As a commuter school, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee isn’t much for fraternities. But the student government, the generic-sounding Student Association (SA), has taken up the torch for flagrant misbehavior.
In the past year, stories in the UWM Post, which has tirelessly investigated SA’s leaders, have depicted former SA President Alex Kostal ordering his office manager to destroy some 800 copies of the Oct. 31, 2011, edition of the Post, which contained an editorial critical of an event hosted by the SA. In another, leaders are seen pilfering mounted minks from an outstate YMCA camp where they attended a leadership conference. Yet another Post scoop identifies Brent Johnson, then-SA vice president, as the source of a glass of 151-proof Everclear that Matt Rosner, a student senator at the time, thought was vodka and promptly chugged. When Rosner became violently ill, they gave him another glass of the stuff, saying it was water. Again, he chugged the transparent booze. Rosner, who later transferred to UW-Stevens Point, likened the incident to a “high school prank.”
Amid a PR disaster, Kostal stepped down, following Johnson, who resigned after sexual assault and harassment allegations were leveled against him by a former member of student government. Those, too, surfaced in the Post. A wave of tipsters followed, feeding the newspaper even more scoops.
“A culture of silence,” as Jim Hill, the associate vice chancellor for student affairs, describes it, had been punctured. “People didn’t speak up when they were offended. Everyone wanted to be seen as a team player.”
Going along to get along, SA members sank into a dangerous milieu.
“What we saw was a culture not much different from the state and national political culture,” Hill says. “Their role models are in Washington, D.C.,
Hoping to right the ship, UWM’s student body elected new leaders earlier this year, but the newly minted president, graduate student Daniel Laughland, stepped down without explanation just a few weeks after taking office. His running mate, Tereza Pelicaric, then a sophomore majoring in global studies, took the reins. The new leadership, as SA leaders before them, will oversee student organization funding and, unlike their predecessors, will undergo training by the university, with an emphasis on sexual harassment.
Rosner characterized most of the harassment he witnessed within the male-dominated SA as sexist and disrespectful comments. Steve Garrison, a reporter at the Post, says fights between student government members could be “outrageously vicious. They were an incestuous group,” he says. “People were dating. They were roommates.”
The SA election earlier this year was shaping up to be an upset overthrowing Allied Student Voice, the party that led student government last year. But someone leaked Facebook messages written by the rival party’s candidate for vice president, Eric Grow, detailing a plot to rig the installation of an SA election commissioner. Grow stepped down, but it was too late for his party, United Panthers, to name a replacement.
Now, fixing the SA’s image is left to remaining officials. One of these, Angela Lang, served as president until the April election. “Everywhere I went, people treated me as if I was responsible for what happened,” she says. “It was pretty bad.”