Wisconsin hasn’t always championed the title of America’s dairyland. In fact, it was once known as a state whose cheese Americans should avoid.
It was early post-Civil War era. Refrigeration did not yet to exist, which meant milk and butter did not survive long journeys. Cheesemaking, then, became one of the only ways to foster and sustain a dairy-based economy.
Milk providers in Wisconsin, however, took advantage of the opportune limitation to make profit at the expense of cheese quality: They would skim butterfat or add water to milk before handing them over to creameries.
The poor quality of cheese was symptomatic of an overarching problem the state confronted: corruption, incentivized by resource capitalization.
But a brewing philosophy and approach would edge Wisconsin toward the path of not only becoming the cheese capital of the U.S., but also transitioning into and being acknowledged as one of the most honest states in the early 20th century.
The name for this burgeoning doctrine came later, in 1912: the Wisconsin Idea.
The Wisconsin Idea as a nuanced concept
The Babcock butterfat test was invented in 1894 to solve the cheese problem — it was one of the first manifestations of the Wisconsin Idea.
The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents introduced the notion of “sifting and winnowing” the same year to encourage academic freedom and the relentless pursuit of truth, after an economics professor was harangued for allegedly teaching socialist ideals in the classroom.
Gwen Drury, an expert on the Wisconsin Idea who articulated the genesis of this guiding philosophy above, said these three events in 1894 pointed to what is at its heart: “truth, trust and transparency.” Although the philosophy “sounds like this very general thing,” she said it actually refers to something very specific.
“[The Wisconsin Idea is] a distinctive approach, developed in Wisconsin, to use knowledge and resources of all kinds to keep the governance and the economy in the greatest number of people, and not just the small number who could corner a market,” Drury said.
But many today — including UW, according to its website — have come to associate the Wisconsin Idea as a signal of the “university’s commitment to public service.”
Drury, however, suggests the Wisconsin Idea isn’t “just a service thing.”
“Service was a huge thing, but service can be defined in many, many ways,” Drury said. “All of the service [in the history of the Wisconsin Idea] was about giving people control and power and tools to make sure that everybody can participate in the democracy.”
The Morgridge Center for Public Service is one campus organization whose support for the Wisconsin Idea is rooted in sustaining the principle’s egalitarian and democratic functions.
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Beth Tryon, assistant director of community-engaged scholarship at the Morgridge Center, said the center’s process for selecting recipients of the Wisconsin Idea Fellowships reflects that spirit. It weighs on a proposal’s demonstrated commitment to a “two-way knowledge flow” in a way that also validates and incorporates assets and knowledge from the community.
“We can’t really quantify the percentage that our work is helping people who are already working on helping themselves,” Tryon said. “But clearly there are some resource gaps that we have the capacity for.”
The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation also acknowledged that resource gaps pose barriers to the ability of local communities to meet their needs, WARF managing director Erik Iverson said. In addition to engaging communities in a “feedback loop of problem identification and potential solution,” Iverson added WARF also helps generate institutional revenue for the UW administration to then allocate grants for research in service of the public.
But Jamila Siddiqui, a program coordinator at the Public Humanities Exchange for Undergraduates, said deliberating funding allocations is also important in addressing public skepticism of UW and Wisconsin’s commitment to sustaining the foundational progressive and democratic ideals of the Wisconsin Idea.
“I think that criticism is coming from some pressure in the public arena about where we focus our energy and our money. I think there are reasons why those chips are there, and that’s perfectly valid,” Siddiqui said. “But I think it’s also perfectly valid to try to push back on that a little bit, and say, ‘well, wait a minute, before we jump too quickly in this other direction, let’s really pause and think about what values and things we are leaving behind.’”
Though the philosophy has progressed since its founding, the Wisconsin Idea hasn’t always been inclusive for all.
Exclusion at the outset
The formation of the Wisconsin Idea itself has left a mixed legacy in empowering self-governance and agency, especially in relation to traditionally marginalized groups on campus.
Aaron Bird Bear, assistant dean for student diversity programs at the School of Education and a member of the Native Nations_UW Working Group, emphasized the ramifications of colonization in the U.S. when considering inclusivity in the formation of the Wisconsin Idea.
Not considered U.S. citizens until 1924, Native Americans were cordoned off into reservations — which Bird Bear referred to as internment systems — and forced to assimilate through the public education system.
Native Americans, Bird Bear said, were not considered full participants in higher education in the Wisconsin Idea’s early stages. And the national political leadership, which consistently and violently restricted Native Americans from public participation, exacerbated their exclusion from the Wisconsin Idea.
“There was a kind of neglect of Native Americans in the Wisconsin Idea because the national policy of the country was to create a vocational underclass of Native American labor,” Bird Bear said. “Our major political parties of that era were also neglecting us, even though they were considered kind of these visionary progressive parties that could reshape American politics.”
Although Bird Bear said the university has made “great strides” in fostering inclusivity in the Wisconsin Idea since then, he also said the decentralized structure of the university poses a “major coordination issue” that needs to be reconciled.
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“We really should have better, direct communication to understand directly from the tribal governments themselves their priority and needs and interests that might intersect with the many faculty on campus and their research agendas, so that we could identify those opportunities for collaboration much more efficiently,” Bird Bear said.
