Rachel Butler, a junior at the UW-Madison, is worried that students are losing their right to decide how their money is used.
"Right now, the ability to use our student fees to support student life and our campus experience is being threatened," says Butler, coordinator for the Student Rights Campaign, part of UW-Madison's student government, Associated Students of Madison (ASM). "This presents a huge problem in students' ability to provide the services we want for our university."
In August, the UW System's Board of Regents created a Segregated Fees Review Committee to review the longstanding policy that defines mandatory segregated student fees as "earmarked" state funds.
At UW-Madison, student fees currently bring in $32 million a year, with each student paying $430 per semester. About $25 million goes for such set costs as the student unions, recreational sports, health care and child care. ASM controls the remaining roughly $7 million.
The UW System has, for the most part, let students decide how to distribute these funds. But Alex Gallagher, a UW-Madison senior and chair of the Student Services Finance Committee, thinks the university wants "to take control" of these funds after it "figured out how much money seg fees generated."
Gallagher says the review committee was formed partly because ASM and the UW administration were arguing about the use of segregated fees to fund off-campus office space for student organizations. These arguments happened after the Roman Catholic Foundation sued the university in 2006 because its student youth group was denied funding.
"Until that point, 'seg fees' as state dollars had never been talked about," says Gallagher. "After the lawsuit, the idea of state dollars became the crucial point, and the university is framing the situation as, 'This is the only definition, we have no choice.'"
Kevin Helmkamp, associate dean of students and a guest member of the review committee, says the UW merely wants to update policies that have caused disagreements in the past.
"The interpretation has always been, 'If it isn't in there, you can do it,'" says Helmkamp. "Much of the longstanding wording is too vague to understand."
Though there will be changes, Helmkamp doesn't anticipate any control being taken away from ASM. He says the only change is what the allocable funds can be spent on.
"The fact that we disagree doesn't mean I am interested in taking anything away from the students," says Helmkamp. "The hope would be that a new system policy will have much greater clarity for everyone."
At its Nov. 8 meeting, the review committee, composed of five administrators and five students, approved a draft policy by a vote of 5-4. All five administrators voted in favor; four students voted against (one was absent). The draft is being reviewed by UW System President Kevin Reilly and will be considered at the board's Dec. 6 meeting.
Gallagher, a member of the committee, says the policy "gives complete discretion to the university to say how student fees are allowed to be used."
The new policy doesn't allow student fees to fund off-campus space for registered student organizations, without special permission. And it doesn't permit student fees to fund the full-time staff of student organizations.
"My opinion, and I know it may be different from some UW-Madison students, is that it is best for the whole student population to have registered student organizations on campus," says Helmkamp, noting that this makes it easier for students to drop by.
Gallagher agrees there needs to be more space on campus for student organizations, but believes that "as the university continues to construct a fence around us, we will have increasingly little latitude to create a system that generates the types of leaders we are known for."
As Gallagher sees it, the debate between ASM and the Regents is really about control, with the university wanting more of it. Helmkamp disagrees.
"ASM's stance that this is an attack on their rights is manipulating the focus away from the core issue of using state money in a wise way," says Helmkamp. "I think students on this campus are given a lot of freedom to make decisions."
Helmkamp says the administration's goal is "to work with ASM as partners, not as adversaries. My vision of shared governance is not throwing hand grenades back and forth at each other, but sitting around a table and talking things through even when we disagree."
David Giroux, spokesman for the UW System, blames ASM for stirring up controversy, saying there's "fiery rhetoric that is more heated than it needs to be."
The UW hopes the new policy will be in effect by the spring semester. That is not welcome news to students like Butler.
"If the current policy draft is approved as is, students will not have the freedom to create programs and services that serve their needs," she says. "Decisions that affect student life will be taken out of the hands of students."
Gallagher says the revised policy may not have immediate major effects, but "the simple act of calling student fees state dollars will have long-reaching implications."