Wisconsin Student Lobby – why?

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I first heard of the WSL back in May, when Badger Herald chief Jason Smathers, attempting to guess who I was (I was an anonymous blogger for a couple weeks) suggested I was associated with the organization. I was hoping he was talking about some covert operation to overthrow Biddy Martin, Gov. Jim Doyle, or both. Unfortunately all he was referring to was a group of student government geeks who believe the student voice has been marginalized at the State Capitol, and have begun to set up a means of advocating for the interests of UW-Madison to state legislators: the Wisconsin Student Lobby.

Note the word UW-Madison. Not for UW system students, not  for Wisconsin students, not for Madison students. For UW-Madison students.

The focus on UW-Madison students is what has been sorely lacking for decades at the Capitol. United Council, the self-proclaimed student lobby for students in the UW system, has an obligation to five of the 13 four year campuses as well as UW-Fond du Lac. Nothing illustrates the point better than UC’s recent successful campaign for a tuition freeze on two year colleges. Just in case you forgot, tuition is certainly not freezing on the Madison campus.

It’s not as if the idea of student lobbying is especially new on campus. The Associated Students of Madison, UW’s miserable student government, has had a “Legislative Affairs” committee since the days of yore. It just never meets – or at least it didn’t last semester after its chair quit in November.

WSL, in its first year of operation, has already begun meeting with legislators. It is a group focused entirely on lobbying, with seven paid positions to be funded by student segregated fees. It’s president, Patrick McEwen, a nuclear engineering major whose initial interest in lobbying was fueled by his desire to lobby for nuclear power someday, has an uncanny ability to research and retain the driest of details on higher education statutes and policy.

When Rep. Mark Gottlieb introduced a proposal to subject student governments to open records law, McEwen and other WSL members were quick to note the devil in the details, and met with Gottlieb to make sure the law would apply to the student council, for instance, but not individual organizations that demand certain degrees of privacy, such as the student judiciary committee, or groups that offer counseling services.

That’s not to say WSL will be able to strong-arm a student wishlist on to the governor’s desk any time soon. For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be a wishlist to begin with.  Its leaders are very reluctant to even discuss a policy agenda or to articulate positions on student-related issues. McEwen says the group is currently focused on filling staff positions and talking to politicians and students. However, the group’s low profile may suggest that the group is high on brains and low on brawn. I was astounded when McEwen used particularly diplomatic language to describe Rep. Stephen Nass (R-Whitewater), the most outspoken anti-education demagogue in the legislature. “I think he’s misunderstood,” he said in reference to the man who advocating the state cut all funding from the UW law school.

In some respects the WSL is a breath of fresh air in a city full of activists who often care very much about ideas and very little about facts. It’s a place where shades of gray are discussed ad nauseam, with the interest of the UW-Madison student always in mind. However, lobbying involves convincing politicians – and politicians often respond best to politics. That means louder activism to attract more members, including a more visible presence online. Right now the group’s blog is nice looking but it hasn’t been updated in more than a month. Nevertheless, they have done a pretty good job updating their Twitter feed, and seem to keep followers tuned into state politics.

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