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Michael Wagner: UW trains students for life, not just jobs

Michael Wagner: UW trains students for life, not just jobs

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At work, his office was next to mine. In my neighborhood, his house was directly across the street. His life embodied the Wisconsin Idea, and his passing is a reminder of the fundamental importance of that idea to the future of our great university system and our wonderful state.

From 1979-2016, James L. Baughman was an eminent historian of mass media, a world-class teacher, and a generous colleague at UW-Madison.

Since Jim died of lung cancer on March 26, I’ve seen well over 400 tweets, Facebook messages and personal emails claiming “Prof. Baugh” was the best professor anyone has ever had. Baughman taught his students to think for themselves. He gave them the tools, the feedback and the confidence to do it well.

Baughman understood the primary purpose of the university is not job training; it is to help students learn how to practice good citizenship in our republican democracy.

To be sure, good citizenship involves excellent career preparation. Heck, I teach hundreds of Wisconsin’s brightest students in a globally top-ranked professional school training journalists, advertisers and public relations specialists. But UW-Madison, and its fellow UW System schools, should not change its mission from sifting and winnowing to find the truth to vocational training.

I tell my students all the time we are training them for jobs that don’t exist yet. This requires that my young scholars be able to write well, engage in research, and develop critical thinking skills and behaviors that fosters in them the ability to adapt, to judge the value of information, and to decide what they believe, why they believe it and what they are going to do about it.

While Gov. Scott Walker backtracked from an attempt to rewrite the Wisconsin Idea, many of the ideals embodied in it are under threat through other policy changes.

When Assembly Speaker Robin Vos recently said “we’ve only just begun” pushing the university to a more “market-based” approach to teaching, he is encouraging (perhaps demanding) that my colleagues and I stop doing what we know is best for our students. He is telling the people of Wisconsin that we’ve only just begun dismantling a university system that has been the crown jewel of the state for decades.

After the Legislature stripped tenure from state statute and cut about $250 million from UW System, four of the 18 faculty in my department left. The American Association of University Professors determined tenure policy had been weakened to such a level it “jeopardized” the “learning conditions of students in the university.”

We’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars retaining three other top-flight colleagues. Three more are retiring. The hiring freeze we are in, thanks to the budget cuts, has left us to serve our 600 (growing each year, even though we graduate them in just under four years, on average) majors with 56 percent of the faculty we had at the start of last year.

We cannot cut our way to greatness.

We cannot take away strong tenure for faculty and expect them to continue asking tough questions of our leaders, expertly researching and teaching uncomfortable topics, and contributing over $15 billion to our state’s economy.

Despite these very serious issues, I see reasons for optimism in the faces of the citizens of Wisconsin and the alumni of our System universities. But the fire of my optimism requires civic participation to continue burning brightly.

Thankfully, I am seeing that fire in the people. A few weeks ago, I gave a talk about partisan polarization and the 2016 elections in Green Bay. Over 100 UW alums showed up on a rainy night and asked terrific questions for an hour after the talk ended. A week earlier, I traveled out west to give a talk to another large alumni group. Same thing. Soon, I’ll head to Seattle and Portland to meet with Badger alums.

Almost all of the people I meet at these events are successful and happy. Almost none of them are doing the job they got right out of college.

UW-Madison and the other UW System schools train students for their lives, not just their first job. Baughman understood that, and legions of students loved him for it.

The Legislature wants to change that. The people of Wisconsin should rise up and stop them before it is too late.

Wagner is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison. He is affiliated with the Department of Political Science. He conducts research and teaches courses about political communication, public opinion, elections and journalism.

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"There will be more litigation, and Gov. Evers will have to have his veto pen at the ready to block Vos' gerrymandered maps. But this is a fight that can, and must, be won in order to restore the will of the people as the guiding premise for Wisconsin elections."

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