Scott Walker vs. The Wisconsin Idea

Editor’s Note: The following is one of our relatively rare opinion pieces.

Another presidential election year is approaching, and another presidential candidate is taking aim at the public university system in his state, and boasting of his budget cuts and alleged reforms.

This time around it’s Scott Walker of Wisconsin; in 2012 it was Rick Perry of Texas.

Opportunistic politicians and ideologues found major public universities to be an easy target for criticism and budget cuts during the great recession, and governors long opposed to the “liberalism” in higher ed embraced the opportunity to whack away at funding for research and disciplines they didn’t like.

In the aftermath of the recession, the partisan ideology driving attacks on public higher education remains strong, and in the state of Wisconsin, Scott Walker has doubled down on efforts to cut funding for the University of Wisconsin system even as other states are reinvesting in their own universities.

Rick Perry embarked on a similar crusade against the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems several years ago, only to be outwitted and ultimately defeated by staunch supporters of both systems. Like Walker, Perry sought to bring a business model to the higher education systems, and by business he meant the interests of business: sacrificing the intellectual impact of higher education to the immediate and often shortsighted “needs” of business and industry.

Productivity was the buzzword in Texas, and the biggest enemies of productivity were the disciplines that brought in little money and allegedly offered no vocational advantage to students: the humanities and social sciences.

The latest developments in Wisconsin are that the UW system now has $250 million less in the current state budget, and some safeguards protecting faculty and academic programs have been eroded. That this is happening in Wisconsin is of special concern because “The Wisconsin Idea,” enshrined in state law for more than a century, articulated a high and noble purpose for public universities.

“The legislature finds it in the public interest to provide a system of higher education…” the state statute begins, but a Walker staffer proposed deleting this opening clause and replacing it with “There is created a system of higher education…”, as if placing the public interest at the forefront of the statute somehow overlooked a more important purpose.

That more important purpose becomes clear in the next section, where the staffer wrote that the primary mission of the UW system was “to meet the state’s workforce needs,” rather than “to discover and disseminate knowledge.” The staffer then struck these final words of the section:

“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.”

In the end, the proposed changes did not take hold following media scrutiny and public opposition; but the changes in the language illustrate just how far the discovery of knowledge, improving the human condition, and the search for truth have fallen in the eyes of self-serving ideologues.

This is not to say that universities, public and private, should not offer majors that have a clear vocational focus. UW Madison certainly does so, with high ranking programs in both business and engineering. The reformers would doubtless see these as ways to improve the individual’s condition economically, and thereby worth funding. But what about the individual’s sense of values, understanding of the nation’s past, appreciation of both the threats and advances of other cultures? What about research that improves health care, legal services, and education?

UW Madison now faces the loss of about 400 employees as a result of the budget cuts. The tenure protection once guaranteed by state statute has now been watered down as part of a move to make the system operate more like a corporation, with greater freedom to define and limit programs and cut faculty positions. Guess which programs will suffer? Not business, not engineering, not the hard sciences perhaps, but those pesky humanities and social sciences with all their unsettling ideas and pointed references to the lessons and values of the past.

Yes, these disciplines can wander far afield on occasion and come up with what are, or appear to be, bizarre arguments and interpretations. But here’s the thing: you never know where the most important ideas and insights will come from, and limiting the scope of higher education to vocational pursuits is far riskier than allowing scholars in all the major disciplines to pursue their research.

Ideologues are quick to urge bright students to attend elite private universities, all of which encourage and, often, lavishly fund research in all disciplines. Can you imagine Harvard without strong departments in English, history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology? Yale? Chicago? Does anyone seriously believe these schools would retain their generally deserved credibility if they were to make it their primary mission “to meet workforce needs”? They exist to challenge bright students in all major areas of inquiry. The result: leaders not only in “the workforce” but also in every other facet of life.

It is weirdly shortsighted that the governor of Wisconsin, a state without a high-profile private university, does not want the citizens of the state to have reasonable access to the highest levels of education. Like other “reformers,” he seems to operate under the assumption that there are enough elite private schools to accommodate the smartest students, even if they have to go out of state. (And, if UW Madison is significantly reduced, they will. Surely the governor can appreciate the power of a “brand” and what happens when it is lost. )

But in fact there are not enough prominent private universities to provide places for all the brightest students, and why would a governor promote policies that tend to drive these students out of his state anyway?

Thus do political opportunism and ideology lead ultimately to the worst kind of academic outcome: a brain drain.