United Council of UW Students is one of the oldest, largest and most effective state student associations in the country and its current story is full of victories and potential, but its history is just as intriguing. After all, where we come from is just as important as where we are or even where we hope to go.

Student councils were the earliest forms of student groups at institutions of higher education. These bodies were usually concerned with social functions: homecoming; formal teas; dances. Although students had been involved in social movements for decades, it was not until after the Korean War (early 1950s), when veterans returned to school, that a student rights movement was truly initiated. Soon, student councils became student associations and the focus began to transition towards issues of social justice instead of social functions.

Our Story

In the 1960s, the student movement became increasingly active as demonstrations, riots and takeovers became popular. To aid in the pursuit of their rights and social change, students began to organize on a statewide level. In 1951, with the addition of a liberal arts curriculum, the nine State Teachers Colleges became the Wisconsin State Colleges (WSC). In 1960 five of the nine WSC schools met at the Stevens Point campus as a “united council”. This body is where the current United Council of UW Students (UC) began although in a much different format. The original body met quarterly to interact on a social, as well as political, basis.

In the early 1970s, legislation was enacted to create one large, public university system. The Wisconsin State Colleges (renamed the Wisconsin State Universities in 1964) merged with the University of Wisconsin, which consisted of Milwaukee and Madison (both offering doctoral degrees) and their extension campuses (Parkside and Green Bay), plus 10 freshman-sophomore campuses (now known as the UW Colleges) and Extension, to form the University of Wisconsin System. The original UW schools were also welcomed into United Council by the WSC schools.

Legislation and State Statutes governing the merger also provided for student rights and responsibilities within System. In 1974, after much lobbying by United Council students and staff, § 36.09(5) was created, granting students a legal share in the “rights and responsibilities” of institutional governance.

Around the same time, state and system student associations (SSAs) expanded their roles to include activism and representation, as well as a focus on change. United Council was no different in this respect. Through the 1970s and 1980s, UC worked on a variety of social and higher education issues ranging from tuition/financial aid to increased student involvement in System governance, from divestiture of South African investments to maintaining 18 as the legal drinking age.

By September of 1978, UC had been granted tax-exempt status from the IRS, but the organization had also begun to feel a severe financial crunch. At their October 1979 meeting, the membership decided to move ahead and develop an alternative funding method that would help to stabilize the fiscal standings of the organization. A motion was made to ask students on each campus, during their fall senate elections, whether or not they would support paying $1.00/year for United Council. The question was run on the five campuses that had such elections and passed by an average of a 3-1 margin on all but one campus.

After reviewing the results, UC decided to proceed with the proposal of a mandatory, refundable (upon request) fee to be charged to all students on member campuses. The Board of Regents approved the final version of this plan in 1980.

In the late 1970’s United Council moved into permanent office space in Madison. Prior to the move, UC had been operated out of the various campuses the student staff attended. Around this time professional staff began to be hired, replacing the former system of electing/appointing students to serve in the positions and represent the interests of the organization.

United Council of UW Students (UC) currently represents approximately 152,000 students on 21 of the 26 UW System campuses. UC is a still a student-operated organization committed to enhancing the quality of student life and higher education. It has grown to include thirteen full-time staff members (Executive Director, Finance and Development Director, Government Relations Director, Communications Director, Inclusivity Director, Field Director, Office Director, Shared Governance Director, and five Regional Field Organizers) who represent students at the Capitol and UW System, while providing information, assistance, support and training to students in order to help them effect change on their individual campuses and in their lives.

The functions of UC can now be categorized as: advocacy; activism; education; and programming. Staff members advocate for students in regular meetings with legislators, administrators, Regents and other key decision-makers. UC employs full-time registered lobbyists to work with the state legislature and several staff members routinely meet with System administration to make sure that students and their interests are consistently represented (since not all UW students can be in Madison all of the time). Staff members also research a multitude of higher education and social justice issues and often compile that information into fact sheets that are distributed to students for campus use. Education is also provided at the many events UC hosts throughout the year, especially the one large conference held annually (Building Unity Student Empowerment Conference).

For years, UC has worked to organize students across the state on a variety of issues. Every two years, students join together to make sure that their interests are provided for in the state’s budget process. UC has also taken to running a coordinated statewide campaign (SWC) each year.

In February 2002, UC adopted a SWC to link financial aid increases to tuition increases. Students from all 24 member campuses (as well as one non-member campus) joined forces to lobby the Legislature and the Governor to include language in the Budget Reform Bill that would provide this link. After hundreds of emails, postcards, letters, faxes and phone calls found their way to the Capitol, the Governor met with UC’s lobbyists and a few days later, signed the link into Wisconsin law, along with many other student-friendly budget provisions. This is a textbook example of the power students wield when organized as one, collective body. It is this power that UC tries to harness when running all of its statewide efforts.

