The Bascom Hall building at UW-Madison in Madison, on Monday, September 17, 2018. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

It all began when I was a kid reading my parents' copies of The Capital Times.

I developed this reverence for anyone from the Wisconsin River city of Merrill. You did that because the founder, editor and publisher of the newspaper, William T. Evjue, was a native of Merrill. He made sure that everyone knew that and also knew that anyone from Merrill has got to be a good person.

When I joined the staff of the paper in 1962, it quickly became apparent that while we were primarily a Dane County newspaper, Mr. Evjue required that we report a fair share of important news from his hometown, even if it was 160 miles or so to the north.

It's maybe why I've always had high regard for Gerald "Jerry" Whitburn. He may be a longtime conservative and a Scott Walker appointee to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, but this Merrill native has served his state with distinction for a long time.

Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson made Whitburn his secretary of the old Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations and then moved him to lead the Department of Health and Social Services in the early 1990s. Members of both parties gave him high marks for the way he handled both jobs.

Whitburn sent me an email shortly after the column I did last month bemoaning the fact UW-Madison had fallen from the top five among the nation's research universities to number eight. I placed that at the feet of Republican legislators who have spent the past decade not only sniping at the UW-Madison, but cutting its funding as well.

"Your column is grumpy about the situation at the UW," he remarked.

And while he admitted he didn't "like the sniping that we face," he made it clear there is still plenty to brag about the Madison campus.

"I worked to establish an annual turnover report," he said. "Turnover now is modest."

Indeed, in a report released a few days ago, turnover is down significantly this past year, and raids on star professors have ebbed from where they were early in the Walker years.

Whitburn added that Madison now mints more doctorates than any other place in America.

"We had been #2 to Texas at Austin ... we are now #1." he continued. "Our graduation rate at Madison has risen to #8 in American among publics. That's cool, especially when you consider per household income average in the country."

Plus, he informed me, 56% of the school's undergraduate students graduate with zero debt.

And, for good measure, he noted that "over at the Hospital (UW Health) we are doing more pancreatic transplants than any other medical facility in America. Not bad."

So while the university may have suffered some blows thanks to Republican Walker and his legislative colleagues, it still is a quality institution.

Despite all, there's good news.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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