After strange day the Wisconsin Idea survives.

by Harry on February 12, 2015

So here’s roughly what happened.

Last Tuesday (Feb 3) our Governor proposed his budget. Now, as you may remember, he has a habit of putting things in the budget that don’t look especially connected to the budget except insofar as, of course, everything is connected to the budget. So it wasn’t so surprising, I suppose, that, alongside the very substantial and potentially devastating $300 million dollar cut to the UW system (the system, by the way, is comprised by 22 different campuses, some 2-year, others 4-year, and others including substantial numbers of graduate and professional programs, so it is not just UW-Madison), proposed changes to the mission of the system. One change, which although lots of people are unhappy with it, seems to me entirely reasonable, and also trivial since it is already implied on any reasonable interpretation of our already stated mission, is that we should help “meet the state’s workforce needs”. However, along with this came other changes – numerous deletions, which amounted to at best a watering down and at worst the elimination of what we call The Wisconsin Idea, the idea that the university is here to serve the state very broadly, in terms of producing and disseminating knowledge that is valuable for the residents, public institutions, and businesses of the State.

I got an email from a journalist fairly early on Wednesday, after I had heard about the proposals, but before I had scrutinized them (because I was preparing for a class, the students in which I live in a kind of horror of disappointing, as our Governor would be pleased to know), asking what I thought about the proposals. After reading them carefully, I responded that I didn’t want to say anything publicly, because the proposals looked so eccentric to me that I had no understanding of what was going on. And I am cautious about being quoted in public about university matters, because I don’t want to be off-message, and didn’t know at the time how the leadership of my campus (in whom I’m happy to say, I have a great deal of, fortunately justified, confidence, and from whom I am happy to take leadership) would respond. But I did say that I thought the proposed changes were distinctly odd.

Here are what seemed to me that most eccentric changes. The following phrases were all deleted from the mission:

“Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth”
“Which makes effective and efficient use of human and physical resources; which functions cooperatively with other educational institutions and systems”
“Which stresses undergraduate teaching as its main priority”

Let’s start with truth.

Now, I know this won’t be a popular view everywhere, but I have always thought of the (Wisconsin) legislators in both parties as tacit allies when it comes to truth. We might disagree about what is true, but we agreed, I thought, that when we disagreed, there was some truth of the matter about which we disagreed: only the postmodernists, I thought, disagreed with us about that; and I was alarmed that their influence seemed to have spread to the Governor’s office.

Equally eccentric seemed the removal of the commitment to using our resources effectively and efficiently. As Bowen and Tobin note in Locus of Authority, faculty are often resistant to the language of cost-effectiveness and efficiency. I, personally, am quite eager to use the increasingly limited resources available to the university as efficiently as possible, so I was equally alarmed that the faculty seemed to have gained such influence in the Governor’s office.

Strangest of all, though, was this proposed deletion:

“which stresses undergraduate teaching as its main priority”

Now, this seemed strange for a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, undergraduate education is central to the mission of the institution. Although at UW-Madison we have as many graduate and professional students as we do undergraduates, most of the graduate students are here because the undergraduates are here, and a very large proportion of our professional students are recruited from the undergraduate pool. Take away the undergraduates and the whole enterprise is done for. Obviously, we could make a decision to, over time, shift our emphasis to graduate and professional education, and gradually divest ourselves of the undergraduates (that’s the one thing that would convince me to leave, at this point, if I thought it was going to happen within the period that remains of my working life, which, of course, even if it started now, it couldn’t). But you’d expect that choice to be the result of some sort of public deliberation. And I would expect the initiative to come from the campus itself, and not from the legislature, and certainly not from a Republican Governor.
Still less from a Republican Governor who, only days earlier, had made a speech saying that faculty do not teach enough students (by which he clearly meant undergraduate students). I would welcome a serious profession-wide deliberation about the balance of research and undergraduate teaching, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, but having him say what he did made that a harder conversation to have. But the view I would advance in that, at present very-difficult-to-have conversation would be that the central problem is not that we don’t work hard enough, but that we don’t work smart enough – our profession has a lamentably weak infrastructure for ensuring continual improvement in instructional practice, and gives faculty too much leeway to design the curriculum around their interests rather than around the students’ needs. So, I was irritated by his comments because I thought they were counterproductive; but, regardless, the proposed change flew in the face of his very recently stated, and widely reported, comments. Basically, this was the deletion that made me disbelieve that the the Governor wasn’t behind the whole package of changes.

