UPDATE: Shortly after the post below was published, Governor Walker tweeted that his removal of The Wisconsin Idea from the UW System mission statement was a “drafting error” and that it would be replaced in his most recent version of the budget. Here’s the tweet:
This is a positive rhetorical move, but the question remains whether or not the reasoning behind Walker’s proposed cuts remains true to The Wisconsin Idea. (Does he walk the walk, in other words?) Evidence seems to point to the contrary. Keep reading to consider my argument about the link between this type of rhetorical oversight and the implied accompanying motivations for political action.
In case you haven’t been following the news in Wisconsin surrounding our governor’s proposal to implement deep cuts to the University of Wisconsin system, here are the essential facts.
*Governor Walker has proposed $300 million worth of budget cuts to the UW System overall, to be implemented over the next two years. This is a 13% cut to the overall UW budget.
*The plan also includes a two-year tuition freeze.
*This decrease in state aid is intended to improve the state’s financial situation, and to provide the universities with more autonomy in establishing employee salaries and benefits, as well as to expand campuses’ ability to add property and resources via different regulations on procurement contracts and construction projects.
*University leaders are troubled by the prospect of this cut, noting that large-scale layoffs and program cuts will likely derail many university initiatives currently in place.
*And, most recently, the governor suggested this revision to the mission statement of the UW System, removing the essentials of the Wisconsin Idea and striking the phrase “search for truth” in favor of a stronger focus on creating contributors to the state’s workforce:
Reading about this makes me extremely uneasy. As a lifetime Wisconsin native, as a UW System alumnus, as a public school teacher, and as a current UW system graduate student, I have a deep, personal feeling of connection with the UW System: its faculty, its facilities, its goals, its ideals, and its strong sense of responsibility to improve the quality of life in our state. That commitment is the embodiment of The Wisconsin Idea–the part of the UW mission statement which defines it as one of the finest public university systems in the nation. This is the idea that the impact of a public university should be directed toward the betterment of its community. This is the idea that the human condition and the search for truth are vital in the process of education. This is the idea that the governor wants to omit in his revision of the UW System’s mission statement.
I experienced the power of The Wisconsin Idea personally as I went through the UW-Milwaukee education program, where I was required to invest my talent back into the city by completing two semesters of student teaching within the Milwaukee Public School system. This and many other aspects of my UW education made me aware of social issues, equipped me with the tools I needed to contribute something to improve upon those issues, and required that I take action to participate in my community and make a positive change. My schooling required me to be a force for good in my own city, in my own state, of which I was and still am zealously proud.
I have carried this sense of service and action with me throughout my career–a sense that was imbued in me by the cohesive, devoted, demanding, and brilliant professors that guided my learning. They taught me how to research and interpret data on a mathematical and human level. They taught me how to be an assertive leader in my field, even though I was young. They taught me how to innovate. They taught me the value of speaking up and digging into problems as a maker of solutions. Yes, they taught me how to teach well. But more: they taught me how to give the benefits of my education back to the people of Wisconsin.
I don’t know how much money needs to be spent, cut, invested, or redirected to keep our state’s economy running smoothly. This is not a post that posits the correct amount of money to cut from the correct sources. This is a post about respecting the purpose of education in our lives. The proposed slash to the UW System budget is bolstered by the fundamental idea that the search for truth is frivolous and that we don’t have to uphold a commitment to playing an active role in bettering the lives of those around us. It’s a move that supports a streamlined, factory-like higher education system which holds grooming earners for the workforce as its sole objective. This mentality, paired with the threat of a crippling economic blow to our UW schools, eviscerates the very soul of public higher education as we’ve known it in our state for over a century.
This proposed political move is about more than saving dollars. It’s about a paradigm shift in the way that we see the outcomes of higher education. My plea to those with the power to prevent or re-envision this budget proposal is this: when you’re looking at the numbers, please consider…
How much is cultivating the search for truth worth to you?
How much is working to improve the human condition worth to you?
How much is the accessibility to education for all people worth to you?
How much is a group of young people with the long-term desire to reinvest in their community worth to you?
How much is a century-old state tradition of leadership which is motivated by ideals rather than profit worth to you?
How much is the exploration of new ideas worth to you?
Is it your belief that meeting workforce needs is the primary reason why young people should attend a University of Wisconsin school?
I urge you, voters and policymakers, to consider the impact of these proposed cuts with an eye to the end result. Ten years, fifty years, one hundred years down the line, I dearly hope we can say that any economic shifts that were made to the UW System budget in our time were made with the intent of strengthening the long-term legacy of higher education that has always been such a bright spot in our beautiful state. Being both realistic and critical is essential to making a decision that can benefit the state without devastating our commitment to an education that makes us not just better employees, but better people.
I speak for thousands of UW System supporters when I say this:
I still believe in the Wisconsin Idea.
Please understand that our soul is not for sale.