During the university’s celebration of the Year of the Wisconsin Idea, experts are questioning the strength of the state’s relationship with the University of Wisconsin System and whether the public feels a growing distance from the higher education system.

In a report published last month, UW political science professor Kathy Walsh said while public opinion matters for the administration of public higher education, little is known about how members of the public perceive these institutions.

According to the report, after having in-depth conversations with people throughout the state about UW, Walsh found people still have a respect for the university system, but they make sense of it through a “lens of distance.”

To improve the public’s perception, Walsh said it is essential for the university to listen and attempt to communicate with the public, rather than to market to the public like a corporation.

Walsh added those wishing to draw conclusions about the shape of public opinion toward higher education in general should read the results with some caution.

UW System spokesperson David Giroux said he does not believe the campus is experiencing a new dynamic with the public, but that the relationship between the two is being documented in a different way.

“The way Walsh has documented this relationship is a unique approach,” Giroux said. “She’s taken an ethnographic and anthropological approach to public perception of the university. The technique she uses solicits feedback that you wouldn’t normally get in an online survey.”

According to Giroux, Walsh’s work has shown the university can strengthen communication with the state by focusing on more two-way dialogue, which he said might be able to happen through greater use of social media.

Giroux added the system’s understanding of the public’s perceptions could be improved even more if a study was done to ask what people thought of the university closest to them, since people are usually closest to and more involved in the universities they live near. 

“For example, if you live in northern Wisconsin but went to school at UW, public opinion in that area might not affect you,” Giroux said. “We have to compare it to the other campuses and how they might feel differently toward a university they live near or are involved in. ”

Adam Gamoran, UW professor of educational policy studies and director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, said he does not believe the relationship between the public and the UW System has weakened over the past year.

“It’s still one of great appreciation,” Gamoran said. “The demand for in-state families to send their kids here has not lessened. The recognition and contribution and science, technology, culture and arts continue.”

Gamoran added he understands if families are concerned about tuition and does not believe in an “anything goes” system, but  for the most part he has not seen a diminishing relationship between the two groups.