My guess, in fact, is that Walker had very little to do with the proposed changes. He must, surely, be spending many hours a day on the phone to potential donors at this point, no? His first public comments were supportive but my guess is that those comments were based on the assumption that he should trust his team and publicly support them. Within a few hours it was well understood what the proposals were, and every single public comment from everyone of significance – including, I should say, senior Republican officials who are, generally, not at all known as uncritical supporters of either UW-Madison or the system as a whole – was negative to the point of ridicule. It was a remarkable testimony to how popular the Wisconsin Idea is, and how deeply it infuses the culture of the state. The whole episode was worth living through, just to find that out. Once it was clear the proposed deletions were dead in the water, Walker (quite properly I thought), instead of throwing his team under the bus, blamed the proposals on a “drafting error” and a “simple miscommunication during the natural back and forth of this process”. Lots of people are now disputing this, and think that the changes were an attempt to pander to the Republican base, and I can see why the reference to the state’s workforce needs might do that (though, again, I do think that is an entirely legitimate part of our mission, both because students have a reasonable expectation that we prepare them for useful employment, and because the residents of the state, who pay for a significant part of the enterprise have a reasonable expectation that we have some concern with preparing high quality teachers, nurses, accountants, early childhood teachers, and human resources managers, just to name professions that a number of recent graduates I have taught have entered. Speaking for myself, I could also live without the snotty comments about trade schools that some critics of this proposal have been coming out with). But it doesn’t explain the removal of the ideas that we should be efficient, that we should prioritize undergraduate teaching, or that we should hand the whole operation over to the postmodernists and the relativists. None of these ideas has much purchase with the Republican base, does it?

More on the whole event here.

Note: I’m cautious about trying to direct comments, for fear of having the counterproductive effect that Daniel’s last effort to do so had (though, if you can produce that level of wit, I don’t really care what you do), but I’d appreciate it if people would refrain from just being rude about Republicans: I don’t have time to moderate the comments today, and ranting really wouldn’t serve much purpose right now.



Donald A. Coffin 02.12.15 at 6:21 pm

Personally, I see it as a mix of pandering to the base and carelessness/stupidity on someone’s part. Deleting the efficiency language seems to fall clearly in the careless/stupid part, as does the deletion of the emphasis on undergraduate education.

This deletion, though–““Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth”–seems clearly to be pandering, and I would emphasize “…the search for…” part of it. If the TRUTH is known, then one need no search for it, one need merely acknowledge and serve it. The notion that a university has a mission to “…search for truth…” implies that there are truths not yet known, and that is seen by any number of people as unsettling or subversive. Deletion of that part of the mission, I can believe Walker would have been fully behind and fully supportive of.


js. 02.12.15 at 6:37 pm

Can someone direct me to the full mission statement? I found this and this, but neither seem to contain the offending clauses. I’m just curious to see a bit of context because the idea of deleting any of the mentioned clauses being is astonishingly weird.


js. 02.12.15 at 6:38 pm

Oh, jesus, I’m an idiot. Trying to do this way too fast. Please completely disregard my previous comment. In fact, it is so embarrassing, I wish somebody would delete it.


Main Street Muse 02.12.15 at 6:44 pm

“[Walker] has a habit of putting things in the budget that don’t look especially connected to the budget except insofar as, of course, everything is connected to the budget.”

These language changes are NOT an attempt to pander to the base (and just what the hell has happened to WI? For most of my life, growing up just south of the WI border, WI was a fairly normal, fairly even-keeled state with much support for its state university – not radically red at all back in the day!!]

