Wisconsin has a well-earned national reputation for public policy innovation, due in large part to the cooperation and genuine partnerships between government officials and university scholars. Working together, we have met immediate challenges, chosen policies yielding better long-term results for our citizens, and inspired novel approaches that embrace and improve our self-governance. This model, well known in our state as The Wisconsin Idea, also serves as the guiding principle of the University of Wisconsin (UW).
Thanks to this century-old philosophy, Wisconsin was one of the first states to adopt child labor laws, pass the women's suffrage amendment, and reform its welfare program.
The genesis of The Wisconsin Idea is attributed to UW President Charles Van Hise, who in a 1905 speech declared: “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every home in the state.”
Van Hise and his UW classmate Robert M. La Follette forged close ties between the university and the state government. Faculty experts consulted with legislators to help craft many influential and groundbreaking laws. La Follette, the namesake of the UW's School of Public Affairs, served as governor from 1901 to 1906 and represented Wisconsin in the United States House of Representatives and Senate.
As a proud UW alumnus, I carried The Wisconsin Idea with me as governor and as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The collaboration that inspired Van Hise was fundamental to how I would lead and govern. Why? Because good policy makes good politics. The citizens of Wisconsin agreed.
The Wisconsin Idea informs how best to identify and frame a public challenge or opportunity. It expects leaders to introduce their solutions and proposals that fix or improve. It encourages leaders to solicit views from all quarters. It uplifts the quality and tone of healthy debate, so vital to our republican democracy. And, it results in the best public policy. It is a powerful principle that relies on all citizens, educators, researchers, and policy makers to engage. And, it is critical to the continued success of our state, our nation, and the society we maintain, build, and pass on.
I was honored this spring to address the most recent graduates of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs during a ceremony in the Assembly Chamber of Wisconsin's magnificent Capitol — the same room where I began my political career and where, as governor, I spoke so many times to report to and inspire my former colleagues and our citizens.
I told the graduates to be bold and fearless. I challenged them to always do their best. And, I thanked them for their commitment to public service. It was important to me because La Follette School graduates have the ability to critically analyze information, challenge assumptions, and defend their positions. These skills and knowledge are the threads of a strong and vibrant society. And, with this accomplishment, they demonstrate their desire to do more and do better. I was glad to encourage them.
Simply put, we need these people to make our government — local, state, and federal — operate effectively and efficiently. They represent the integrity and honor we need in the United States and across the world.
Among the La Follette School's Class of 2016 was a Rhodes Scholar. Many were graduating with a wealth of experience across all levels of government, and I congratulated those going to work at their new posts in public service. La Follette's alumni now populate some of the highest administrative posts across the government. They have prepared for and answered the call to serve.
La Follette School graduates are clearly among the best and the brightest, and they should be. They learned from world-class educators and researchers led by Susan Webb Yackee, the school's previous director. Professor Yackee, an expert in policymaking, routinely consults with decision makers and administrators on the federal regulatory process. Professor Tim Smeeding recently provided his expertise on poverty to the state's Future of the Family Commission, while Associate Professor Gregory Nemet keynoted a presentation at a major international forum on sustainable development.
Collaborations like these were among my proudest achievements as governor. While we did not always agree, I pulled in many UW experts during crucial policy deliberations on topics such as state and local tax reform, school choice, and campaign finance reform. I sought out researchers for their evidence-based advice, and the UW enhanced its stature as an economic engine for the state.
During my 2000 State of the State speech, I held a vial of DNA strands and saw a new chapter in Wisconsin's future.
Scientific pioneers at the UW were spawning new technology companies, and I made sure the state invested from the get-go. When I went to Washington, I was well aware of and made medical research a priority as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
This is just one example of how the twenty-first century economy is built on the acquisition of knowledge — sifting and winnowing information, and blending analysis with creativity. In Wisconsin, much of our state's boom in biotechnology can be traced directly to the UW.
Coming from the small city of Elroy, I realized the tremendous value of higher education. It transforms you. As governor, I proposed legislation to encourage and allow for our best and brightest to seek a college degree. Today, Wisconsin provides scholarships to the top students who stay in Wisconsin to continue their education.
Thousands of students, including La Follette School Associate Director Hilary Shager, have benefited from this state- and school-funded support. As one of the first recipients of the Academic Excellence Scholarship, Shager also received her master's degree and doctorate from the UW.
Investments in students, faculty, and facilities are what make a great university a world-class university. As governor two decades ago, I proudly invested in knowledge and research — and the return on that investment continues across campus.
Today, the UW's flagship school in Madison has a $15 billion annual impact on Wisconsin's economy and brings in $1 billion in research funding. Then as now, I was proud to carry on the tradition started more than a century ago by Van Hise and La Follette — that the university is intricately tied to the state.
While today's challenges differ in some ways from those that we tackled in my time as governor, I believe strongly that this collaborative approach remains the most effective way to solve them and ensure prosperity and health for the people of our state.
Tommy Thompson was the longest-serving governor in Wisconsin history, from 1987 to 2001, and then served as the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services until 2005. This article ran first in the November|December 2016 issue of Public Administration Review. Published with permission.
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