate for when the new officials took office that June. Nonetheless, the Vega coup was an experiment in how disparate interests can be unified under the banner of “oppression” to promote and sometimes effect democratic change. Rather than go into a dead-end spiel about how this plays out in modern national politics, I instead identify another lesson learned:

A good gesture stymied remains a good gesture.

Perhaps as a reward for my cooperation, Vega appointed me to the Executive Committee in late April and held a contest to reward the student senator who delivered the most “class raps” or brief announcements of SA happenings prior to class. I was on the agenda for approval at the May meeting and was on track to win the class announcement contest. However, the Student Senate failed to achieve quorum for its May meeting — something which I learned through later experience was actually a time-(dis)honored tradition of blowing off the final Student Senate meeting of the academic year.

So although the Student Senate never confirmed my seat on the Executive Committee or recognized officially the rankings in the class announcement contest, the specter of such blandishments was very motivating. I would see this pattern of “coincidentally” withdrawn golden apples in other organizations, thereby leading me to conclude it is a common but scarcely named control tactic, a subtle form of manipulation — and that’s the most effective kind! I’m grateful to have observed those lessons in a low-stakes environment such as the SA because it equipped me to watch for those situations in other areas of life such as group projects, maintaining roommates, and pretty much anything involving cooperation.

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United States Student Association, Legislative Congress, LegCon, USSA Lobby, Lobbying Trip, DC Tourism, Congressional Quorum, Student Association, Student Government, Student Senate, Grassroots Organizing, Grassroots Organization, Astroturf Organizing, Astroturf Organization

Student Government History Month

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I updated this article on March 3, 2015. Enhancements include a tighter narrative and links to recently created merchandise.

Spring Break is coming…

…And those with enough money will go on vacation somewhere. The rest of us mopes, we diligent proles, will have a “staycation” of relaxing locally; catching up with side projects; earning additional income filling in for absent wage workers; and maybe notching a few additional hours of sleep.

Some people enjoy publicly funded vacations that are sponsored either by tax dollars — state agency officials who utilize their “paid time off” (PTO) — or by “student university fee, allocated by committee” (SUFAC).

In particular, many university student governments annually meet in Washington, D.C. as part of the United States Student Association (USSA) Legislative Conference or “LegCon.”

It is officially a bunch of “issues briefing,” “advocacy training,” and “congressional lobbying” sessions. It is unofficially a networking event filled with booze, broads, and tomfoolery. When preparing for these trips, it is of utmost importance to leave behind anyone who is too serious about sticking to the official agenda, lest a killjoy hijack the hijinks.

All humor aside, this post has a genuine purpose of bona fide interest to shared governance wonks everywhere: I hereby declare today to commence our inaugural Student Government History Month! It is the perfect excuse to dig your “Student Government President” tee shirt (crew sweatshirt, hoodie, accessories, etc.) out of the mothballs and re-enact your best SUFAC speeches.

Add to the title whichever qualifiers you wish — “University,” “Statewide,” “National,” “International,” etc. — but the fact remains this enthusiastic celebration mild observation is the first of its kind. Although being first doesn’t always lead to becoming popular, there will now be an exact matching result when someone Googles, Bings, or Yahoos “student government history month.”

While I’m at it, let’s have March 1 be Student Government Appreciation Day because it is only logical to begin our month-long celebration with a special day.

Because many SGAs hold meetings on either Saturday or Sunday, the use of a calendar day instead of “Nth weekday of the month” also provides opportunities to meet during the ceremonial day without calling a special meeting. This conveniently popularizes the tradition to ensure widespread adoption.

Feel free to celebrate on the first Monday following March 1 if Student Government Appreciation Day falls on a weekend during which you absolutely cannot meet. I chose March because many university student governments hold not only conferences but also election nomination periods before, during, and after Spring Break.

The traditional juxtaposition of luxurious leisure and cutthroat campaigning makes March a time of examining what can be accomplished in the final months of the academic year — as well as evaluating potential allies and opponents for the next student government session, hopefully conscientious of what has transpired in prior student administrations.

Although the hubris common to young politicians elicits a stock reaction of, “Why should I care?” it bears consideration that a successful official does NOT repeat the mistakes of his or her predecessors! Those newly elected should be provably equal or superior to prior incumbents — and a comparison of policy outcomes is the only way to validly measure that.

The built-in turnover via graduation makes the long-term communication of particular student government records more challenging than in organizations with a more stable membership. Not to mention, most student leaders aren’t particularly interested in what their forebears did due to narcissistic tendencies.

However, an understanding of what has been attempted, overturned, or instituted previously can clarify precisely how one may make a truly unique contribution to the ongoing history of his or her student government.

For example, I perused various UW-Milwaukee student government printouts from the previous two decades before the university archivist was scheduled to triage and dump most, saving only a representative sample. I have boxes of such documents and thus know historical linkages among committees, initiatives, and particular personalities.

This allowed me to learn the Campus Activities Board was proposed via referendum in 2003 as a political favor, thereby providing paid employment to campaign supporters. This was a textbook illustration of how to nepotistically reward political supporters.

An even more egregious instance of private benefit from public money is found the creation of the Student Leadership Center, formerly known as the Center for Student Volunteerism and Leadership. It was proposed via referendum in 1999 to create a directorship job for a soon-to-graduate student president, the same who still directs the center as of 2015.

In both cases, the ideas were mere knockoffs — crude derivatives — of identical services provided at better-known universities. Nonetheless, the measures were seen as “innovative” because no one had deemed the university as needing such optional expenditures until the student government pretended the services somehow became “critical” after decades of non-existence.

Then again, the same may be said for student-worker unemployment insurance; changing societal needs creep into even the most insular of institutions!

Such scope creep of Student Affairs is one of the reasons why tuition keeps going up, second only to increasing droves of students who go for a second, third, nth degree while unable to secure professional employment — trade school is the answer, folks.

Here’s to a better understanding of student government successes, failures, and compromises through the critical lens of comparative history! A good starting point in understanding the limitations of student administrative powers may be found in the lack of protection against libel and slander and a challenge to that constraint via the SA Sedition Act — unique in the history of not only UWM but also the entire University of Wisconsin System, proudly channeling the zeitgeist of John Adams. Enjoy!

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Student Government History Month, National Day of History, Student Association, Student Senate, Lessons Learned, Records Kept, Student Record-Keeping, United Council, UW Students, Institutional Knowledge, Collective Wisdom