Inaugurated in 1904, University of Wisconsin (UW) President Charles Van Hise gradually changed the role of the school from pure academics to service to the state. Van Hise thought UW research should improve the lives of all Wisconsin citizens through research into better ways, for example, to farm, catch fish, and manage forests. Academics could also improve Wisconsin law and government. It came to be called the Wisconsin Idea.
It made perfect sense. The UW and the state capitol are only a mile apart at opposite ends of State Street in Madison. Cross-fertilization of state government and the UW seemed natural, especially when the economics department and state government were dominated by progressives such as professor John R. Commons and Governor Robert M. LaFollette. Van Hise and LaFollette were the first Wisconsin natives to hold their respective positions.
In the 1911 legislative session, Wisconsin adopted things we now take for granted: worker compensation, a state highway department, child labor laws, and an income tax. University research included three innovations that literally changed the face of farming in Wisconsin: dairying, raising better alfalfa, and the superiority of cylindrical silos.
In the years since the golden age of the Wisconsin Idea, UW/state relations have had their ups and downs. Right now, they are way down.
Three UW professors were convicted of lurid sex felonies in 2005. One used administrative leave to draw pay while in prison, convicted for a term of eight to ten years on three counts of sexual assault. It took UW nearly a year to fire the three. Another administrator was charged with sexual harassment. Almost crowded off the front page by crime stories, the UW Regents raised the minimum pay for chancellor at UW to $307,000; current UW chancellor John Wiley makes more because he has been chancellor since 2001. With the raise, he makes about the average salary for university presidents at major public schools. That is in addition to the several hundred dollars Wiley gets monthly for a car allowance. The timing and symbolism were terrible.
It wasn’t just crime or money that upset UW critics. Before spring break last year, the student health service reminded students they could stock up on morning-after pills. University researchers are using embryonic stem cells and even the term “embryonic stem cell research” makes many pro-lifers squirm.
Although the Wisconsin legislature is dominated by Republicans, it was a Democrat who called UW educrats “white-wine sipping quiche-eaters.” Many state legislators have taken a dim view of what they perceive as a university spinning out of control. Last year, they engineered a cut in UW funding. Wisconsin has an unusually creative line-item veto, which allowed Democratic Governor Jim Doyle to restore almost all funding. The Assembly narrowly passed a bill banning university health services from dispensing the morning-after pill. The state senate didn’t act on it so it never passed.
An irate Chancellor Wiley nevertheless blasted Assembly Republicans, exacerbating tensions. Republican legislators, Wiley said, don’t fully comprehend that it is UW that is the engine of growth in Wisconsin, not the citizens who pay taxes. Wiley and other UW faculty dismissed critics of the student health service and embryonic stem cell research as Neanderthals. Despite the liberal politics of former UW chancellor Donna Shalala, legislative relations never sunk this low during her tenure.
Because many Republican legislators attended colleges such as UW-Eau Claire, UW-La Crosse and UW-Oshkosh, Madison does not have a compelling hold on them. Those colleges are less expensive, have classes on schedules that allow working people to attend, are not hostile to conservative viewpoints, and provide services to small businesses and farmers in their districts.
The average family income in Wisconsin is $47,220. Increasingly, Wisconsin citizens can’t afford to send their qualified high school seniors to UW, where tuition has increased 66 percent since 2000. Many families are enrolling their children in the UW system schools in almost every larger city in the state. Because Wisconsin and Minnesota have tuition reciprocity, Wisconsin students can go to Minnesota state schools for the same price, too.
A former UW official told an audience there are three issues in higher education today: parking for the faculty, football for the alumni and sex for the students. Meanwhile, the new UW master plan calls for the building named for Van Hise to be torn down.
Is this all that’s left of the Wisconsin Idea?