Reformist #3 – Grassroots in Need of Watering

Whether or not ASM was founded to foster massive grassroots organizing is a matter for debate (I believe it was not, and if you believe it was, please justify to me with the terms “grass” and “roots” don’t appear in the Constitution or even the Bylaws.) Regardless, my purpose is not to argue about semantics. I will concede, for now, that “grassroots” organizing has become at least a relative fixture for the institution. There are, however, innumerable problems that arise from such a concept, especially when it is not a means, but an end in itself.

Allow me to clarify. The term grassroots was coined as a way to describe massive political support from within a community, rejecting typical power structures, and working from the ground up—the term was derived “from the soil of people’s hard necessities.” This works to some extent, as it creates a new mechanism for which political progress can be made. However, there are many within ASM who would like to think of themselves as a part of “grassroots committees.” This in itself is an oxymoron; imagine the thought of a committee (a typical power institution within a government) being mixed with grassroots organizing (a supposedly spontaneous anti-establishment gathering tool) and the idea makes little sense. Couple that with the practical implications of having a committee that attempts to rally the students around it, and the thought just seems downright paradoxical.

But beyond anecdotal evidence, there is little support for the idea that a grassroots organizing structure can effectively work within ASM; on the contrary, it appears that there is significant evidence that there is a clash between the two dynamics. I believe that problem derives largely from a lack of uniformity. ASM consists of two monsters: a rigidly structured financial and appointment process; and a disheveled grassroots branch. These two appear to divide ASM, leaving it void of a clearly defined vision. The question then becomes: which is more appropriate for ASM to undertake? Given that ASM is created from shared governance functions within 36.09(5)—and given the countless student orgs that also endeavor to be “grassroots”—I am inclined to believe that ASM is designed to be the former of the two. It is only when these two are reconciled (most likely from a reduction in the “grassroots” mantra) that ASM will become truly effective.

That is not to say that there is no role for grassroots organizing. While I would like to see its role diminished, it is easy to see why it may have a purpose from time to time. Which brings me to conclusive point: grassroots organizing is only effective as a limited strategy or a tactic. When it becomes the objective, it has simply surpassed its position as a means to accomplishing something and become the end in itself. This may seem to be common sense, but the rhetoric that flies around ASM is strikingly contradictory. Many would have it so that ASM operated largely as a grassroots structure, but for reasons specified above, that doesn’t make any sense.

My hope in detailing this—what I see to be a fatal flaw—is not to destroy what many have come to think of as a vital component of this institution, but rather to show that it is largely hindering the organization. Past experience has shown that working with the administration can be far more effective than fighting it, and the same is true for the city level. There is only so much that a group of students can do before people begin to ignore them. After all, grass grows everywhere, so it is easy to forget that it’s there.

Published in: on February 8, 2010 at 9:37 pm  Comments (2)  

Reformist #2 – The Student Council: Change at the Heart of ASM

The Student Council is the heart of the Associated Students of Madison.  It is the center of the three pillars, the head of the octopus, and the central decision making body of the entire student government.  Virtually all decisions made in the organization must be ratified through this collective.  But just as a heart attack paralyzes the entire body, this defunct institution has rendered ASM powerless to react to outside actions and sustain long term goals.

There is a certain aspect of the Student Council that renders it more useless than any other component; the Student Council has no vision, no strictly delineated tasks other than being simply there to establish governing documents for ASM.  Thus, let us examine the one location of strictly created duties—its constitutionally delegated tasks.  According to the ASM Constitution, Article VII, Section 6:

Section 6: Powers and Duties

(a) Except as otherwise provided in this Constitution, the SC shall exercise all legislative powers of the ASM by majority vote.
(b) The SC shall appoint its own Chair, Vice-Chair and other officers as established by the Bylaws.
(c) The SC shall establish Bylaws and Rules for the ASM by two-thirds vote at two consecutive meetings. To amend Bylaws or Rules shall require a two-thirds vote at two consecutive meetings, subject to the veto power specified in this Constitution for SSFC and the Student Judiciary.
(d) The SC may refer any matter in its power to a vote of the members of the ASM by a resolution receiving a two-thirds vote at two consecutive meetings and filed with the Student Judiciary, with the exception of any matter that determines either the eligibility or funding level of a student organization or service.
(e) The SC shall keep and publish a journal of its own proceedings. The yeas and nays of any question shall be recorded in the journal on the request of two SC Representatives.
(f) The SC shall hold a town meeting at least once each semester to make known the activities of the SC and to listen to the views of ASM members. The SC Representatives representing an academic unit shall hold a town meeting at least once each semester for the ASM members of that unit.
(g) The SC shall have the sole power to convict on bill of impeachment any elected or appointed officer of the ASM. Cause for impeachment shall be limited to neglect of duties, official misconduct, or malfeasance in office. Impeachment shall be initiated upon the petition of one-third of the SC, excluding vacancies. A three-fourths vote of the entire SC, excluding vacancies, shall be required to convict or remove.
(h) Each Student Council member shall lobby the state legislature for affordable tuition at least once a year, participate in at least one activity in the fall and spring ASM recruitment drives and attend at least one United Council event, including, but not limited to, General Assemblies, retreats, trainings or conferences, per full academic semester. If a Student Council member does not comply with any part of this paragraph, they shall receive an unexcused absence for each infraction.