There are many other victories United Council has fought for and won over the years. Here are a few examples from recent years:

  • Wisconsin’s sexual assault statutes to include alcohol as an intoxicant
  • Both student seats on the Board of Regents
  • Passage of “Michelle’s Law” allowing students the ability to retain their health insurance if they have to drop out of full-time enrollment due to illness
  • Tuition remission for Wisconsin Veterans
  • A UW-Colleges tuition freeze for an unprecedented third year in a row
  • Increases in financial aid that effectively freeze tuition for all students from families making less than $60,000 a year
  • Ensuring that students’ rights to legal representation in non-academic conduct hearings are upheld
  • Increase in financial aid funding by $20 million in the 09-11 Biennial Budget
  • Domestic Partnership Benefits for UW System Employees
  • ‘Wisconsin Dream Act’ allowing certain undocumented students in the state of Wisconsin to attend the UW System at in-state tuition levels
  • Rights for UW System faculty and staff to collectively bargain
  • Maintaining a unified system of public higher education in Wisconsin

Higher education remains a powerful avenue for sparking debate and civic engagement in society, and through United Council, the students of Wisconsin ensure access to higher education and its role in provoking thought, discourse, and action.

United Council of UW Students History

1959: The Wisconsin State Colleges merge to become the Wisconsin State University (WSU).

1960: The WSU Student Governments first meet as a united council. Quarterly meetings are held to discuss political issues and hold social events.

1969: Discussion over the lack of continuity from year to year with United Council began, and suggestions were made to hire a full time staff or an advisor.

1971: The legislature authorizes the merger of the University of Wisconsin and the WSU. Green Bay, Madison, Milwaukee and Parkside are invited to join WSU as members of United Council.

1972: The first professional United Council staff is hired. Most staff members at the time were still students; however, they were required to live in Madison.

1974: Chapter 36 passes into law replacing the old chapters 36 (UW) and 37 (WSU) and adding shared governance rights for students under 36.09(5).

1975: Increased services and legal fees for court cases such as UW-Milwaukee SA v. Baum and UW-Oshkosh SA v. Board of Regents necessitated a greater and more stable form of funding.

1979: Complications with the UC budget arise when some campuses continually fail to pay membership dues in a timely manner. Resolutions are put forward to limit the voting rights of campuses failing to pay dues on time. UC efforts to create a more stable funding source begin.

1980: In order to provide UC with a stable funding source, the Board of Regents, on the sole recommendation of UC, create the Mandatory Refundable Fee and referenda policy. The MRF is set at $0.50 per student per semester. Chief student personnel officers (currently known as chief student affairs officers) express strong opposition to such a fee.

1991: The Board of Regents approves an increase of the MRF to $0.75 a semester. A requirement that notice be mailed three days prior to any referenda and limits on refunds of the MRF to 45 days after the start of classes are also approved.

1995: The Board of Regents clarifies that student governments are not required to run referenda. Notice prior to a referendum is extended to two weeks. Referenda language is also limited to only what is provided for in Regent policy.

1996: The Board of Regents approves an increase of the MRF to $0.95 a semester.

1999: The Board of Regents approves an increase of the MRF to $1.35 a semester and ensures that campuses are no longer assessing a 5% administrative fee to MRF revenue.

2000: UW System Administration (UWSA) creates and fully funds the Student Ambassadors Council, which carries out some of the same work as United Council but under UWSA direction. Members are handpicked by Chancellors and have no association with student governments.

2004: The Board of Regents sets the MRF at $2.00 per semester per student.

2004-08: 25 of 26 UW System campuses were at some point members of United Council during this time period, an all time high since the inclusion of two-year campuses as full members.

2005: In response to an outcry from student government presidents UW System reorganizes the Student Ambassadors Council into Student Representatives, made up of the student President and Vice President of each campus.

2008: United Council restructures, utilizing the input of students, Regents, staff, administrators and an independent consultant, to better serve the needs and wishes of students.

2009: Membership in United Council reaches a modern low of 15 campuses, which includes the loss of UW-Milwaukee in spring of 2010.

2010: In response to full implementation of the new United Council structure and Student Representatives’ initiative to merge with United Council, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Platteville,UW-Milwaukee and Superior all rejoin United Council, bringing membership to 21 of 26 campuses and approximately 150,000 of 180,000 total UW System students.

2011: The Budget Repair adds a new chapter to politics in Wisconsin, and students are deeply affected by cuts, student and TA unions, and future of teaching in Wisconsin. United Council stands at a strong 21 of 26 campuses with approximately 150,000 students.