Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Students' Rights: The WISPIRG Debacle

I had the privilege of serving alongside a representative from U.S. PIRG during Senate testimony yesterday, and so today, in support of the hard work they are doing on behalf of students everywhere, I want to weigh in on the situation here in Wisconsin.

UW-Madison Interim Chancellor David Ward recently released his decision on the Associated Students of Madison (ASM)'s approved segregated university fee budget following months of student decision-making. One focus of his decision was removing a majority of the budget for WISPIRG, a statewide, student-directed and funded public interest group and registered student organization, despite student approval.  

The issue of WISPIRG’s funding has received much attention lately, from students, the Associated Students of Madison, the Chancellor, and the media. And now in light of Chancellor Ward’s decision, ASM is preparing an appeal to the Regents. 

WISPIRG was founded by Madison students in 1989 in order to tackle public interest issues and provide students a vital civic engagement experience.  In order to do this, WISPIRG students hire a staff of professional organizers, advocates and researchers to train and organize students to run local and statewide campaigns, research the problems, and lobby on behalf of students in the state capitol and in Washington, D.C.  Here at UW-Madison, WISPIRG is funded by student segregated fees through ASM, and in the past has received contracts to allowed students to work with these staff. 

Over the years, UW-Madison students have reaffirmed their support for WISPIRG's funding many times, through referenda, thousands of petition signatures, and the approval of over 20 different sessions of student government.  WISPIRG's funding and contract not only honor the tradition of student control over student fees, but are also consistent with Wisconsin State Statute 36.09(5), which grants students the responsibility of making decisions regarding student fees that fund campus activities.

Last year, Chancellor Ward removed a majority of the funding approved by ASM, leaving WISPIRG without full funding for the current academic year. Students and faculty have since demonstrated widespread support for ASM’s decision and called on the Chancellor to reconsider his decision with over 4,500 petitions, over 100 faculty signed on to an endorsement,  numerous letters published in the papers, and several personal e-mails sent to the Chancellor. Then this past semester WISPIRG's funding was again approved by ASM, sending a message to the Chancellor that students will not back down on their right to make decisions on segregated fees.   Yet, Chancellor Ward removed funding for all staff members from WISPIRG’s budget and has refused to grant the contract that ASM requested in order for WISPIRG to exist next year.

Aside from the fact that the Chancellor is not respecting student decisions, the timing of his decision seems to indicate a lack of good faith effort to engage in shared governance with students and to respect their rights. This recent decision was made one day after the deadline for students to appeal to the Regents and for Chancellor to present a revised budget.  He has since changed the deadline to appeal, but if students are held to the highest standard when abiding by policies, then the Chancellor should be held to the same standard. 

The Chancellor provided little detail in his memo to ASM leaders to explain his decision. In the past he has released a public “clarification” on his decision, but his reasoning is not very clear at all. He claims that Regent Financial Policy prevents ASM from funding professional staff for student organizations, like the staff that WISPIRG works with, through ASM’s processes.  Students, faculty and staff have on multiple occasions asked the Chancellor and UW-Legal where exactly in related policy it says that students are violating policy, but no one has been able to point out where exactly it says that what students are doing is wrong. (This is a behavior I have observed many, many times over the last decade here.)

What isn’t clear is why the relevant policies are being interpreted in a new way that not only prevents students from funding a group that they have funded since 1989, but also differs from the intent of the policy and the interpretation of past chancellors.

UW-Madison has a rich history of shared governance and of students standing up for their rights, but that legacy is threatened when the Chancellor selectively uses discretion to deny students of decision-making power.

Students have voted to fund WISPIRG and grant the group a contract for over 20 years, and during that time Chancellors have agreed with ASM’s decision to approve a contract.  ASM has voted for years to fund WISPIRG to work with professional staff on important advocacy campaigns to fight for the public interest, so why is this time different? 

The Chancellor’s decisions for FY13 and FY14 are a departure from the decision and reasoning of past Chancellors who have ultimately allowed students to exercise their right to allocate segregated fees.

I strongly urge President Reilly to accept the Student Services Finance Committee’s appeal on WISPIRG’s budget and respect students by re-considering Chancellor Ward’s decision.