Calculatedly Candid Open Letter to the United Council of UW Students, Inc.

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The purpose of this piece is not to disturb the peace — although I cannot control how sensitive types will misinterpret and perhaps internalize this organizational critique as a personal putdown — but rather, to explain why United Council (UC) has struggled in recent years.

UC needs to move beyond its normal operations. Leadership, rank, and file must do more than the usual United Council routine, which proves ineffectual in practical policy outcomes:

1) Why spend so much time trying to save its own skin — time made by ducking phone calls from alumni, because staff are preoccupied and meeting internally about their own woes — by presenting to a small slice of SGA leaders on campus to pitch an affirmative fundraiser referendum and sell another year of membership, without so much as showing concern for the opinions of the non-SGA-official student plebeians? Gotta be home by your curfew, eh?

2) Why stop at electing members to leadership positions, which don’t carry any cachet outside the extremely niche field of student government? Look out for the interests of non-leaders, too.

We can’t all be grassroots organizers or attain employment in Student Affairs. Even fewer of us can launch into politics (unless sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, which indirectly dictates our national policy and therefore the type of leaders we get, in undemocratic fashion, via institutional positioning and media priming).

3) Why talk about unconscious victimization of certain groups, when we’re all blatantly victimized by declining job prospects — or at least know someone who is — irrespective of UC’s head-in-the-sand attitude towards this?

To be certain, some students pine for the verbal nectar you give their itching ears: They want to feel as if they’re changing the world by attending meetings about internal UC business (to contrive stuff to do that looks good on a resume); making it easier for newer students to graduate (and therefore compete with them for jobs they might not even qualify for anyway); and fruitlessly lobbying for UW funding (of which $250 million in cuts were finalized, thanks in part to my grassroots organizing as the anti-UC).

Those are the activities that comprise the inner workings and visible doings of UC. So, how does United Council improve life for actual students? Let us examine some possibilities:

1) The tuition freeze on 2-year colleges? Not UC’s doing!

Governor Scott Walker — the very antithesis of everything UC purports to represent — proposed the tuition lock! UC cannot claim credit for what is politically inevitable.

I’m surprised United Council does not take credit for desirable weather in the Madison area! Such grandiosity would suit UC’s self-importance.

2) Sending UC staff to campus to explain what UC does? NOT helping students! It is merely self-serving promotional activity paid for by the very same students’ UC membership fees.

“Pay us, because we do important things for you, such as persuade you we’re important.” Hah!

3) Enhance the job prospects of students? No; United Council has never concerned itself with the job prospects of UW students generally, which is a damned shame and totally dismissing a valid motivation for thousands of student members.

Board members are too cowardly to challenge the UW System or professional programs at member campuses to produce job placement rates or 1-year post hoc occupational outcomes for those who recently earned their degree. It’s not that difficult to measure, but weak-kneed UC lacks the political will to fight that much-needed regulatory battle.

The only way to promote action on this underserved issue of school-to-work accountability within the UW System is to shame officials into responsive policymaking via blog articles.

Although this piece has posted United Council into the steel for its inaction on the matter, that is galvanize student leaders into utilizing UC’s core competence grassroots organizing into holding UW regents, chancellors, and their underlings at each campus accountable for how well their respective schools’ promise of “career development” has panned out in terms of wage premium (or the lack thereof) for some quantified plurality (or non-majority) of graduates.

By doing nothing, United Council is content that the UW System continues its exploitation of those students aspiring to become gainfully employed professionals. The knowledgeable bystander becomes an accomplice!

Even among “soft sciences” majors, you’ll find this attribute of career orientation applies to MOST students! I doubt few attendees of UC General Assemblies would say having a decent-paying job after college is NOT important. With that said…

…WHY isn’t United Council being directed to work on this?! Are student leaders so arrogantly self-assured that they’ll “have theirs” after degree conferral?

Dream on — we need collective action on this issue: If not for self-preservation of your own career track, then in altruistic solidarity. (That’s your lingo; those are your shibboleths. This SHOULD resonate, unless you’re being contrarian for contrary’s sake.)

A Plea to United Council: Let Me Save You!

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I can hear United Council members and staff saying, “We don’t need to be saved.” Well, your outcry against letting students opt out individually before each semester rather than be assessed an automatic, up-front fee for which the refund process is rarely publicized by UW campuses indicates otherwise: your fiscal fate is doomed unless you adopt the operational reforms described in my 27-page budget narrative.

