UW-Madison Bascom Hill

Bucky Badger frames the Abraham Lincoln statue on Bascom Hill at UW-Madison on June 3.

Republicans can and will quibble with the mostly left-leaning UW-Madison over what its professors teach, what kinds of activism its students engage in, and which speakers are welcomed to campus and which draw protests.

And while those quibbles include lots of interesting and important questions about free speech, academic freedom and ideological balance on campus, the real threat to UW’s excellence — and not just for Republicans — is if researchers start making their research play second fiddle to their political views.

In a way, it’s admirable that UW-Madison’s Trans Research Lab doesn’t try to hide what lots of Republicans think academics already routinely do on the down-low: promote a liberal agenda.

The lab, which studies transgender issues, makes its animating political force clear on its website: “We are a social justice driven lab conducting research that affirms the experiences of trans and gender diverse individuals,” says its mission statement, in part. “We embrace empowerment, reflexivity, and liberation in our advocacy for and with trans people.”

There’s nothing wrong with social justice work to encourage acceptance of a population that’s long faced discrimination. And transgender-related research can inform public policy debates about, say, transgender people serving openly in the military, or treatments for medical and psychological challenges specific to the transgender population.

But “research that affirms the experiences of trans and gender diverse individuals” would seem to limit the study of any hypothesis that doesn’t qualify as affirmation, regardless of whether it might be a sound hypothesis (assuming you can define what qualifies as affirmation in the first place).

The lab’s principal investigator, assistant professor of counseling psychology Stephanie Budge, told me that since there’s been so little work on transgender issues to date, “most of the work we’re doing is so new,” and much of it is focused on gathering information.

When the lab does propose hypotheses, though, she said it operates in keeping with standard research practice that good science is transparent and replicable. She pointed to National Institutes of Health data showing that transgender people suffer more health problems than cisgender people and an effort by her lab to study whether so-called minority stress theory can be useful in conducting therapy with transgender people.

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Still, “I think that you can be an activist in a community and a solid researcher that isn’t pushing an agenda,” she said.

If the lab were privately funded, she wouldn’t have to worry about the line between activism and science.

But Budge noted that there are other university-funded entities on campus, such as the LBGT Campus Center, that arguably have just as much of a viewpoint bias as her lab, and that the lab takes up only a small minority of her time and has received only $10,000 in transgender research funding in its three-year existence.

Hers is also not the only publicly funded research effort susceptible to accusations of politicized science.

Democrats have raised legitimate questions about whether the Republican-controlled Legislature and Republican governor should be allocating $1.5 million a year in state money for a new leadership center at UW-Madison named after former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson — given that the majority of the center’s board will be appointed by politicians.

Political controversy at UW-Madison has of late meant a student-produced video glorifying the fictional beheading of a police officer, a graduate student who would excuse violence against the president, a student who tags university buildings with anti-white graffiti, students who try to shout down conservative speakers and administrators who yank season tickets from those who allowed their seats to be used by a guy who walked around with an Obama mask on his face and a noose around his neck.

You can quibble over the relative offensiveness of hanging Obama in effigy or depicting the beheading of cops, but none of that’s as important as preserving unbiased research to a top research university such as UW-Madison.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.