UW-Madison Engineering Receives $47 Million from Grainger Foundation

Two major grants from the foundation of UW-Madison engineering alumnus David W. Grainger will boost research and hands-on teaching capacity and provide additional support in the form of tutoring and mentoring for undergrads.

A grant of $25 million is for the establishment of the Grainger Institute for Engineering Research. The Institute ” will serve as an incubator for trans-disciplinary research conducted in the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering. Such research will enable the College to lead discoveries in targeted technological areas important to society and to our nation’s economy.”

The enhancement of hands-on training and research facilities has become a major feature of leading engineering programs in the nation.

“Currently, researchers in the Institute are focusing on advanced manufacturing and materials discovery and sustainability—areas that build in existing strengths within the College of Engineering and at UW-Madison. These three areas share commonalities and each benefit from close interaction with the others. Together, they provide opportunities to accelerate the process of materials discovery to application or use in a product, and to engage in this process in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner.”

At a time when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has led successful efforts to cut funding for the UW System, the grant for the Institute “will create an endowment for professorships, faculty scholar awards and postdoctoral fellowships, with additional support for new faculty from UW-Madison, the UW-Madison Vilas Trust, and the College. In total, the funding will enable the College to hire 25 new faculty. This commitment will enable the College to attract clusters of top engineering faculty to define new research directions through the Grainger Institute for Engineering.”

Another $22 million grant from the foundation “will be aimed at helping undergraduate students by supporting a tutoring center and giving them more opportunities for hands-on learning,” officials announced recently.

The donation endows the engineering school’s undergraduate learning center, “which provides tutoring and peer-to-peer learning services — assistance officials said is key for students as they work through tough introductory courses

The donation will help to expand engineering college facilities will as well, including a new ‘design innovation makerspace,’ where students will be able to use equipment such as laser cutters and 3-D printers to experiment and build prototypes.”

The foundation has also funded the building and expansion of Grainger Hall, home of the UW-Madison business school.

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.