A matter of fairness – why does ASM exclude some students?

[Note: This is very long, I know. It’s meant for ASM Council members, to help speed debate on Saturday. I’m sure it hurts as a blog post]

Over the next few days, thousands of students, most fresh out of high school, will start to arrive on campus. However, many of these students won’t actually be Freshmen, at least according to the UW’s classification.

Colloquially, freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior match up with the four years of an undergraduate degree. The UW’s precise definition is based on the number of credits a student has, with a freshman being any student with fewer than 24 credits.  This classification is useful for academics. For example, it can say that a certain class requires that a student have some experience with college-level work before attempting it, or that a class is designed for new college students and upperclassmen should not take it.

With the proliferation of AP courses and other opportunities to earn college credit before arriving at UW-Madison, starting college as a sophomore (or higher) is not at all uncommon. 15 years ago, when ASM was founded, it was likely that only a handful of students fell into this category. In the fall of 2008, about 500 694 students did.

In 2001, future ASM Chair Austin Evans tried to run in the ASM Fall election for a “Freshman” seat. The Student Election Commission denied him eligibility, because he had more than 24 credits of AP work. The Student Judiciary ultimately confirmed that he was not eligible to run, unwilling to accept Austin’s argument that common sense should prevail, and that he obviously was a freshman by society’s definition.  In 2008, current SSFC Chair Brandon Williams was also unable to run as a freshman.

In 2001, the SJ ordered itself to evaluate the election process and issue rules to define who is eligible to run as a freshman. It does not appear that it ever did so. The SJ also left open the possibility of  “an alternative conception of the freshmen district beside the one used now.” As a matter of common-sense fairness, ASM should more carefully define the term “freshman” in the ASM bylaws and fully engage all of the newest students.

The ASM Constitution allows for the bylaws to create districts based on “reasonable academic units.” The SJ has interpreted this to mean some characteristic that the University tracks that can be used to tranche students, school or college being the most obvious way. Academic standing is another.

The Registrar already tracks students in a variety of ways, and can give us ready access to a list of students meeting any of these classifications:

First Year Students: an undergraduate student that has never previously attended a post-secondary institution (regardless of academic level i.e. freshman, sophomore, etc.)

Transfer students: an undergraduate student that is transferring from another post-secondary institution, but has never previously attended UW Madison.

Re-Entry student: a student that has previously attended UW Madison, but has been inactive for at least two consecutive semesters.

Re-entry/Transfer: a student that has previously attended UW Madison, but has been inactive for at least two consecutive semesters and also attended another institution and is now transferring that work back to UW Madison.

New Student: applies only to graduate students and professional students.

The UW is getting good at using ‘First Year Student’ for many of its programs, but there are places where it gets a bit sloppy and identifies a group of students as “Freshmen”. The Data Digest, UW’s official publication that has just about every fact and figure you could want to know about the UW, uses “Freshmen” in many places where it really means ‘First Year Student’. (In other places, it uses “Freshmen” and really means students with under 24 credits.)

It is my contention that at a minimum, the ASM bylaws should define a freshman as a “First Year Student”. That will restore voting rights, and the right to be a candidate, to 500 694 students. It is hard to imagine disenfranchising these students was anything but an oversight 15 years ago, and regardless of original motivation, restoring it now is the right thing to do. This is what I call ‘Option One’. Here’s the language:

Renumber section 6.02(1) to section 6.02(1)(a). Create section 6.02(1)(b) to read:

For the purposes of participating in the fall election, ‘Freshman’ shall mean any undergraduate ASM member classified as a ‘First Year Student’ by the Registrar.

Now, let’s consider a bigger picture. ASM seats are divided up into districts – Letters and Science Undergrads, the Law School, CALS, etc. Every single student – including the new ‘First Year Students’, are a member of one of those districts. (Freshmen who will ultimately be in Business or Ed start out in L&S) Are they dually represented, if they have both Freshmen Representatives and the reps from their school? Yes, but we’ve been OK with that. The idea is that students who weren’t on campus in the spring should have some chance to participate,  by voting and/or by running, and so some seats are set aside for a fall election, as the “Freshman” seats.

