Melting Away Myths

The University of Wisconsin at Madison is viewed by some in the state as elitist, expensive and liberal, so the university's alumni group is holding one-on-one discussions around the state -- offering ideas and ice cream.

July 19, 2018
 
Wisconsin Alumni Association
Wisconsin Alumni Association crew members with the #GetTheScoop ice cream truck

The University of Wisconsin at Madison is the largest and best known of Wisconsin's 13 public universities, but over the past decade it has earned a reputation among some Wisconsinites for being expensive, liberal and hard to get into. The Wisconsin Alumni Association, equipped with a refurbished dairy van and gallons of ice cream, is trying to change that.

UW Madison “is a dream school for many people, but some folks don’t think it’s attainable,” said Tod Pritchard, director of media and communications for the Wisconsin Alumni Association. “But it’s incredibly attainable, and that’s a big myth that we’re trying to bust.”

The #GetTheScoop tour is traveling to local events throughout the state to challenge common accessibility and affordability assumptions about UW Madison. Volunteers from the alumni association staff the truck, occasionally joined by others from the university.

"What I end up doing is talking to people a lot," Pritchard said. "We generally have it set up where the truck is scooping out ice cream, and next to the truck we have a tent set up, and that’s where we do our myth busting. [We ask about] five facts, and you have to determine which are true and which are not true."

One of those myths is that in-state students have a harder time getting admitted to the university than out-of-state students. The UW Foundation polled 648 Wisconsin adults and found that 39 percent believe that less than half of the students who apply are accepted, and 22 percent believe that only a quarter are accepted. In reality, two-thirds of in-state applicants are admitted, which is higher than the university's general acceptance rate of 53.8 percent.

Affordability was also on the minds of aspiring Badgers and their families. Tuition and fees for the 2017-18 academic year was $10,534 -- higher than at any other Wisconsin university, but far less than out-of-state costs for other Big 10 schools, which charge anywhere from $25,000 to $52,000 per year. In an effort to make sure the university is affordable, UW Madison in February announced its Bucky’s Tuition Promise program, which guarantees free tuition to any admitted student whose family earns less than $56,000.

"Sometimes students don’t apply because they think they won’t get in, or they think they won’t be able to afford it," Pritchard said.

These concerns and misperceptions are not at all new. Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at Madison, wrote a paper in 2012 detailing the statewide disconnect between the university and the public. Two of her major findings centered around accessibility and affordability.

"People were concerned with admissions," Cramer wrote. "They worried that admissions policies favored out-of-state and international students at the expense of in-state students. Many groups told stories of an excellent student in their community who had recently been denied admission."

Cramer's interviewees were also concerned with the faculty.

"In short, the people I talked with often remarked that faculty are 'lazy,' 'liberal' and 'elitist,'" Cramer wrote, and added that some are concerned that faculty would "indoctrinate" students with their liberal views and that faculty are inattentive to the concerns of ordinary citizens.

Kurt Squire, a former UW Madison professor who now teaches at the University of California, Irvine, thinks that the political and economic climate of the state has allowed the town-gown divide to grow.

"There’s been a really strong effort by right-wing think tanks to create a division between universities and the public," Squire said. "The animosity is really clear -- there are members of the state Legislature that have it out for the university and they don’t really hide it.”

Squire hopes the divide will shrink as time passes and leadership changes in local government and at the university.

"It will probably change in five or 10 years as things shift and as new leadership comes in," Squire said. "The effects of the changing economy will be more clear to people in Wisconsin. There’s a naive belief that we could return to the economic conditions of 20 or 25 years ago without the underlying conditions that you need, like unions, for example."

His take falls in line with Cramer's findings from six years ago, but his evidence is mostly anecdotal, gathered from time spent chatting with people at county fairs, supper clubs and fish fries. Those types of local gatherings are exactly the target for #GetTheScoop.

"We’d like it to be at locations where people really have the time to chat with us about the university and bust some of these myths," Pritchard said. "Sometimes at those big events it’s so hustle and bustle, everyone’s rushing around and you don’t have time to talk with folks.”

The group has served 1,953 scoops of ice cream so far and plans to make 35 more stops before UW Madison’s homecoming in October. The dairy truck was refurbished for the Thank You 72 project, an effort to travel to all 72 counties of Wisconsin and thank them for sending their “best and brightest” to Madison.

“It was a mess, it was really a shell of a truck” when they found it in Canada, Pritchard said. “We thought it would be kind of cool to have not just a standard truck-looking thing. We wanted to have something that generated interest and was kind of a throwback to days gone by.”

But the real homage to UW Madison is the Babcock ice cream being scooped. Produced in the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant, an integral part of the university's food science program, the ice cream has been a staple for many Madison students and state residents.

“It’s our chance to bring a little bit of Wisconsin Madison to all of these different places. It’s fun to see people’s eyes light up when they see Babcock ice cream,” Pritchard said. “I have alumni come up to me and say, ‘This reminds me so much of when I went to school there; this is my favorite memory, or this is what I used to do.’”

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