While the 2017-19 strategic plan penned by Native Nation_UW Working Group is developing a system to address the shortcomings of outreach from UW to the First Nations of Wisconsin, Amy Westmoreland, the assistant director of social justice programs at the Multicultural Student Center, said she is looking to empower self-governance and agency for marginalized students.
An integral part of that, Westmoreland said, lies in informing better decisions and interactions among the general student body through dialogues about identity, power, privilege, oppression and more.
But executing productive dialogue about these issues can be challenging. During his time on campus, members of UW student Eneale Pickett’s First Wave cohort — a hip-hop art scholarship program — were spat on, told they were poor and didn’t deserve to be at UW for receiving scholarship money.
In response to this incident and to the wider problems of intolerance and racism on campus, Pickett knew exactly how to put Westmoreland’s sentiments into action.
Pickett created a clothing line in 2016 emblazoned with phrases like “Affirmative action granted access to this space,” “All white people are racist” and “All men are sexist.”
The mission of his brand, Insert Apparel, is to initiate difficult, uncomfortable conversations about issues such as race, gender and sexuality. Discomfort, Pickett said, is what inspires growth.
He added that his works are not for those “who really care about what those in power say.” Rather, his line is for those who are willing to challenge the status quo. They are for individuals to insert their truth into conversations — to wear their truths on their skin.
“I’m not saying my clothing line was talking about the evil of the world — I’m not saying that. One thing I am saying is that we are going to address them,” Pickett said. “If you’re wearing it, I hope you’re ready to facilitate that conversation.”
Although Pickett said he identified and resonated with the mission underscoring the Wisconsin Idea upon its formation, he does not associate Insert Apparel with the Wisconsin Idea as he perceives it today.
He said he believes the UW administration has intentionally obscured the definition of the Wisconsin Idea to manipulate it as they saw fit.
The administration, Pickett said, has exercised its institutional power to dismantle movements and opinions that rupture its image of the Wisconsin Idea today and, ultimately, to avoid addressing criticisms of problems at the university.
“The history [of] really speaking up and having your voice heard, and having power so people can listen to you — actually making change while doing all of those things — that’s really where my line is,” Pickett said. “I think the old idea of the Wisconsin Idea matches with my brand very much, but the branding of the Wisconsin Idea now — not at all.”
Working to make the Wisconsin Idea inclusive for all will inevitably take some work.
Westmoreland said incorporating principles of social justice into the Wisconsin Idea will take effort beyond MSC’s part. She stressed everybody has a role in it.
“I think we need more people doing the work, and more people that are able to support the conversation and are able to talk about this subject doing it,” Westmoreland said. “I would also love to see social justice built into more of our offices and departments and have it be a part of their mission as well.”
Indeed, Drury said the understanding of the Wisconsin Idea has changed since its infancy. She said it has evolved from a philosophy to a culture, then to a named doctrine and finally, to the brand it is today.
Bird Bear thinks the evolution of the Wisconsin Idea reflects shifts in the nation’s norms and policy over time, because UW is a shared governance institution made up of individuals with different views on politics and on how the Wisconsin Idea, as a democratic project, is still unfolding.
“I think it’s more just a mirror of the U.S. at large … We’ve just seen the U.S. as the whole, was designed for men — particularly white men in land-owning positions — to hold power and to make decisions on behalf of everyone. Our public institutions all reflect that,” Bird Bear said. “We still feel most of these possessions dominated by white men. And so it’s taking us a long time to untangle how power-sharing is really going to happen … And I think that’s something we’re still deliberating and deciding on.”
As an example of Bird Bears sentiments, Gov. Scott Walker, in his 2015-17 budget, proposed to amend the Wisconsin Idea. Documents show he suggested scratching the extension of knowledge to outside the university, as well as truth-seeking, from the university mission. Walker suggested replacing it with a goal “to meeting the state’s workforce needs.”
Eric Sandgren, the instructor of a sociology course focused on examining the Wisconsin Idea, however, said rhetoric consistent with Walker’s, among others, may be a deliberate misrepresentation of the Wisconsin Idea. Sandgren said this is one of the biggest obstacles pushing against the purpose ingrained in the history of the Wisconsin Idea.
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“If you feel that the only job of the university is to provide workers to go out into the industry as some source and produce something, then you miss out on a lot,” Sandgren said. “And I think that kind of misunderstanding is very much a misrepresentation [of the Wisconsin Idea].”
But, Iverson said he feels that having a flexible definition of the Wisconsin Idea “bodes well for the concept” because it creates room for discussions about individuals and groups’ respective needs in face of changing economic and political situations.
While interested in continuing the spirit of the principles denoting the Wisconsin Idea’s history, Sandgren said it is important to seek common ground when reconciling different interpretations of the Wisconsin Idea. Common ground, he said, is where an “honest solution” will come from.
The lack of productive political conversations, however, exist in part because of the fact everyone still has their own definition of the Wisconsin Idea, Drury said.
But the search for a unified definition, she said, would require discussions of whether or not the community still believes in the idea of self-efficacy and self-governance, and whether this is a consensus from which the community desires to progress forward together.
If the community decides those beliefs no longer serve the university, Drury said it should come up with a new concept rather than redefining the mission of the Wisconsin Idea.
“I truly do know that it’s hard to distill a broad concept like the Wisconsin Idea into one sentence, but it seems to me that maybe 95 percent of the original intent of the Wisconsin Idea is missing from [the university’s current] statement,” Drury said. “The big questions is: Why is that?”