A close friend recently argued that the University of Wisconsin should institute a service requirement for graduation. Although I don’t believe the university will do this anytime soon, I’d like to explain why a service requirement is not a good idea.

The university should strive to give their students an understanding of the wider Madison community and it has a responsibility to partner with the community to make it more equitable. This is the whole point of the Wisconsin Idea and one of the things which makes the university special. A service requirement seems like a natural extension of this principle. It’s a well-meaning initiative designed to improve the local community and enrich students’ lives. However, it distorts the spirit of service and unnecessarily burdens community partners and students.

The potential requirement would not have a positive effect on Madison nonprofits. Less than eager students, compelled to volunteer, would target existing nonprofits to fulfill graduation requirements. These organizations do not exist to provide Wisconsin’s students with an opportunity to fulfill requirements. They should not be expected to train and integrate short-term, unenthusiastic volunteers.

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Even if the university provides resources, it would still be asking them to drastically change the way they do things in order to enrich students’ lives. Because adequate service would be a requirement for graduation, rather stringent compliance structures would likely be enacted. Nonprofits would be responsible for guaranteeing students’ compliance. But, ensuring students’ compliance is not the mission of Madison nonprofits.

Characterizing these potential students as ‘less than eager,’ is not meant to criticize Madison’s student body. However, UW already has abundant opportunities for volunteering which engaged and passionate students can take advantage of. These opportunities range from the wildly successful Badger Volunteers program, connecting students with a community partner over the course of the semester, to numerous one-time volunteering opportunities. Forcing those who choose not to participate in existing programs into service will not create a more engaged campus or a healthier community.

On the contrary, making service a requirement dilutes the entire spirit of voluntary service. The potential requirement would likely be designed with students in mind. University administrators would see it as a way to enrich students’ lives and broaden their understanding of the world. Service can do these things, but it requires engagement, humility, and a desire to listen and learn. Compulsory service does not encourage these things.

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Instead, the policy would alienate students already not inclined to volunteer. Forcing them to give up their time would likely drive them away from meaningful service as they attempt to simply check mandatory boxes. It could also increase an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality in which students feel even more isolated from the wider community. Students would see the rest of Madison as something to be endured in order to graduate, not an awesome part of the Wisconsin experience.

The university should encourage dedicated service from its students. An engaged and passionate campus is an admirable goal and connecting with the wider Madison community is crucial to fulfilling the Wisconsin Idea. However, instituting a minimum number of service hours for students to graduate is not the right way to do this.

Will Maher ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in history and international studies.