Power of the Wisconsin Idea

Governor Scott Walker, following a day of criticism, said he erroneously tried to end the search for truth and efforts to improve the human condition in a bill that would define the University of Wisconsin's mission.

February 5, 2015

Governor Scott Walker backed away Wednesday from an effort to end the University of Wisconsin’s mission to search for truth and improve the human condition -- at least on paper.

A draft of Walker’s budget proposal, which cuts the university budget by $300 million over the next two years, would have removed key parts of the Wisconsin university system’s mission from state code. The word changes shocked Wisconsin higher education leaders and faculty, even those seemingly numb to a governor famous for antagonizing educators.

Following a day of criticism, Walker's spokeswoman said the changes were "a drafting error," though he had spoken favorably of some of the controversial changes earlier in the day.

In that draft of the governor's budget, gone from state code was the commandment that the university “search for truth.” Gone was the exhortation to “improve the human condition.” Gone was the charge to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses.”

Instead, Walker, a Republican, inserted a new benediction: “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

The new language’s effect on the Wisconsin system would in practice pale compared to the millions of dollars about to be bled out of the 26 campuses if Walker’s budget becomes law. But faculty, administrators and even leading state politicians were up in arms.

On Wednesday, the day after Walker released his budget, as attention focused on the language about the university's mission, the president of the University of Wisconsin System, the chancellor of its flagship campus in Madison and one of the state’s U.S. senators all suggested the governor was trying to dismantle the Wisconsin Idea, as the system’s mission to reach the masses is known.

At the end of the day, a Walker spokeswoman said the inflammatory language was all a mistake.

"The Wisconsin Idea will continue to thrive," spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an e-mail Wednesday evening. "This was a drafting error. The final version of the budget will include the Wisconsin Idea." A drafting error in other areas of the budget bill could have huge financial consequences for the state if it went uncaught.

A spokesman for the university system told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that higher ed officials had raised objections to the language before it was released. 

If it was a mistake, it was a mistake that upset a lot of people quickly. If it was not -- and some were dubious that the governor's all-important budget bill would have such an error -- then the governor's office made a small retreat, although the looming budget cuts are still expected force layoffs and program cuts.

Whole books -- including one with an introduction by Theodore Roosevelt -- have been written about the Wisconsin Idea. The concept is that the boundaries of the university should be the boundaries of the whole state itself, not the hedgerows of a campus. In 1904, University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise said he would never be content until the beneficial influence of the university “reaches every home in the state.”

“Van Hise would be turning in his grave,” said Alan Knox, a professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy analysis at University of Wisconsin at Madison. Knox coauthored a paper about the Wisconsin Idea in the 21st century. He said Walker’s language amounted to a “colossal assault” on the University of Wisconsin’s historic mission and the nation’s land-grant universities in general.

“It represents a way of thinking about not only the University of Wisconsin and its mission as land grant, but it flies in the face of every land-grant university in the country,” Knox said.

Ray Cross, the Wisconsin system president, who already tangled late last week with Walker over disparaging remarks the governor made about faculty, said the system's mission is more than just words on a page. “We will work to preserve the Wisconsin Idea in every form,” Cross said Wednesday in a statement.

Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank tweeted that the idea “is -- and always will be -- central to the mission of this university.”

A bit later, Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, asked people to retweet her if they agreed that the idea “is at the heart of our state’s proud tradition and history.”

Walker, a hopeful to become the next president of the United States, is being closely watched and has long been the bane of liberals, especially unions. Media were quick to jump on the changes to the mission statement, especially the end of the "search for truth."

“Walker is launching a war on the truth,” a blogger at the liberal Nation wrote. “Literally.”

But the reports of the wording changes attracted considerable attention from all kinds of media throughout Wisconsin.

Even Walker’s controversial proposed mission had contained sundry things that would almost necessarily include the search for truth and might inevitably improve the human condition. The university system, for instance, will still need to “discover and disseminate knowledge and develop in students heightened intellectual, cultural and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose.”

Walker proposed other changes that seemed at odds with some of his own agenda. He has called for faculty members to teach more, but he proposed deleting language in the law that says the university must make “undergraduate teaching its main priority.” He cut the command that the system make “effective and efficient use of human and physical resources.” He discarded the idea that the system should work “cooperatively with other education institutions and systems.” It is unclear if all of these changes are part of the "drafting error."

The Mission of Mission Statements

Mission statements, charters and mottoes are of varying worth.

John Thelin, a professor of higher education history at the University of Kentucky, said charters are the most important of the three because they are legal documents and serious business, very hard to alter and hard for state governments to dismiss or remove.

He said the oldest colleges and their founders were often merchants who were concerned that their community fulfill its obligation to educate generations of leaders who were literate, principled and concerned about their communities.

Some of these documents -- the charter for the College of Rhode Island, now Brown University, or the one for the University of Georgia, for instance -- were “enduring and impressive.”

Of late, though, that is changing.

“In recent years university mission statements tend to be revised so that they lean dangerously to the omnibus fallacy -- trying to be so encompassing that they become generic and saccharine in tone and content,” Thelin said in an email. “I think that is a function of two things: probably reliance on external public relations firms and marketing consultants, and, second, a reflection of the growth, diversity and complexity within an institution -- especially a large state university and its system.”

The Wisconsin Idea has been threatened in the past.

Exactly a century ago, in 1915, a stalwart faction of the Republican Party came to power and tried to pass “anti-university” laws, according to a legislative history by Jack Stark of the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau.

Those stalwarts’ proposals would have abolished the Board of Regents, ended a property tax that funded the university and lowered admission standards for the law and medical schools.

“None of the bills was enacted; in fact, they may have been introduced merely to send a message or to appeal to constituents,” Stark wrote.

Walker faces the same criticism this century: his whole budget has been called a presidential campaign message for Republican donors and primary voters.

"It sounds more like a slogan for the Tea Party and presidential aspirations than a serious effort to look at what would improve the state or the University of Wisconsin system," Knox said.


Back to Top