Wisconsin Governor Drops Plan to Change Higher Education Mission to Focus Only on 'Workforce Development'

by | February 5, 2015

By Dan Simmons

Facing a massive backlash, Gov. Scott Walker retreated Wednesday from a proposal to wipe out the language at the foundation of the Wisconsin Idea.

"The Wisconsin Idea will continue to thrive. This was a drafting error. The final version of the budget will include the Wisconsin Idea," Walker's spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, said in an email.

But earlier in the day, Walker told reporters in De Pere that the proposed language change in his 2015-17 budget plan would better focus the University of Wisconsin System's mission.

"The focus would be honed in, in particular to look at making sure that we prepare individuals in this state . . . for the jobs and opportunities that are available in the state," Walker said, according to Wisconsin Radio Network.

System President Ray Cross, who was earlier critical of the proposed changes, issued a statement: "Thanks to the Governor for his commitment to the Wisconsin Idea."

The changes Walker had quietly proposed would have gutted a mission formed more than a century earlier. It's just one paragraph deep in state law but has proudly defined Wisconsin universities as anchored to the communities they serve statewide and has distinguished the University of Wisconsin System from competitors nationally.

Walker's earlier changes to the Wisconsin Idea would have struck pieces about state outreach, improving the human condition and pursuing truth in favor of more narrowly defining state campuses as agents of workforce development.

Gone would have been: "Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition."

Another section first struck and later restored: "Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth."

Also proposed to cut: "...to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses."

Walker would have added language to the opening sentence specifying the universities' responsibility as economic engines, adding the line, "to meet the state's workforce needs" to a sentence about developing human resources.

The proposed changes to the foundational identity of the statewide UW system came just a day after Walker's budget address Tuesday in which he went public with a controversial $300 million cut to the System coupled with more autonomy for the universities.

The change in wording to the Wisconsin Idea would have had no funding implications and does not suggest specific changes to programs or people at the 26 campuses of the UW System. But it would have stripped an identity considered by national observers to be distinctive to Wisconsin's system, a symbolic blow when university employees already are feeling under attack both by the proposed budget cuts and Walker's recent statements claiming professors don't work hard enough.

UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank, who as a candidate for the job spoke of her admiration for the Wisconsin Idea, said on Twitter: "The Wisconsin Idea is -- and always will be -- central to the mission of this university."

"Wisconsin must not abandon this core principle and value," said Ray Cross, president of the University of Wisconsin System, in a statement.

"We will work to preserve the Wisconsin Idea in every form." He later amended the statement, thanking Walker for retracting it.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said before Walker walked back the changes that he wouldn't have supported them.

"If there's going to be a rewrite of the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin, there must be a robust public discussion before any changes are made," he said in a statement.

The Wisconsin Idea was developed by UW-Madison president Charles Van Hise in 1904 and is oft-cited by higher education leaders nationally as a model.

"The Wisconsin Idea was very much a part of every conversation we had with candidates," said David McDonald, a longtime history professor who led the chancellor search that resulted in Blank's hiring. "It's absolutely fundamental to our identity."

It involves the concept that university resources, teaching programs and discoveries should be relevant and beneficial to every resident of the state. It's been the intended model for university activities for more than 100 years but its manner of expression has changed with the times. Since 1985, UW-Madison has sponsored an annual Wisconsin Idea seminar, a weeklong bus tour of the state for new employees, recently tenured faculty and other staffers. The university arranges stops at farms, factories, prisons and other institutions to meet state residents and be reminded of the university's outreach mission.

McDonald said he learned of the change on Wednesday morning with no prior knowledge it was coming.

"You'd think that changing a cornerstone document about our mission would merit a bit of debate before a unilateral amendment," he said.

Walker, a likely presidential candidate, can gain favor with some in his party's base by criticizing universities, particularly in Iowa, a key early state in the 2016 presidential contest, according to a Wednesday story in the Wall Street Journal.

State Journal reporter Mary Spicuzza contributed.

(c)2015 The Wisconsin State Journal