Former University of Wisconsin history professor Jeremi Suri shared his thoughts on the obstacles he foresees UW facing in upcoming years and how they should be dealt with in the second part of an edited interview with The Badger Herald.
What problems do you see Madison facing today?
First of all, there’s insufficient funding for the important work the university does. Second, there is too little risk taking at the university.
People are very conservative in the sense that they are concerned there isn’t enough money to preserve certain things, and [they do] not take risks that are needed for new discoveries and new creativity.
And I think the university is not always pushing itself to do its very best work. I don’t blame the university per se; I think that’s the environment the university is operating in.
How would you fix these problems?
I think the university needs, first of all, to develop a much better set of connections around the state. It needs the state of Wisconsin to really stand behind the university.
The university needs support from the political leadership of the state. Second, the university needs to remake itself, it needs to reorganize itself, it needs to focus and encourage creativity more and it needs to allocate its resources, not just more efficiently, but toward the things that are going to have the biggest and most important impact.
The structure of the university – and this is true for many universities – reflects a different time period. It doesn’t reflect the contemporary opportunities and challenges of today.
How is the University of Texas different from Madison?
The University of Texas has put together resources, despite all the other pressures, for the kinds of work that I do and in particular resources for cooperative work between public policy and history.
It helps to have those resources in place already and to have a structure that is a little more interdisciplinary in the humanities and social sciences. I can also work with a large range of people from outside the university.
So the opportunities for collaboration and creativity and the resources for that are much greater right now in Austin than they are in Madison.
What problem do you have with the political climate in Madison?
I have a double problem with it. One, I find it offensive that people around the state of Wisconsin – Democrats and Republicans – who have benefited enormously from the university, now don’t want to support it and now use the university as a punching bag.
I find that deeply offensive.
There’s a little more of that on the Republican side, but there’s plenty of that on the Democrat side as well.
That’s the external part. Internally, I find it depressing that in response to that, members of the university committee [have] become less willing to try new things because they are more frightened about whether it will affect them or not.
I think you could see the anti-university attitude from the governor and the “No, we won’t try anything new” head-in-the-sand attitude from [UW System President] Kevin Reilly last year. It’s not just about them, but they are manifestations of these two dynamics – what’s become reinforcing and are basically like mutual suicides.
How does the UW System limit Madison?
I’m not anti-system, but I definitely believe that Madison needs to be a more flexible reformed institution. You cannot have the Legislature micromanaging Madison, and you cannot have Madison excessively bureaucratic. The system was always an incumbent.
For example, it creates duplications that aren’t necessary. There are all sorts of people who have authority over the campus at UW who never teach a class, never meet a student and don’t understand what goes on at campus.
When was the last time someone in System actually taught a class on campus? When was the last time System actually did a stick of research? So that means you’re reporting to people who don’t understand what you’re doing.