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UW-Madison Student Government Pushes To Offer COVID-19 Rental Assistance To Students

Campus Administrators Say So-Called 'COVID-19 Student Relief Fund' Isn't Allowed Under Campus, UW System Policies

Bascom Hall on the UW-Madison campus
A student walks in front of Bascom Hall on the UW-Madison campus. Richard Hurd

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s student government says administrators are blocking its attempt to provide rental assistance to those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The body is pushing forward with its plans and has even hinted at legal action if it continues to face resistance from administration.

On Tuesday night, the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) passed a vote of no confidence against UW-Madison Vice Chancellor for Finance Laurent Heller. Members said Heller and other administrators have been misleading them about the legality of setting up a “COVID-19 Student Relief Fund.” That fund would channel around $2 million in what are called segregated fees to provide rental assistance while prioritizing international students and students who are living in the country illegally.

During the meeting, ASM chair Matthew Mitnick read a resolution that accused Heller of blocking the relief fund and “sharing intentionally misleading legal arguments to maintain his job rather than protect students.”

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“Decisions must be made in a collaborative fashion that puts the primary responsibility of decision-making in the hands of those most impacted and allow students to participate in the administration of this university,” said Mitnick. “We declare no confidence in Laurent Heller.”

ASM members argue the body can use reserve funds from fees collected on top of tuition to offer direct aid to students who are unable to pay for housing because of income loss caused by the pandemic. Administrators, including Heller, have told the group that campus, UW System policies and even state law don’t allow segregated fees to be used for direct aid.

In an emailed statement, UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone said the university has full confidence in Heller and other vice chancellors that have been criticized by ASM.

“The divisive tactics that some in ASM are using this year do not serve the best interests of students or the principles of shared governance,” said McGlone.

The statement also reiterated that using segregated fees for rental assistance payments would violate state statutes and UW System policy.

“It’s unfortunate that some in ASM, rather than working with the university to provide aid to students in lawful ways, continue to pursue an impossible effort to misappropriate $2 million in student funds,” McGlone said.

During the ASM’s public comment session, student Kaitlin Barbara Kons railed against campus administration for blocking the effort, forcing students and employees to return to campus during the pandemic last fall, and not listening to students about what their needs are during the pandemic and how administration can help.

“Let students take matters into their own hands,” Kons said. “Send a message to the administration that students can’t be stopped and that they’ve screwed up on pandemic policy from the start.”

ASM vowed to keep working on the student relief fund, but said their efforts have been delayed by the objections from administrators. The body has previously said it would consider legal options if they continue to face resistance.

Editor’s note: Wisconsin Public Radio is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.