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Letter to the editor

The legitimacy of student government is dying

October 18, 2019

I was, like most students on this campus, unaware of the Wisconsin Statute, 36.09 (5) until last year, when I took position as the 81st Session Student Body President at UWRF. 36.09 (5) is the policy of shared governance, which grants students in an organized matter, such as student government, the ability to advise a campus administration on policy, particularly student fees. Wisconsin is one of the few states in America which grants students this power. In other words, this policy means that students must have a seat at the table when important decisions are made. It is a power that gives students a legitimate reason to participate in student government because it offers a possibility of real change with the input of student voices.

In the past, campus administrations in the University of Wisconsin System have recognized and properly utilized the policy of shared governance. However, recently, based on my own experiences as a Student Body President, shared governance is no longer a priority in the UW-System. According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Faculty Document 2734, on March 5th, 2018, Ray Cross, President of the UW-System, publicly declared his support toward shared governance in March of 2015. However, in October of 2017, Ray Cross sent an email to a UW Regent which stated, “[I’m] getting hammered by “shared governance” leaders because they weren’t involved in the process; however, had they been involved we wouldn’t be doing anything!” This statement occurred after Cross decided to move forward with the UW merger, which merged two-year schools with some four-year schools; UWRF was not apart of the merger. The merger, as it’s commonly referred as, happened under the radar of student’s knowledge, which disproportionally excluded student governments from having any input toward the merger. This violated 36.09 (5) in great measures. Since, student and faculty senates have called upon Cross to honor his original statement in 2015, about protecting and respecting shared governance in all relevant administrative decisions” because shared governance is “an essential mechanism to guarantee accountability, transparency, and high quality of education for UW students” (UW-Madison Faculty Senate).

Since Cross’ disappointing statement toward shared governance in 2017, I’ve noticed a general decline in motivation among administrative members and students to fully utilize a proper use of student government. The purpose of student government, in my own words, is to advocate for students’ rights, in whichever way needed. The method to speak out and change policy to better students’ experiences on campus, for me, was to write legislation to the administration that clearly stated the issue, and how we (the student senate) would like to see the policy change, or by inviting key administrative members to a student senate meeting to speak about an issue and clear any misunderstandings, which are both methods of properly utilizing 36.09 (5). I also worked endlessly to build upon each senator’s leadership skills, which I hoped would benefit a future ahead. These measures were taken with the simple hope that working for students, as students, meant leadership, not politics, was at the forefront of change.

However, students’ knowledge of student government, and what their capabilities of power can be, has declined especially on our campus. For my election, I won a total of over 800 votes from students, which was a 58% lead above my opponent. In this year’s election, for the 82nd Session of Student Government, the candidates won with a total number of votes that was barely over 200. The steep decline in total votes is not because this year’s candidates were not qualified, it was, in my opinion, because they have been affected by the UW System’s lack of passion and motivation toward student leadership in the role of student government. I find it ethically unjust for a session of student government to make decisions on campus wide, student-based, or academically based policies when not even 300 students are fully aware of the organization. This, too, I recognize, is in part that some students choose to not participate in student elections. It is, however, concerning that with even my 800 votes, and this year’s 200 votes, the entire population of our campus is not aware of the single, secular organization that forms policies that affect each student, student government. I reached out to student organizations and academic department heads to ask if they would advertise student government elections. I have found that many did not follow my request.

Including campus departments and student organizations in the push to get votes is not included under policy 36.09 (5). But, when the overall lack of total campus involvement for student government elections fails, we end up in a scenario of the past and present sessions, where not nearly one third of the total student population is aware of student government

Therefore, I call upon our campus leaders, professors, department heads, administration, and student organizations to work collaboratively with the Student Government Association to ensure more profound, positive voting numbers. In return, I hope that this would create a future where policy 36.09 (5) is once again a value in the UW System and at each campus, so that student governments can thrive on the basis of advocacy, transparency, and leadership. Student Government is the organization that reviews current policies and refers to the administration about ways they can be better improved. That is the outstanding work that student leadership can be. My only hope, as I make my departure from this campus in the spring, is that a legacy of upholding administrations and student government leaders to the highest standard possible is achieved throughout each year.

Rosemary Pechous
Former SGA President