United Council (UC) and You; Mandatory Refundable Fee (MRF) and Me

The United Council of UW Students, Inc. (UC) has fretted as of late about a “surprise” inclusion in the biennial budget proposal by the State of Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) of a UC-specific mandate: students at UC member campuses must be presented the option — before the semester’s tuition bill is due – of either paying the semesterly $3 mandatory refundable fee (MRF) to UC or withholding from UC his or her MRF payment for that semester. It would be the first time in UC’s existence that students could opt out of the fee before any payment occurs, thereby saving a yet-to-be-determined number of refund transactions.

The measure is a victory for student choice and efficiency. Although UC claims its current system of automatically charging the MRF with the rest of the student fees on each tuition bill is democratic, the fact is that member campuses decide via campus-wide referenda whether to join United Council for a given period, usually two years at a time. This means the following semester’s freshmen, transfer students, and other new enrollees are assessed the MRF without any input about the matter and are NOT informed in the text of their tuition bill that the MRF portion of the itemized bill must be requested in writing addressed to United Council’s home office if they indeed want that $3 refunded.

You read that correctly; tuition bills at UC member campuses presently do not explain or mention anything about the refund process for the MRF. The only people who know, such as myself, have been involved first-hand with United Council or were told second-hand by an opponent of United Council who cared enough about the issue to spread the word like I’m doing here. This lack of explanation also means the only time most students hear about United Council is when the campus student government association (SGA) is campaigning for or against the latest UC referendum — I need not extrapolate the consequence that SGA officials easily dominate the opinions of low-information non-SGA-official students.

Budgeting United Council’s Future

Although I believe the JFC’s tuition freeze is a misguided acquiescence to United Council at a time when students should be more incentivized to pursue trade school to fill those jobs which require fewer years of textbook education and more years of hands-on practice, I appreciate its amendment to the biennial budget to additionally include this advance opt-out notice to students of UC member campuses.

Despite UC’s public caterwauls to the press with the claim it will lose “18% to 20%” of its revenue, it has yet to implement any of the measures I describe in my ground-breaking austerity budget. I’m sure UC staff understand their organization will survive but nonetheless make the “end of UC as we know it” claim to mobilize constituent support for the status quo.

United Council has not yet released its Fiscal Year 2013-2014 budget. Instead, UC will consider incremental adjustments to its FY2012-2013 budget. Take the “United Council FY13-14 Budget Feedback” survey to opine on what is potentially United Council’s final budget.
I actually did my own rival budget calling for multiple reforms such as one-night General Assemblies, means-tested subsidy caps, and more effective leverage of the United Council brand to offer and monetize additional UC merchandise. If Governor Walker signs the JFC proposal switching the UC membership mechanism to offer a preemptive opt-out option for each individual student at member campuses, then United Council could survive by running itself more like a business by charging consulting fees to other nonprofits and by creating merchandise which non-students would want to buy for the “cool factor.”

Those who think such an approach would be too commercial should understand most UC visits to campuses are to market United Council as somehow being a “critical service” despite a history of seemingly coincidental victories; legislative alignment with UC’s goals has been very strongly tied to an overall zeitgeist or multi-interest climate of that type of policy, especially with non-tuition social issues.

The latest credit-claiming for a circumstantial policy action was when the JFC voted to freeze tuition at UW campuses: United Council was facing a thirteenth consecutive year of defeat on its attempts at a tuition freeze, when by a happy coincidence the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) revealed $648.2 million unrestricted reserves in the UW System, more than enough for an emergency.

Does anyone reading this really believe the JFC would have agreed to UC’s tuition proposal for unchanged tuition if the LFB had never shown JFC members the reserve balance? I don’t; tuition increases since the 2001-2002 academic year support my contrarian opinion. I also believe tuition has not risen nearly enough to discourage high school graduates from the more prestigious-sounding university systems when technical and vocational schools would get them into a comparably-paying job more reliably and sooner.

Although I will post later in the year about the quantitative easing of the college premium, I’ve made a solid case for United Council assenting to an MRF advance opt-out mechanism for students prior to each semester. I repeat the reasons:

  1. It is fairer to the low-information student who doesn’t read blogs like mine and is never told by his or her SGA officials or bursar’s office about the MRF refund procedure;
  2. It more accurately reflects the proportion of students who honestly want United Council to put words into their collective mouth at legislative and Board of Regents meetings; and
  3. It stimulates discussion of operational reforms which may not only reduce United Council’s expenses but also raise revenues through non-MRF means.

In case you missed the first few links to it, then here again is my Fiscal Year 2013-2014 United Council budget proposal. I also offer it in PDF for those who don’t have a compatible Microsoft Word viewer. Leave constructive criticism if you can think of any, and remember you may use United Council’s feedback form to tell staff and the Board of Directors what you think about my proposal.

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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