When you see something inflammatory – like these language changes – in a public debate, this is a relatively common tactic used by people who want to focus the discussion on something they can negotiate over – and later give up. If they budge with the language, they’ll be firm with the budget. And please, do not underestimate Walker’s role in this – his fingerprints are all over it – even if he’s doing the donor’s bidding – he’s doing it – in public – for all to see.

Remember – his true focus is to shred the budget (which will give him what he really wants, the destruction of higher ed in WI.) A LOT OF media attention was focused on the language he wanted to remove. LESS focus has been paid (at least with national media) over the actual cuts – these cuts are truly his baby – THIS is what he really wants to accomplish.

I am in a state that has been dealing with an anti-education budget for four years now. The budget cuts are devastating – but the students are not yet fully aware of the impact. The system president – lauded by the BOG – was unceremoniously fired a few weeks ago – supposedly to make way for Art Pope. That’s a terrifying concept – to have a man who LOATHES all of education at the helm of one of the most influential state university systems.

I feel for you Harry – it’s mind-boggling – the hatred of higher ed expressed by some elected officials. You are very, very lucky to have GOP legislators who disagree with their governor. We do not have that here. Good luck…


cassander 02.12.15 at 8:06 pm

According to their website, the UW system’s annual budget is 6 billion dollars. Is 5% the threshold for “devastating” cuts these days? For the record, the budget in the href=””>2011/12 year was 5.6 billion, and I don’t recall any stories from them about packs of feral adjuncts preying on the freshmen, but perhaps I missed them. Can we please have a sense of proportion, here? If want the right to stop treating you as if you value the expansion of the state for its own sake, it would help if you didn’t treat every minor reduction in state financing of anything as a civilization ending catastrophe.


Main Street Muse 02.12.15 at 8:44 pm

Dear Cassander, if you looked at the big picture, you would note that the state of Wisconsin apparently only funds a portion of the overall budget – about $1 billion, according to Wausau Daily Herald ( So in terms of the overall reduction in the state’s commitment to higher ed, it’s more like a 13% reduction in state support. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Walker also notes that as the state will provide less money, tuition will be frozen for two years, so it will impossible to make up the loss in state funds there. In exchange, UW campuses get more autonomy to negotiate contracts with vendors. What a horrible business model for ANY large organization!


The Raven 02.13.15 at 12:49 am

I think it’s likely that the language came from one of the right-wing organizations, perhaps the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, or some other dark corner.


cassander 02.13.15 at 1:19 am

@Main Street Muse

I’m aware, I don’t see how it’s relevant. Surely the university cares more about how much money it gets than exactly from whom. And I doubt that the only support the state gives is in the form of the official budget bottom line.


Jerry Vinokurov 02.13.15 at 1:21 am

Hey, maybe running a state-wide public university system just takes a lot of money.


The Raven 02.13.15 at 1:26 am

Jerry Vinokurov@9: you’re making sense again. Cut that out!


Alan White 02.13.15 at 1:38 am

Thanks Harry for the OP and MSM for chiming in. As Harry knows, I teach in the same System as he but at one of the smaller 2-year transfer schools. We are desperate. This semester we are firing people on staff, cutting back hours for others, telling a number of lecturers that they won’t have jobs in the fall, and all that is still not enough to keep us out of the red. Our segment of UW voluntarily froze tuition for years to keep us attractive as an alternative to the comprehensives, and now we are restricted from doing so by the legislature for the foreseeable future. Our 13 campuses have only small cash reserves and simply cannot cover further cuts. We serve collectively more undergrads than any other campus besides Madison, do so with PhDs teaching 4/4 loads as core faculty, and our transfer students demonstrably do better than those that start at the 4-years. We are underpaid, efficient with resources, and still being strangled for it all. Frustrating? Demoralized? 4 years until retirement for me and counting; I ache for my youthful colleagues.

Ray Cross–our President–was our former Chancellor and I had the privilege of him sitting in on one of my 101 sections when he visited my campus–and we became good friends (the only System President I can say I ever hugged). (BTW his two sons are both philosophers–very cool!) The day that the news came out on the gutting of the Wisconsin Idea (and I nearly drove off the road hearing it on Wisconsin Public Radio–also set to be completely defunded by the state) , I later saw that Ray came out unequivocally to say that the Wisconsin Idea was in our blood. I emailed him a simple, heartfelt thank you. Now that was university leadership.


