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John Nichols: Wisconsin Idea trumps Scott Walker

John Nichols: Wisconsin Idea trumps Scott Walker

Wisconsin Idea

A shadow from morning sunlight shining through an arch frames a view of on the "Sifting and Winnowing" plaque mounted in the portico of Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on July 25, 2012. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Scott Walker may not have done his presidential campaign any great favors with a bungled attempt to rework the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin. But the proposal by the Walker administration to strike statutory language directing the UW to focus on “public service” and “the search for truth” has turned out to be a healthy development for the state.

Suddenly, the Wisconsin Idea is in the news, and everyone seems to want to go on record as a champion of this state’s unique commitment to public inquiry and public service. Even Walker, as he was scrambling to explain the misstep, announced, “The Wisconsin Idea will continue to thrive.”


Outlined more than a century ago by University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise, Gov. Robert M. La Follette and their progressive allies, the Wisconsin Idea holds that “the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.”

What this has meant, practically, is that when farmers have faced challenges, UW professors have done research to help address them. When state and local officials have moved to ensure that elections were fair and functional, UW professors have analyzed and improved proposals. And when new technologies such as radio and television have been developed, the UW has utilized them to spread knowledge and ideas to Wisconsinites who might never set foot on a campus.

The Wisconsin Idea has always held that democracy requires an informed and engaged citizenry, and that academics and researchers should pursue the truth in order to serve that citizenry. This isn’t about Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. Some of the best defenders of free and open inquiry have been Republicans; in the McCarthy era, Republicans such as Warren Knowles were key defenders of robust discourse — and the Wisconsin Idea.

There were many incidents that helped forge Wisconsin’s commitment to freedom of inquiry and the use of that inquiry to serve both students and the state. The most famous of these came in the 1890s, when state officials pressured the UW to remove professor Richard T. Ely as director of the School of Economics, Political Science and History. The charge was that Ely was too engaged with efforts in the community to improve social conditions and expand the rights of workers. The UW Board of Regents rejected the pressure to limit the school’s search for truth and its engagement with the issues facing Wisconsin.

Their defense of Ely is quoted on a plaque on the UW campus that reads: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

The Wisconsin Idea has for more than a century been at the heart of Wisconsin’s relationship with its great state university — and, historically, at the heart of good governance. Scott Walker likes to think he is changing Wisconsin, and he has in too many ways. But even he recognized last week that it's not smart to mess with the Wisconsin Idea.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times, Wisconsin’s progressive newspaper. and @NicholsUprising

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