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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 78.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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UW-Madison students seek control over how their fees are spent
University officials argue the chancellor has the final say
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Billeaux at a symbolic 'grade-in' to make graduate work visible to administrators.
Billeaux at a symbolic 'grade-in' to make graduate work visible to administrators.

Everyone knows about the problem of rising tuition. Now, a new battle is shaping up at the University of Wisconsin-Madison over associated fees.

The conflict is being waged on two fronts. Associated Students of Madison (ASM), the student government, is concerned about how dollars generated by fees are distributed and by whom. Is it ultimately their job or the chancellor's?

Meanwhile, the Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA) believes that its union members should be excused from paying fees, with the value considered part of their salary. The UW administration downplays these disputes.

The two student organizations are coordinating to an extent, and want to do so more in the months ahead. ASM's timeline for action is long, perhaps taking years. The TAA's is shorter. As a start, the union wants a process put in place for "structured dialogue" with the administration by the end of the summer.

Contentious past

Whether you take one credit or 20 on the Madison campus, Associated Students of Madison represents you. You also pay fees. They are excused only for "guest students," who audit, without credit.

In the UW System they are called "segregated" fees -- that is, the dollars are separate from other revenue. For the most part they go toward student activities and student organizations, including ASM, and once in a while for the construction of buildings "that have been approved by a student referenda vote," such as Union South.

Fees have been periodically contentious. In 1996 three Madison students sued the university and its governing Board of Regents to opt out of paying fees that went toward activities they considered objectionable. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court; the students lost.

For the spring 2014 semester, a full-time Wisconsin resident undergraduate taking 12 or more credits paid $565 in fees and $5,201 in tuition. A resident graduate student taking eight or more credits paid $565 in fees and $5,928 in tuition. Fees are the same whether you're a resident of Wisconsin or another state.

Only student government can spend fee revenue. In ASM's 2014 fiscal year, fee expenditures will total more than $43.3 million.

Symbolic gesture

ASM's concerns about segregated fees are best illustrated by how many dollars the group awarded the Wisconsin Union for 2014.


ASM refused the Union's entire $10.1 million operating budget request.

"Even doing so, we all kind of knew the chancellor was going to overturn it," says Devon Maier, chair of ASM's Student Services Finance Committee "It was more of a symbolic gesture."

There are two categories of segregated fee expenditures: what the university calls "allocable," which go to student organizations and activities; and "nonallocable," which tend to go toward UW "units" that require dependable, predictable budget numbers, such as University Health, recreational sports and the Union. ASM pretty much has a free hand with allocable funds, but nonallocable disbursements have to be made "in consultation" with the chancellor.

Associated Students of Madison wasn't completely grandstanding when it voted down the Union's budget. "We have nothing against the Union, but we get student organization budgets that are $75,000 to $80,000, and it's a seven-page Excel sheet and 40 or 80 pages of explanations," says Maier. "And then we get the Union's $10 million budget, and it's even shorter than a lot of student groups."

Maier admits that the Union satisfied the minimum budget requirements mandated by UW policy. "But you see a $600,000 line on a spreadsheet, and it's really hard to tell what that is. Is this going toward places that, one, we want it to go and, two, we are legally allowed to go?"

Maier reports that relations with Chancellor Rebecca Blank are good, that she's sympathetic and engaged, and that ASM and the Union are together fashioning a more cooperative process for the future. But the bigger issue remains: Should a chancellor be able to overturn student government's fee decisions at all?

UW System and Regents policies and rules support the chancellor having the final say. Student government's trump card is the enabling legislation, Wisconsin statute 36.09(5), which states that "Students in consultation with the chancellor and subject to the final confirmation of the board [of Regents] shall have the responsibility for the disposition of those student fees which constitute substantial support for campus student activities."

The administration takes the view that "students in consultation with the chancellor" means the chancellor decides. ASM says it means the opposite. Whose definition is correct?

Darrell Bazzell, UW-Madison vice chancellor for finance and administration, says, "Attorneys at both our campus and UW System level have looked at this issue a number of times, and their conclusion is that the chancellor has the final word on this issue of nonallocable fees."

The Teaching Assistants' Association isn't so sure. If the chancellor controls fee dollars, then they aren't "segregated" at all, the union argues.

"Segregated fees [can be seen to] represent this sort of backdoor tuition," says Michael Billeaux, co-president of the TAA. "That's something that we care a lot about, and we share that concern with the undergraduates."

'Intolerable burden'

The TAA calculates that fees for its members have risen as much as 98% since 2003 (graduate fees vary according to the number of credits taken). ASM calculates that fees jumped 10% for all students just in the last three years.

Billeaux says segregated fees represent an 8% to 13% loss for TAA members, depending on what they are paid. "That's an intolerable burden for many of our members, many of whom are already in precarious kinds of financial situations. Some have kids, some have other dependents."

Bazzell disagrees with those figures. "Last year we gave them [a wage] increase of over 4%. I think at that time that action brought down this [cost] percentage to 6%, in terms of how much of their gross take-home pay is now used to cover the area of segregated fees."

The TAA says it has already taken that into consideration. It began a campaign over fees in spring 2013 that has included member education, letter-writing efforts, a web page and a "grade-in" at Bascom Hall. Members have also made a presentation to the faculty senate and plan to ask for a resolution of support.

Billeaux claims that "virtually all UW peer institutions remit, in whole or part, student fees for graduate employees."

"Many [UW] departments lose students to other institutions where take-home pay is higher," he says. "People in many cases are quite resentful, even though they care about the services that fees provide. But they think, correctly, that it should be part of their compensation as an employee of the university, just as it is for other employees of the university, who in fact don't pay segregated fees."

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