When Republican legislators threaten to withhold funding from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, fire professors who teach material they deem controversial, or comb through the list of course offerings to make sure classes meet some conservative definition of what is legitimate to teach, it has a chilling effect on academic and intellectual freedom and threatens our democracy. These attacks on free speech will continue to poison the atmosphere on our campus and do significant damage to Madison’s national and international reputation.
The masculinity workshop now under GOP fire and the African Studies course Republican legislators attacked a few weeks ago are completely voluntary. They have very small class sizes to facilitate in-depth, personal discussions about sensitive topics. Given the resurgence of white supremacy and racism during the presidential campaign and the problem of sexual violence on college campuses, the issues covered in these courses are clearly worthy of discussion.
Republicans go down a very dangerous road when they try to dictate the learning opportunities our universities offer. Higher education gives students the opportunity to open their minds and acquire new information, re-examine existing assumptions, foster curiosity, and develop critical thinking skills.
Conservative and liberal students alike should be able to expand their understanding of the world by discussing and debating perspectives other than their own. That was definitely my experience when I studied at Madison after growing up in Green Bay, and one that I treasure for the value it brought to my intellectual and personal growth. Unfortunately not all of my colleagues share that same academic curiosity and openness to different ideas.
Frankly, the issue isn’t the subject matter being taught in any particular course or program. The crux of the problem is Republican legislators believing they can micromanage the UW, attack the free speech rights of professors, and use the budget to blackmail the university into subservience whenever instructors espouse ideas that challenge conservative orthodoxy.
I see this as the worst kind of legislative micromanagement. I don’t think the Republican legislators complaining have taken the courses in question. Their outbursts seem to stem from visceral assumptions about the subject matter, which then lead to attempts to coerce the university into silencing views with which they disagree. I agree with the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's Matt Rothschild’s description of them as “budget bullies.” As we all should have learned on the playground, trying to appease or caving in to the demands of bullies never puts an end to the problem: It only exacerbates and perpetuates the intimidation.
We’ve already seen the problems caused by drastic Republican cuts to UW funding over the past six years. Stellar professors have already left. UW-Madison dropped off the list of the top five research universities for the first time in decades. When the university recruits new instructors and researchers, candidates frequently ask about the political climate here and how it might negatively impact their work.
UW–Madison is a vital engine for job growth and economic development. Its overall economic impact tops $15 billion annually. It is responsible for almost 200,000 state jobs. NorthStar Consulting found the university returned $24 to the state economy for every tax dollar invested. Research performed here generated over 300 new businesses. Parents all over our state hope their children can attend our flagship university. Obviously the campus must be doing something right.
GOP harassment imperils that success. Having a vibrant, well-regarded university system benefits everyone in the state. We can’t afford to lose our hard-earned reputation as a world-class institution of higher education because of Republican anti-intellectualism.
There are many more important issues that should concern the Legislature: college affordability and accessibility, retaining top faculty, keeping students educated at the UW in Wisconsin after they graduate. These should be given much higher priority than dictating what can or cannot be taught in voluntary classes.
Terese Berceau, of Madison, represents District 77 in the Wisconsin Assembly.
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