In the past couple of weeks, the landscape of Wisconsin politics has been filled with politicians, students, university officials and other university stakeholders screaming into microphones, each trying to proclaim that they hold the key to the future of the UW System. One side loves to tout the flexibilities that the UW System would have under Gov. Scott Walker’s budget, while the other shrieks in terror at the drastic budget cuts to public education.
Among those proposed changes to the UW System is one that apparently was not supposed to happen: drastically changing the UW System’s mission statement and the Wisconsin Idea. Walker’s office chalked up that proposed change to a “drafting error” and promised it wouldn’t be in the final version of the budget he signs. Yet changes like this should put every UW System student on high alert. The changes to the Wisconsin Idea would have been detrimental to both the UW System and to Walker’s future.
Being the co-director for the Wisconsin Spirit Initiative on campus and a house fellow, I am well aware of the Wisconsin Idea and its influence on campus. As many university students know, the Wisconsin Idea was best summed up by professor Charles Van Hise in 1904 when he said that he “would never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in every state.” Since then a lot of time has passed, and the Wisconsin Idea turned into a concept. This concept defines the Wisconsin Idea as the effort put forth by everyone at the university to learn as much as possible, so that what is learned here can be used to improve their own lives and the lives of those around them — both now and in the future.
The changes Walker had proposed would have taken this traditional approach to the Wisconsin Idea and changed it to a more job-focused approach. Words like “to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of the state” would have been taken out in favor of words like “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” Additionally, the words “research” and “public service” were completely struck from the draft. Even though it is great to supply the state with well-trained, competent workers, I like to believe that the University of Wisconsin has a farther reach than that. Looking at the thousands of patents, the 17 Nobel Prizes, and the 26 Pulitzer Prizes coming from the flagship university of the UW System, this fact becomes self-evident. In addition to this, I would imagine that the 1,050 UW graduates in CEO positions or the 16,000 graduates in executive positions around the globe would agree with my statement. Therefore, to take the focus away from influencing the world to only producing workers would be underselling UW graduates. We already produce graduates that end up being leaders in a variety of fields and have tremendous impact across the world.
Not only would this change in the University’s mission statement be detrimental to the UW System, but it would also be detrimental to Walker’s career. In making this change, Walker would gain nothing. Instead, he would have continued to alienate an already-annoyed student population. I realize that some changes may need to be made, but Walker needs to know when to stop poking the proverbial bear — otherwise, he might get his hand bitten off. I think this is the reason why the proposed changes morphed into a “drafting error.”
I do not always agree with the way that he accomplishes his goals, but I am generally a supporter of Walker. While I find it hard to believe that this was all brought about by a drafting error, it may have been the best resolution for the situation. At least for the time being, the Wisconsin Idea is safe and Walker has saved himself from a significant amount of political blowback. To me, it seems like Walker tested the waters, and they were not favorable for change — at least not now, and not in this aspect.
Zach Walters ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in management and human resources and Spanish.