This is a peculiar creation, to say the least, remnants of a mindset that existed almost two decades ago.  Subsection (a) dictates that the Student Council is the primary legislative body of the ASM.  It is worth noting that the framers used the word legislate, which strictly defined means “to create or enact laws.”  Surely the writers new that ASM would not be creating laws, for even in its truest from, ASM does not dictate or mandate anything to the student body.  So what does it mean to legislate in the sense of the ASM Constitution?  In my opinion, this means that the Student Council establishes the goals and methods of the entire institution, “legislating” what tasks will be delineated to where and how they are going to be enacted.  This statement is fine, but it does nothing to indicate which tasks should be exercised.

Further examination of this section, specifically subsections (b), (c), (d), (e) and (g), yields that the Student Council shall pass bylaws, elect and remove officers, record its own votes, and put forth referendum votes to the student population.  These, too, seem to do nothing more than establish normal workings of the ASM and state nothing of the true goals of the institution.

This leaves us with two unique subsections, (f) and (h), which both assign tasks to each individual member of the Student Council.  Subsection (f) establishes that “The SC shall hold a town meeting at least once each semester to make known the activities of the SC and to listen to the views of ASM members.”  This is particularly intriguing for its historical implications.  In previous years, town halls and listening sessions have been held, but to no avail, as student turnout was low.  I believe this stems from a lack of relevance to students, mostly because they don’t think ASM does anything for them, which is probably accurate in some years.

This brings us to the final delineation; subsection (h) has the most straightforward task that could possibly be assigned to members of the Student Council, reading that “Each Student Council member shall lobby the state legislature for affordable tuition at least once a year….”  Finally, we see a truly assigned task, one that is indicative of an issue that is, and has always been, a high priority for student interests.  The costs of tuition seem to continue to rise every year, bouncing off of different forms of rhetoric that always arrive at some percent increase.  It would be nice to assume that Council members are realizing this initiative, but I have never seen any evidence that ASM is pursuing this route.

Having analyzed the constitutionally assigned tasks of the Student Council, it becomes easy to see why they have no vision or goals; they are certainly not assigned them.  This works to two ends: at one extreme, we see that the Council is free to set their goals and can react to the student needs; at the other extreme, we see that the Council is free to set their goals and have absolutely no idea what they are supposed to do.  This dichotomy, which likely works to the ladder rather than the former, leaves ASM hopelessly lost in establishing its goals.

There is a solution, of course, and it doesn’t take a Constitutional change.  Having identified this as a serious problem, however, it will suffice for now.  We will analyze the remedial steps in the very near future.

Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 8:56 pm  Comments (2)  

Reformist #1 – On the Matter of Previous Reform

The matter of reform within ASM is nothing new–it is easy to identify previous reform efforts and their many failures–but none are more evident than the failed Constitution last year, which took the current structure of ASM and completely reorganized it.  There are many theories as to why the reform effort failed.  Perhaps it was because the Vote No coalition was better organized.  Perhaps it failed to address the true concerns within the structure.  Or perhaps people are just rigid to change.

Regardless, I am not here to justify past endeavors; there was much about the Constitution that was not ideal for the furthering of ASM goals.  I am here to justify reform as an ideal, as a necessity for the furthering of the organization.  This doesn’t have to be structural.  If the current organizational design is sufficient to remedy the problems of ASM, then it is certainly acceptable to consider that a valid reform effort.  So too is a goal change or a mindset change.  In short, change can manifest itself in countless structures; it is just a matter of identifying it.

Further reform efforts will not be based in a Constitutional change.  There are structural deficits within the organization, but this is a normal aspect of almost all organizations.  The task at hand is making due with the current system, a task we will endeavor in the coming months.  There is little debate: reform is needed, but the matter is how.

Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 2:39 am  Comments (1)  

Welcome to A Silent Reform

This is it.

The Associated Students of Madison is ready for reform.  It needs a vision, a goal.  Currently it suffers from a structural deficit, a flawed series of funding streams, and goals that merely keep it functional instead of effective.  There is much work to be done, and it begins here.

Published in: on February 2, 2010 at 9:05 am  Comments (4)