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Sunday, February 28, 2021

University is right to block ASM’s COVID relief fund

The Associated Students of Madison (ASM) are seeking to create a $2 million COVID-19 student relief fund despite numerous reminders from University officials that the fund can't legally move forward as proposed. 

ASM has responded to reminders regarding their fund's legality by publicly excoriating University officials for not conceding to their demands. ASM leaders have attempted to put pressure on the University by publicizing their internal discord — and in some cases, providing misleading statements regarding the actions and intentions of the University. 

The debate surrounding the legality of ASM's proposed relief fund is complicated. Rather than engaging in hearsay, both critics and supporters of ASM's efforts should ensure they understand the proposal. 

Each semester, undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison pay $734.30 as part of their "segregated fees." Segregated fees are defined as charges, in addition to tuition, assessed to all students for student services, activities, programs and facilities that support the mission of University of Wisconsin System institutions.

Initially, ASM proposed a plan that would take $2 million from segregated fees and give that money to students whom ASM deems worthy. This proposal was a blatant violation of UW System Policy 820 – which prohibits segregated fees from being used to give direct financial aid to enrolled students. 

To combat the illegality of the first proposal, ASM proposed an alternative plan. 

Under UW System Policy 820, segregated fees are permitted to be used to provide direct financial aid or stipends to student government leaders. 

The new plan proposed the creation of a new student government leadership position: Mask Ambassadors. ASM would unilaterally create the "Mask Ambassador" position and then decide who can become a "Mask Ambassador." Mask Ambassadors would then receive money either directly from ASM or administered by a contracted organization. The money would be coming directly from student's segregated fees.  

ASM claims that under this proposal, they retain the legal ability to use segregated fees to provide direct financial aid to any student they choose. This claim is made under the presumption that "Mask Ambassadors" are considered student government leaders. 

The argument that ASM is presenting is as follows:

  1. Mask Ambassadors are Student Government Leaders.
  2. UW System Policy 820 permits segregated fees to be used to provide direct financial aid or stipends to student government leaders.
  3. Therefore, Mask Ambassadors are permitted to receive direct financial aid or stipends.

The problem with ASM's new proposal is that their first premise is not valid. Mask Ambassadors are not Student Government Leaders, for they are not elected. They do not hold any unique leadership responsibilities that resemble a student government leader.

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Therefore, their relief fund violates UW System Policy 820, rendering it illegal and unable to be implemented. 

If we could sidestep the first violation and Mask Ambassadors were to be recognized as Student Government Leaders, the UW System would operate under the premise that student governments can simply create a Student Government Leadership Position for the sole purpose of providing them with funding. 

The University understands that the COVID-19 student relief fund violates UW System Policy 820 and has communicated this reality with ASM. 

Vice-Chancellor for Finance and Administration Laurent Heller rightfully blocked ASM's COVID-19 Student Relief Fund. Heller stated in a letter to ASM, "the use of segregated university fees cannot be used for rent and utility support for individual students."

And how did ASM respond to Heller?

They passed a vote of "No Confidence" in the Vice Chancellor. They accused him of "sharing intentionally misleading legal arguments to maintain his job rather than protecting students, and rejecting shared governance, which states that decisions must be made in a collaborative fashion that puts the primary responsibility of decision making in the hands of those most impacted."

Following the vote of no confidence, the Chairman of ASM stated, "It's about time administrators lose their egos and stop their power grab so that students don't have to keep doing their jobs for them."

In accusing Heller of sharing misleading legal arguments, ASM is wearing their hypocrisy on their sleeves. ASM cannot unilaterally create a leadership position with no leadership responsibilities and use this to justify providing individual students with rental and utility assistance. A leader without any leadership responsibilities is not a leader. 

Other University officials were not immune from criticism either — the ASM Chairman also accused Dean of Students Christina Olstad’s calls for collaboration "empty words and empty promises." 

The visceral treatment of University officials is especially pitiful given that University officials have communicated that they share the same goals as ASM — despite the COVID-19 relief fund not being a feasible proposition. 

Olstad recently provided students with resources and emergency funds available to help them navigate this year. 

Olstad emphasized the University's "Emergency Support Program," — which allows students who are facing emergency financial hardship and unable to meet immediate, essential expenses to apply for an "Emergency Support Request." Requests do not discriminate based on residence or citizenship status.

She also highlighted the University's "basic needs assistants," which help students find internet/technology, childcare, housing, employment and more. Along with underscoring available resources for food assistance and mental health services — the Dean offers all students to connect with her office for any further assistance. 

The University and ASM share the same goals. They both want to help students in need — and these are not only their jobs, but also admirable goals. 

While ASM seems intent on misleading the public regarding the legality of their COVID-19 student relief fund and disgracefully shaming University Officials, the University is trying to move forward and provide students with expansive and immediate assistance.

Tripp is a Sophomore Studying Political Science with certificates in Political Economy, Philosophy, and Politics. Do you think the UW Administration is trying to move forward with COVID-19 student relief? Send all comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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