U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Wisconsonites, Fearless All: A Guest Post by Brad Baranowski


“Whatever may be the limitation which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” Memorial plaque from the class of 1910 on Bascom Hall, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Ideas are difficult things to trace. They might, however, prove all too easy to erase. Here in Wisconsin, citizens of the state are faced with an experiment to test this speculation.

By now the news has travelled far and wide. Governor Walker announced Tuesday night his bi-annual budget for the upcoming legislative session to consider. Under the auspices of righting the state’s deficit, the Governor has proposed a wide-ranging series of cuts to public institutions and programs. Among the most severe are the cuts slated for the University of Wisconsin system.

In brief, these cuts trade much needed funding for greater alleged “freedoms.”The UW system will face $300 million in cuts over the next two years if this budget passes. The University of Wisconsin-Madison alone—which is the system’s flagship and my academic home—will be hit with a $114 million budget cut.[1]This is roughly equal to the entire operating cost of some of the system’s smaller campuses, such as UW-Green Bay. These cuts will impact more than just the state capital, however. UW-Whitewater, located in a city of less than 15,000 people, would face a 19 percent drop in its funding under this budget.[2] Considering that smaller campuses both educate regional students and provide an influx of funds into local economies, cuts to the UW system have statewide ramifications that stretch beyond our campuses.

In return, the state legislature would grant the UW system new freedoms, redesignating it a “public authority”rather than the system’s current standing as a state agency. As explained by Governor Walker, this means less legislative oversight, giving the university a freerer hand to run its affairs.But these liberties ring hollow since the budget cuts are coupled with a standing tuition freeze that won’t lift until 2017. For the time being, these cuts almost certainly mean that out-of-state tuitions will rise, layoffs will occur, and faculty retention will become more difficult. In the future, in-state tuition will surely follow suit. On top of these constraints, sixteen out of the eighteen members of the Board of Regents, the governing body of the university, are appointed by the governor, meaning political influence over the system’s direction will continue despite claims to the contrary.

Many have wondered what will remain not only of the university system, but of the Wisconsin Idea. Higher education’s guiding mission, the Wisconsin Idea has a long and widely cherished history, first outlined by UW President Charles Van Hise in 1904. At its core, the ideal holds that higher education in Wisconsin is meant to serve the state’s citizens. Universities, this idea holds, should be affordable and accessible. They should be places where intellectual discovery and debate is democratic and open. They should create better, more responsible citizens. They should help people live fulfilling lives—and aid those who wish to aid others in doing so. “In brief,”as Van Hise stated, “the ideal of the university is to render service, while at the same time inflexibly holding to search for truth and to freedom in teaching.”[3]

In the past twenty-four hours, the links between these budget cuts and the Wisconsin Idea have become clear. On Wednesday it was revealed that Governor Walker’s budget proposal struck the Wisconsin Idea from the university’s mission statement. Public outcry at this revelation was swift and fierce. Rebecca Blank, chancellor of UW-Madison, tweeted that “The Wisconsin Idea is—and always will be—central to the mission of this university.”Similar statements could be heard from the system’s president, Ray Cross, as well as scores of concerned faculty, students, alumni, and citizens.

In response to this outcry, Governor Walker has claimed that striking the Wisconsin Idea from the university system’s mission statement was a mere “drafting error.”The extent to which this was “drafting”and not a political error is still up in the air. While it is heartening to hear Governor Walker clarify his current position,more “sifting and winnowing”is necessary to get at the full truth of this matter.[4] In any case, the clarification from Governor Walker obscures more than it clarifies. Regardless of his intent, the budget itself is deeply antithetical to the Wisconsin Idea. Striking the Wisconsin Idea’s language from the university’s mission was no “drafting error”in this regard. It was simply honest.

The Wisconsin Idea stretches beyond the universities’s lecture halls and campus greens. As a well-known maxim up here states: “the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” Aware of the links, this budget leave few programs that the Wisconsin Idea has manifested itself in untouched. Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television face $5 million in cuts. Public K-12 schools will receive no additional funds even after steeps in past budgets. The Department of Natural Resources faces a 13 year-long moratorium on land purchases for conservation. The list goes on.

To think that these are not a concern of university students and employees is wrong. As the Wisconsin Idea makes clear: we are citizens first, students and employees second. These are cuts that strike at all citizens.

In the coming days, weeks, and months, Wisconsinites will have to rally to defend institutions and ideas that generations of citizens have built. A state whose symbol is the badger will once again have to dig in and fight. University students, staff, and faculty will take part, as any interpretation of our ideals would seem to demand. Our history proves that Wisconsinites have the courage for this. From the founding of the Republican party in Ripon to fight the extension of slavery and “Fighting Bob”LaFollette’s crusades against trusts during the Progressive era, to John Muir’s defense of America’s natural beauty to the struggle to ratify the nineteenth amendment, Wisconsinites do not shy away from a fight. Even academic freedom in this state, as expressed in the memorial plaque on Bascom Hall here at the UW-Madison, means being “fearless”. There have been times in the state’s history when what is struck at is so basic, when the implications are so broad, that few could escape its effects and striking back was the only option. We are living in those times.

But as these examples suggest, the battles to be waged will have to take place on the plains of citizenship and civic ideals as well as on the state’s newspapers, phone lines, and streets. This is a state, after all, with the only publicly-owned football team in the NFL. Public institutions are not simply “service providers”to Wisconsinites. They are proud parts of our identity. A budget that does not capture this pride is not worthy of this state’s approval.

As such, this budget is bigger than the numbers it lists. Cuts likes those currently being discussed here in Wisconsin are not merely about state budget imbalances. They are not even solely about the state in which they are taking place.

The proposed budget cuts into values that Americans have risen to defend, occasionally even to champion, throughout our history. The idea that truth is not the sole property of those who can afford access to it, but is open to all who have an interest in its discovery and preservation; that life is defined by the principles we defend, not just the jobs we work; that education is as much about the relationships we form with one another and passions that we cultivate as it is about the skills we master and references we win; and that public institutions that allow intellectual- and civic-engagement to meet are places worth defending—these are values that do not end at the shores of Lake Michigan or the banks of the Mississippi. Rather they echo across Wisconsin’s borders and through its forty-nine brethren states.

This budget is an attack not only on the Wisconsin Idea. It undermines core American ideals, too. We are all Wisconsinites now.

Bradley Baranowski is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying twentieth century U.S. intellectual history. His dissertation examines the career of John Rawls’s 1971 A Theory of Justice. The project reconstructs Rawls’s early intellectual biography, his shifting relation to the work, and its reception among scholars, politicians, and public. You can find some of his previous writing for this blog here.





2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks so much for this, Brad. This is some really horrifying stuff going on, but I can’t say it isn’t exactly the sort of thing I’ve been expecting to escalate for a long time. Pieces like this though encourage us to get ready for a long and necessary fight, so thanks.

  2. Thanks for this, Brad. A colleague just today sent me an article on the “drafting error.” I was planning to talk a bit about Wisconsin on Monday in my lecture on Progressivism; I’ll be saying alot more now.

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