Meredith 02.13.15 at 6:25 am

I hadn’t heard of the “Wisconsin Idea” until this story broke. Shame on me (especially since my great great grandfather was an early presence in Whitewater, 1838, Milwaukee, and Wauwatosa, though I have only learned all this recently; one of his sons regretted that he was too busy clearing land as a boy to go to school much, though he was grateful to his Providence, RI mother for teaching so much at home… — that guy became a Minnesota legislator and among the first to breed hogs in Minnesota — another story) .

But haven’t we all seen this coming? People seeking power don’t want truth, to which we would all be servants. They want mastery over servants. They want to supplant truth.


P.M.Lawrence 02.13.15 at 11:57 am

“Which stresses undergraduate teaching as its main priority” should never be part of any university’s mission at all; that would make it a mere institution of higher education, somewhat like the idea of the polytechnic. However, universities as we have them today are institutions of learning, with origins in mediaeval gangs of roaming scholars who found patrons and put down roots; their association with education is incidental, not essential, and derives from two things, the need to bring on new scholars so that their core function could endure, and the need to find a practical source of revenue that could be based on their strengths. Confusing their working to live with their living for that work is understandable, particularly since that is what their sponsors (e.g. governments) want from them, but putting the cart before the horse that way risks losing the very thing that supplying education was buying for them – the ability to be scholars, transmitting earlier learning and discovering new learning through research; in a word, scholarship. Without that, I would never have been able to use a Washington (state, not city) university’s corpus of material on Madagascar as provided to specialist journals and books.


Mark Haag 02.13.15 at 3:24 pm

I am on the faculty of a Technical College in Wisconsin, and so while I am not directly impacted by the proposed UW changes, I was on our union negotiating team when Act 10 came down, making negotiating a thing of the past. So it perplexes me a bit that you want to have a discussion about intent that brackets out the possibility that both the legislative changes and the change in the mission statement are mostly about removing power from the UW faculty.

On the other hand, I do think some of the questions you ask about how a University faculty ought to meet the needs of the State are good ones. It would be interesting to have a cross-cultural discussion about that, for example, between Technical College faculty and University faculty.

I teach social science classes, some of which transfer directly to a couple of UW campuses, so I am especially curious about why we don’t talk more. Its time we parlayed!

I recognize that our roles are different, but it might be helpful for UW faculty to see how technical colleges do focus on instructional practice and uniform curriculum design. (there are benefits and costs. But there will be lots of costs for you if the faculty governance system goes!)

It might be helpful to compare notes about how adjunct instructors, in our case, and non-tenured faculty and T.A.’s, in your case, are used and/or abused.

It would also be good to have a mutual discussion about the degree to which we should encourage the continuing move towards seeing education as merely developing work skills. Even in the technical college system, I suspect most faculty don’t see that movement as an unqualified good.

I have wondered about the apparent resistance at the UW to develop, across campuses, online degrees in the Humanities. Lots of online degrees in Technology, Business, and Education (graduate and undergraduate) but as far as I can tell there isn’t there an online BA or MA in Philosophy or Comparative Literature at any of the UW campuses. Is it because UW humanities faculty don’t believe a good online program in the Humanities is possible? Or that they don’t feel they have the skills to teach that way? Or do they feel it isn’t marketable? I don’t know enough about the cultural or institutional reasons why this hasn’t happened, but would be interested. We do have returning adult students (Veterans in particular come to mind) who want more than a career related education, but can’t always schedule classes between work and children.

A bit of advice based on experience, though-have these discussions in another context than the budget proposal. I don’t recommend taking it as a good faith effort to improve the UW system.


Tom Hurka 02.13.15 at 8:05 pm

Harry: Sometimes you’re too sane and sensible for this blog.


The Temporary Name 02.13.15 at 8:51 pm

Yes. Yet another forwarded post.

Comments on this entry are closed.