By Mary Bottari and Jonas Persson
UPDATE Feb. 5th -- After first defending the language in DePere, Walker backed down after being asked by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Dan Bice about the issue. Late in the day Walker spokesperson Laurel Patrick told media outlets that the changes to the UW mission were a "drafting error," and a Tweet from Walker made the same claim. The next day the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that far from being a drafting error, the language was specifically requested by the Walker administration.
In addition to unprecedented budget cuts to the University of Wisconsin (UW) system, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker struck "the search for truth" and the Wisconsin Idea from the university's mission in his executive budget bill unveiled last night.
First summed up by UW President Charles Van Hise in 1904, the Wisconsin Idea means that "the borders of the University are the borders of the state." Van Hise declared that he would “never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in the state” and this has long been the core philosophy of the UW System, which has worked hard over the decades to generate programs that serve people and communities all over the state.
Walker's executive budget (see below) amends Sec. 1111 of the statutes to remove language specifying that the UW system has a public service mission to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campus" and to "serve and stimulate society." He strikes language ensuring that the mission of the UW is to extend "training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition," as well as the language specifying that "the search for truth" is "basic to every purpose of the system."
During the Progressive Era, legislator Robert M. La Follette suggested that the Wisconsin Idea would help make Wisconsin a “laboratory for democracy,” and it has been linked to a series of progressive reforms, such as workers’ compensation, the direct election of United States Senators, and the non-partisan Legislative Reference Bureau. The mission of “reaching every family in the state” is also closely linked to Wisconsin public radio and TV. The Walker budget slashes $5 million in state funding from this important public service media.
In 1952, presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson gave a speech in Madison in which he reflected on the Wisconsin Idea of the university serving the public interest. To him, there was more to it than "a simple belief in the people." It also meant that: "the role of government was not to stumble along like a drunkard in the dark, but to light its way by the best torches of knowledge it could find."
The budget bill removes the text specifying that the UW System is created "in the public interest" from the statute. In the new wording, it is established out of "constitutional obligation."
$300 Million Slashed From the UW System While Neighboring States Invest in Higher Education
Walker also cut state funding for the UW System by $300 million. The unprecedented cut, which amounts to 13 percent of the state funding for the university system and 2.5 percent of the total budget, accompanied by a tuition freeze will result in the defunding of scores of departments and jeopardize the livelihood of faculty and graduate students. Walker attempts to sweeten the cuts by spinning off the system as a self-governing "public authority" similar to a port authority. The Board of Regents appointed by the governor would be the governing body and the legislature and the public would have less of a role in protecting academic freedom and other statutory rights.
The proposals come against the backdrop of four years of failed economic policies. The harsh prescription of tax breaks for the rich and cuts in services for the poor that Governor Walker promised would revitalize Wisconsin's economy and balance the budget have failed to do either. Wisconsin remains 32nd in the nation in new job growth and the state faces a $2.2 billion dollar deficit.
In a grim irony, the cut also comes amid reports that other states in the Midwest, such as Minnesota (which recently reported a $1.04 billion budget surplus), Indiana, Iowa and Ohio, are ramping up funding for its state universities, the Wisconsin State Journal reports.
Walker, who did not attend the UW system and failed to graduate from Marquette, seems to have little grasp of the role the state university system plays in the economy. In fact, a 2011 impact study found that the UW System, including alumni startups, generate $12.4 billion annually to the Wisconsin economy, “while supporting 128,146 Wisconsin jobs and generating $614 million in state tax revenue.”
Bipartisan Discontent as Walker Tries to Put an End to Public Higher Education
The cuts in Wisconsin higher education, and the apparent disregard for the fact that the UW System is a motor for innovation in the state, has drawn the ire of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) deplored “Walker’s cut-and-run policies that benefit the wealthy” while glancing at neighboring states “creating jobs, investing in their communities and seeing strong budget surpluses.”
Her Republican colleague Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) agreed, arguing that “The UW System is vital to our state and plays an important part in the development of technology and the establishment of new businesses, thereby increasing the amount of jobs available in Wisconsin.”
CMD later received an open records response from the Governor's office and a partial denial. The denial resulted in a CMD lawsuit and an effort by Walker to gut the open records law in the state budget.