Wisconsinites swooped in to defend the Wisconsin Idea Wednesday from Gov. Scott Walker’s budget bill rewrite of the University of Wisconsin’s mission.
Walker, who is widely expected to run for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, replaced those high ideals with “to meet the state’s workforce needs” as a core function of the university.
Wednesday afternoon, Walker said the rewrite was the result of a "drafting error."
Walker had leaked his intent to slash funding to the UW System by 13 percent in a proposed budget released Tuesday and reorganize it to permit greater autonomy, but his apparent retooling of the institution’s mission was a stunner that engendered a huge response as word of it spread Wednesday afternoon.
Through statements, posts on social media and interviews, educators, legislators, students and alumni blasted – or at least questioned – Walker’s attempt to obliterate the university’s core philosophy.
The Wisconsin Idea, the principle that the university should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom, has informed teaching, research and public service for more than a century.
Some critics said that trying to alter what UW stands for says a lot about Walker.
“The governor’s move to amputate the Wisconsin Idea of public service from the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin is arrogant, ignorant, and deliberately provocative,” State Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, a member of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, said in a statement. “He didn’t need to do it, and the fact that he has reveals his contempt for Wisconsin’s core values.”
Walker's 1,839-page budget bill introduces a range of changes in the structure of state agencies, including the creation of the University of Wisconsin System Authority. The authority will be governed by a reconstituted Board of Regents and exercise greater autonomy over spending, human resources and some other functions than the university previously held.
His budget cuts UW System funding by $300 million over the 2015-2017 biennium.
UW System President Ray Cross, who has been negotiating with Walker’s office on university funding and restructuring, took to Twitter Wednesday to defend the Wisconsin Idea.
“The Wisconsin Idea is what has historically defined us and forever will distinguish us as a great PUBLIC university,” Ray posted.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank tweeted that the Wisconsin Idea "is— and always will be — central to the mission of this university.”
The proposal to junk UW’s core philosophy started a conversation at #WisconsinIdea, where alumni and others expressed surprise and outrage.
"The #WisconsinIdea is more than just words and it's bigger than just one governor,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, an alum.
“Let's just say there are bad ideas, really bad ideas, and getting rid of the #WisconsinIdea terribly awful ideas. Just don't do it,” posted Robert Kelchen, a UW alum and assistant professor at Seton Hall University.
"You can't kill an idea," UW alum Kelsey Sorenson quoted slain civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers.
“UW a trade school?” asked one poster.
Another likened the act to editing the Magna Carta.
Donald Downs, a UW-Madison professor of political science, pointed to the striking of the line “basic to every purpose of the (university) is the search for truth” as particularly troubling.
“Historically, that is the very definition of what a university is: the pursuit of truth and the freedom of thought that goes with that,” Downs said in an interview. “You’re talking a major shift here.”
Downs called the Wisconsin Idea a “major part of our DNA, it’s one reason I’m here,” and said it has gained UW and the state international notoriety.
A changed mission for the university could mean less funding for the functions through which it traditionally has shared knowledge with the state’s citizens, and for the liberal arts that educate citizens to be active members of the body politic, Downs speculated.
“A great university combines the practical and the more intellectual in a creative relationship,” he said. “The concern is that Walker’s definition will make it narrower than that.”
Grant Petty, president of PROFS, a UW-Madison faculty lobbying group, said striking the main elements of the Wisconsin Idea from the statutes seems pointless from a budget perspective.
“So I can only view it as a gratuitous attack on an ideal that faculty and staff have long held as setting us apart from other universities,” Petty wrote in a statement.
With proposed language to make the primary mission of the university "to meet the state's workforce needs," UW would effectively be turned into a “glorified vocational school,” said Petty, a professor of atmospheric and ocean sciences. “Good luck recruiting and retaining top researchers and scholars with that shallow vision,” he commented.
The focus on workforce development also discounts the aspirations of students, he said.
“Honestly, it reminds me of the former East Germany, where students' majors were often assigned to them based on the priorities of central planners. That's not a vision that motivates me as a professor, and I sincerely question whether it's best for Wisconsin's students and taxpayers,” Petty wrote.
Walker’s rewrite of UW’s mission drew concern from Republican legislative leaders too.
"If there's going to be a rewrite of the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin, there must be a robust public discussion before any changes are made," Vos, a UW-Whitewater alum, said in a statement.
And Republican Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater, vice chairman of the Senate’s higher education committee, said he was surprised to see a change like that in the budget bill.
“I am concerned that this change is being proposed in the budget,” Nass said in a statement.” Frankly, any alterations to the statutory mission of the UW System should be debated as a separate bill allowing for normal public participation in the legislative process.”
The UW System, Nass added, "belongs to the people of Wisconsin.”