So, what about transfer students? That’s another 1200 undergraduate students who weren’t on campus last spring and who didn’t get to vote or run in the election. We haven’t worried about them, because they had representation from the reps already elected from their school. But, using that logic, there’s no reason to have an election for Freshmen representatives, because they’re also already represented by the reps from their school. Any argument that you can make for allowing Freshmen to participate in a fall election also applies to a transfer student – including that we need their perspective on the council. Therefore, in the interest of fairness and enfranchising as many students as possible, here is ‘Option Two.’ Here’s the language:

Renumber section 6.02(1) to section 6.02(1)(a). Create section 6.02(1)(b) to read:

For the purposes of participating in the fall election, ‘Freshman’ shall mean any undergraduate ASM member classified as a ‘First Year Student’ or ‘Transfer Student’ by the Registrar.

You should be able to see where this is going. New Graduate and Professional students are also represented by people they didn’t vote for nor did they have an opportunity to run for a seat. This is perhaps even a bigger problem for some graduate students, because there are masters programs that can be finished in two semesters. That means, for some students, they enter the University in September, get their first chance to vote in April, and graduate in May. We can do better by them.

That brings us to ‘Option Three’, which I will be moving to the floor on the August 22nd 2009 meeting. The language is:

Renumber section 6.02(1) to section 6.02(1)(a). Create section 6.02(1)(b) to read:

For the purposes of participating in the fall election, ‘Freshman’ shall mean any ASM member classified as a ‘First Year Student’, ‘Transfer Student’, or ‘New Student’ by the Registrar.

This effectively enfranchises every student, and guarantees that everyone will have the opportunity, in his or her first semester on campus, to fully participate in ASM. Reentry students had an opportunity to vote before they left, but we could create an option four to address them:

Renumber section 6.02(1) to section 6.02(1)(a). Create section 6.02(1)(b) to read:

For the purposes of participating in the fall election, ‘Freshman’ shall mean any ASM member who was not an ASM member the previous spring.

I won’t be moving this to the floor, because I’m most interested in engaging students who have never participated in an ASM election, but I wanted to provide option four in case anyone wanted to go there.

Now for the really wonkish part: the Constitutional question involved. There are two lines from the ASM Constitution to consider here:

VII.1 Freshman Representatives shall be ASM members who are freshmen, elected at the Fall elections. Seats shall be apportioned among reasonable academic units by law every four years.

And VII.2

Shall serve for one year. No person may serve more than two full terms as SC Representative. Terms for all Representatives except the Freshman Representatives shall begin May 1st. Terms for the Freshman Representatives shall begin immediately after the Fall elections.

Let’s start with the easiest thing first: It is completely within the Council’s power to create a new “district” for “First Year, Transfer, and New Students” and allocate it five seats, and say that there are zero Freshman seats on the council. The problem is that the terms don’t line up, and only the Freshman seats run October-October. If we created a new district, the term would still expire on April 30th.

Is the plan to redefine ‘Freshman’ Constitutional? Yes. The SJ has already ruled that the definition of the ‘Freshman’ district could be redefined. Could it be redefined so far that it included new graduate students? That’s the rub. The constitution just says ‘ASM members who are freshmen.’ I think it’s pretty clear this is completely compatible with Option One.  It’s more of a stretch for Option Two and Three, but I think it’s within the Council’s power to define the term. The SJ may have to decide. That actually gets very complicated, because in order for the SJ to get involved, an ASM member has to be “harmed.” In this case, it would have to be a “freshman” who was harmed. Given that the most likely outcome is only “freshmen” will win seats, it’s most likely the case that no “freshman” will be harmed.

If we want to be completely safe, a simple constitutional amendment could be added, which would change VII.1 and VII.2 to change “Freshman” to “New Student”. If it were to pass, we’d be completely set: no challenge to the redefinition of ‘Freshman’ could be filed until after the election, but as soon as election is over and the amendment passes, there’s no longer any basis to file a challenge.  We’ll call that the ‘Constitutional Amendment Option’, and it will be a separate resolution, but they should be discussed together. It would read something like:

Shall the ASM Constitution, sections VII.1, VII.2, and VII.3 be amended to change ‘Freshman’  to ‘New Student’, which would allow for more students to run and vote in the Fall election?

(The SEC/SJ would also place the two versions of the text on the ballot)

OK, if you’ve gotten this far, congratulations. The hope is that by laying out four different versions, covering nearly every possibility, it will be easy for other council members to easily offer substitute motions, and keep the debate moving quickly. We’ll see if it just makes things more complicated or if actually helps.


1 comment so far

  1. Ronald Crandall on

    I think the first idea is great, all new ‘first year’ students should be put under ‘first year’ for representation. However, new grads and transfers, should be under a separate representation.

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