Student Reps takes on greater role as United Council’s power decreases

Posted May 4, 2016

As the influence of the UW System Student Representatives continues to grow as a voice for university students, the presence of United Council continues to diminish.

The United Council is a non-profit organization based in Madison that campaigns and lobbies at the campus, state and national level on issues concerning higher education in Wisconsin. Focused on giving the underrepresented student a voice, the members of the organization travel to different universities throughout the UW System to reach out to students and bring their concerns to decision-makers in Wisconsin, according to Ronisha Howard, president of United Council.

“What United Council is trying to do is we try to reach out to organizations on campus, such as multicultural organizations or other organizations that feel that their needs are not being met or the student representatives don’t represent them,” Howard said.

In the past, UW-River Falls and the majority of universities in the UW System had been members of United Council, making the organization the main representative group for students in the UW System. However, student governments on a number of campuses, including UWRF, decided to move away from United Council when the organization began asking for a $3 per student per semester fee for universities to “buy-in” to the advocacy service that it provided.

UWRF’s history with United Council is not without controversy. From 2006-2009, the student body voted several times to leave the organization. Frustration with the organization came in a large part from the feeling that it was not advocating for issues that were specific to UWRF, and that the needs of students were being overshadowed by the needs of larger schools within the UW System. Following a student referendum in 2010 with the same result, the university stopped its membership with United Council.
Gregg Heinselman, associate vice chancellor for Student Affairs at UWRF, said that Student Senate moved away from United Council because it believed that it could better advocate for and represent the students at UWRF.

“There’s more of a direct pipeline than a lobbying pipeline and I think that ultimately is the primary issue on why our campus chose to step away from United Council,” Heinselman said.

In 2012, the UWRF Student Senate president issued an executive order that banned United Council from student government office spaces. According to Heinselman, the president banned United Council because the organization was lobbying and tabling at UWRF without following the rules that were made by Student Senate.

“When they’re unwilling to work with Student Senate to do that, I can understand how our student body and our elected student leaders would take that type of action,” Heinselman said. “And I think ever since then it’s been a little bit of a contentious relationship between the two.”

Following the move of universities away from United Council, the UW System Student Representatives, or Student Reps, formed in 2012. Made up of the presidents and vice president of student government from each UW System university, Student Reps meets eight times a year to discuss issues that affect students with UW System administration leaders.

Chair of Student Reps Ryan Sorenson said that the organization can effectively represent students within the UW System because it is made up of elected student officials.

“Student Reps, I think, over the past few years, we are really growing into an organization,” Sorenson said. “We’re constantly seeing more student leaders buying into the process and really getting involved, and I think that has really been demonstrated and caught the attention of the UW System administration and the Board of Regents.”

Because Student Reps is now regarded as the official student government body in the UW System, the question is the current effectiveness of United Council at UW universities around the state.

Heinselman said that although there was once a relevant place for United Council within the UW System, Student Reps has now filled that role.

“I think the role of Student Reps in our student governments have been elevated way beyond and in a different direction than how United Council was serving the needs of our campus,” said Heinselman. “So I think at some level they have become irrelevant.”

Howard said that she hates that the United Council has a bad reputation in the UW System and the false claims that there is controversy and tension between the organization and Student Reps. She said that United Council is still important to students and universities in Wisconsin because it is constantly working to give voices to students that are underrepresented in the UW System, both by student government and the administration.

“What happened in the past, I feel that that could have left a bad taste in people’s mouths,” Howard said. “As a group we are really trying to better ourselves toward more positive outlooks and outputs.”