Facing a massive backlash, Gov. Scott Walker retreated Wednesday from a proposal to wipe out language at the foundation of the Wisconsin Idea — the long-cherished principle that the state’s public universities exist to seek truth and serve the people of the entire state.

“The Wisconsin Idea will continue to thrive,” Walker’s spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, said in a statement. “This was a drafting error. The final version of the budget will include the Wisconsin Idea.”

But earlier in the day, Walker told reporters in De Pere that the proposed language change in his 2015-17 budget plan would better focus the University of Wisconsin System.

“The focus would be honed in, in particular to look at making sure that we prepare individuals in this state ... for the jobs and opportunities that are available in the state,” Walker said, according to Wisconsin Radio Network.

System President Ray Cross, who was earlier critical of the proposed changes, later thanked the governor “for his commitment to the Wisconsin Idea.”

The changes Walker had quietly proposed — he didn’t mention them in his budget address — would have gutted a mission formed more than a century earlier. It’s just one paragraph deep in state law but has proudly defined Wisconsin universities as anchored to the communities they serve statewide and has distinguished the University of Wisconsin System from competitors nationally.

Walker’s proposed changes to the Wisconsin Idea would have struck passages about state outreach, improving the human condition and pursuing truth, in favor of more narrowly defining state campuses as agents of workforce development.

Gone would have been: “Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

Also proposed to be cut: language stating that part of the university’s mission is “to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses.”

Walker would have added language to the opening sentence specifying the universities’ responsibility as economic engines, adding the line, “to meet the state’s workforce needs” to a sentence about developing human resources.

Idea key to identity

The proposed changes to the foundational identity of the statewide UW System were contained in a budget provision granting the universities more autonomy. Walker’s budget, announced Tuesday, also would cut System funding by $300 million.

The change in wording to the Wisconsin Idea would have had no funding implications and does not suggest specific changes to programs or people at the 26 campuses of the UW System.

But it would have stripped an identity considered by national observers to be distinctive to Wisconsin’s system, a symbolic blow when university employees already are feeling under attack both by the proposed budget cuts and Walker’s recent statements suggesting professors don’t work hard enough.

UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank, who as a candidate for the job spoke of her admiration for the Wisconsin Idea, said on Twitter before Walker’s pledge to restore the language: “The Wisconsin Idea is — and always will be — central to the mission of this university.”

“Wisconsin must not abandon this core principle and value,” Cross said earlier. “We will work to preserve the Wisconsin Idea in every form.”

He later amended the statement, thanking Walker for retracting the changes.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said before Walker walked back the changes that he wouldn’t have supported them.

“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,” he said in a statement.

In a statement, Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, said the System “is meant to train thinkers not only workers. I do not support changing a long-held tradition such as the Wisconsin Idea without substantial public input and discourse.”

111 years old

The Wisconsin Idea was developed by UW-Madison president Charles Van Hise in 1904 and is often cited by higher education leaders nationally as a model.

“The Wisconsin Idea was very much a part of every conversation we had with candidates,” said David McDonald, a longtime history professor who led the chancellor search that resulted in Blank’s hiring. “It’s absolutely fundamental to our identity.”

It involves the concept that university resources, teaching programs and discoveries — particularly at UW-Madison — should be relevant and beneficial to every resident of the state. It’s been the intended model for university activities for more than 100 years but its manner of expression has changed with the times.

Since 1985, UW-Madison has sponsored an annual Wisconsin Idea seminar, a weeklong bus tour of the state for new employees, recently tenured faculty and other staffers. The university arranges stops at farms, factories, prisons and other institutions to meet state residents and be reminded of the university’s outreach mission.

The liberal advocacy group Center for Media and Democracy first reported on the language Walker proposed.

State Journal reporter Mary Spicuzza contributed to this report.

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