UPDATE (2-3-15) 5:30 pm: Facing sharp criticism for proposing to abandon the University of Wisconsin’s public-service mission statement, as outlined in state statutes, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker on Wednesday afternoon abruptly dropped the plan. Criticized for attacking the Wisconsin Idea and the state’s historic commitment to academic inquiry, the all-but-announced 2016 presidential candidate shifted course less than twenty-four hours after making his proposal, which came as part of a broader assault on higher education funding. Walker claimed the line-by-line proposal for changing the statutes was a “drafting error.” The following article provides background and context regarding the prospective presidential candidate’s stumble.
Americans have returned to the question of whether the Republican Party has launched a “war on science”—as 2016 presidential prospects Chris Christie and Rand Paul have abandoned public-health imperatives in order to feed skepticism about whether children should be vaccinated against infectious diseases.
But Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has trumped his fellow 2016 contenders.
Walker is launching a war on the truth.
As part of a broader attempt to diminish the state’s support for, and ties to, the University of Wisconsin System, Walker wants to strike “Wisconsin Idea” language from state statutes—including references to public service and a commitment to “search for truth.”
The Wisconsin Idea, which is much discussed but not always so much understood in the present day, has always been always been about seeking the truth, and about applying the results of that search not just to curriculum choices but to the policies and programs of the state.
The statutes of the state of Wisconsin detail a vision of the role of the University of Wisconsin rooted in this Wisconsin Idea, which holds that the mission of the UW is both to educate students and to provide information and ideas to solve the challenges facing the state and its citizens. Outlined more than a century ago in the language of longtime University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise, Governor Robert M. La Follette and their progressive allies, the Wisconsin Idea has always held that “the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.”
What this meant, practically, was that when farmers faced a challenge, UW professors did research to help them address it. When city officials were looking to improve sanitation, UW professors provided assistance. When state and local officials were looking to assure that elections were fair and functional, UW professors analyzed and responded to proposals. And when new technologies developed, such as radio and television, the UW utilized them to spread knowledge and ideas to Wisconsinites who might never set foot on a campus. (Notably, Walker’s budget also proposes cuts to Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television.)