Cardinal View: Wisconsin Idea in peril without dialogue
Image By: Laura Mahoney

Cardinal View: Wisconsin Idea in peril without dialogue

University must give faculty platforms to interact with state communities in order to realize the Wisconsin Idea

The Wisconsin Idea is a core piece of the UW-Madison experience. It is as familiar to students as Jump Around, Babcock ice cream and trudging up Bascom Hill. It is impossible to spend four years at UW-Madison and not hear about it in a class, political debate or a TV ad. 

For those of you who don’t know, the Wisconsin Idea posits that the influence of the university should touch every corner of the state. It is something that is a point of pride for the university and makes it stand out among its peers. 

But not everyone loves the Wisconsin Idea. Not every community wants to be touched by the university’s reach. And not every Wisconsinite understands — or wants to understand — the work that its faculty do. 

Professors, both at UW-Madison and across the UW System, do important work that affects the state’s citizens on a daily basis, whether citizens know it or not. They will often work more than 40 hours a week to do so, mentoring students and applying for grants on top of normal teaching and research responsibilities. 

But from Act 10, signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker in 2011, to a record $250 million budget cut in 2015, to recent changes in tenure protections, faculty members argue that their work is not appreciated by legislators. 

This assault on university staff recently continued with a provision in the latest state budget that would require faculty self-report how many hours they teach. The proposal largely flew under the radar, but Walker has implied in the past that faculty could help ease budget constraints by teaching more classes. 

Accountability and transparency are good things. But it is not as if faculty are not already being held accountable for what they do with their time — professors say that they must already report their hours. And especially at an institution like UW-Madison, where research, clinical work and mentoring are all vital, non-teaching roles, zeroing in on teaching seems to miss many key ways that faculty contribute to the university. 

Some faculty members also wonder if the teaching data could be used against them in future budget cycles, when the university often finds itself at the center of one political quagmire or another. 

“They’re going to need to be able to give reasons why it’s OK to cut faculty, to cut university salaries, to cut expenditures in general,” said Dave Vanness, an associate professor at UW-Madison and member of the PROFS steering committee. “And they’ll be able to look at that data and say, ‘you know your average faculty member spends nine hours a week in the classroom, what are they doing with the other 31?’ I guess I just have a problem with that.” 

The clear implication from the tracking provision is that the state Legislature does not trust UW System professors specifically. Other state employees do not have similarly specific requirements — state lawmakers do not have to track how much time they spend recording floor votes or in committee hearings, for instance. 

But professors, for better or for worse, seem to have taken on a different status. For many Wisconsinites throughout the state, it seems that the disgruntlement with elite professors has reached a tipping point. 

“I kind of think the politics of resentment are easy to play and it’s easier to play in a negative way then build it up in a positive way,” Vanness said. “It’s easier to tear down then to build up. And that’s what’s so sad about it. You can convince people that an institution that is working day in and day out isn’t doing anything and it’s very hard to then go back and show all the things that we do.” 

While divides between the staff of largely urban, liberal universities and the more rural parts of the state are not new, they have been deepened in recent years. The stereotype of the lazy, elitist professor who only puts in enough effort to earn tenure has been cranked into overdrive. The trust that many people have in faculty members has worn down. 

“When you’re hearing all the time about these people who just sit around all the time and expect to have a job for life, well you start to wonder,” said Eric Sandgren, a professor in UW-Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “And people can use that. So I think that has made people wary, less likely to trust.” 

Other factors make the disconnect between rural Wisconsin and the ivory towers of UW-Madison even more profound. Paradoxically, as state funding has decreased, other sources of funding have become even more critical, meaning that faculty must work even harder to find research dollars to help support their programs. 

And while research is not a major element of every UW System school, at UW-Madison it is vital to supporting the university’s reputation as an elite institution. The university’s research rankings fell last year from fourth to sixth nationally, meaning that we can ill-afford further de-emphasizing those practices. 

If teaching is now more important than ever, thanks to the state Legislature, and research is still a required piece of a professor’s job requirement, how will faculty members be afforded the opportunity to go out into the Wisconsin community, describe their work and turn the tide of resentment towards their profession? 

“The demands are increasing and resources are decreasing so you really have to narrow your focus,” Sandgren said. “It’s hard to go out and interact with people in the state when you’re already working a whole lot more than 40 hours a week.” 

University administrators have undertaken efforts to shift public attitudes toward the university outside of Madison, Milwaukee or La Crosse. This has stemmed from the wise belief that greater understanding of UW-Madison and its mission would make it more likely state lawmakers would value public, higher education when it comes time to dole out state funds. 

That campaign has purchased billboard advertisements in far-flung parts of the state and started a website designed to highlight the impact of UW-Madison on each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. But the voice of a carefully crafted public relations strategy is not the same as grassroots encounters between members of the university community and the state’s residents. A website cannot create shared common ground that comes from those conversations; a billboard can’t buy a valuable back-and-forth discussion. 

One potential solution: The UW-Madison Speakers Bureau, which helps facilitate events with faculty in communities throughout the state. In the last 18 months, the program has set up 87 events which have been attended by over 5,300 Wisconsinites. While this is a mere fraction of the state’s population, it is a start — and one bolstered by the efforts of individual faculty members who try to communicate their work on personal trips throughout the state. 

The Wisconsin Idea is a powerful one and is a unique hallmark of the Badger State — there is no “Michigan Idea” or “Illinois Idea.” But it is predicated on a relationship between the university and the communities it serves, a tie which has been eroding now for some time. 

Pointing fingers, however, is useless. Faculty members are busy, wearing many hats on a day-to-day basis, and many are already trying to re-discover the sort of common ground that has gone missing. The university must help them by finding even more ways to promote such grassroots encounters, lest one of the most powerful ideals in American higher education become a hollow figurehead. 

Cardinal View editorials represent The Daily Cardinal's organizational opinion. Each editorial is crafted independent of news coverage. Please send all comments, questions and concerns to editorialboard@dailycardinal.com.

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