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Sunday, March 03, 2024

Wiley responds to Thursday's staging

Last Thursday, I was invited to participate in a student forum about the USA Patriot Act. This event was well covered in the newspapers, and evidenced at least one broad point of agreement shared by me and many of those in the audience: that the Patriot Act and several other contemporaneous legislative enactments hurriedly enacted in the interest of public safety have, over time, proved to be just that-hastily crafted and, in many respects, ill-advised.  




I suspect as well that I shared something else with those in attendance, a passionate concern about how some features of this legislation impact negatively and unnecessarily on the very nature of life and work in a research university. 




These are complicated issues, ones that we have been working to address in a variety of national settings virtually since the day this legislation was first proposed. I came to the Thursday meeting prepared to discuss these issues, to understand the perspectives of those in the audience, and to share my own. This did not happen. Not really. And I believe it is necessary to explain why.  




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True dialogue requires an openness to other views, to an exchange of information. Without fair process, no one learns anything. The staging of the Thursday night event is something that everyone in this community should examine, because we are living in an era when issues of significant public concern seem to be developing almost daily. We need to get better about talking about them, about sharing views and, when necessary, agreeing to disagree. We owe each other that degree of respect. 




Following several other speakers, I was presented with a demand to respond \yes"" or ""no"" to five previously prepared questions, three consisting of blanket condemnations of federal actions, one of an order instructing the campus police to stop doing something they have never done and are not empowered to do, and one committing me to prepare a statement with the mandatory assistance of certain designated students. I declined, instead explaining our ongoing efforts to achieve change. I also reaffirmed a point I have stated publicly previously, and which goes to the heart of any sharing of views.  




I do not have the prerogative of appearing to state the consensus view of the university community on issues of significant public moment, unless there is, in fact, consensus-as reflected through the full participation of all shared governance groups on campus. This university belongs to the people of the state of Wisconsin, and to the 60,000 students, faculty and staff who work, study and live here. I do not speak for all of them, nor do 50 people united on a specific topic of interest. Not ever. 




But no discussion followed from this point. The event organizers informed those in the audience that they had their ""answer,"" and they could leave. That was a regrettable action, and will be equally regrettable every time something similar happens in the future. We have to talk on this campus, not stage apparent disagreements as matters of simple and intractable opposition. No issue can or should be managed that simply, nor should the stated outcomes of such an effort be perceived to say anything of substance. Substance requires substantive exchange, and I hope we can all work toward that objective in the future. 




In brief, here is what I would have shared with the audience, reflecting very much the comments of Sen. Russ Feingold during his recent appearance on campus. Sen. Feingold is a co-sponsor of the SAFE Act, proposed legislation that has broad bipartisan support, corrects the deficiencies in the Patriot Act and its companion legislation that are of immediate concern to colleges and universities, and acts upon the efforts we have made through several leading consortia in higher education to achieve desired corrections. We have helped the members of Congress to understand many of the unintended consequences of the Patriot Act and its companion legislation, and, with the SAFE Act, we are close to achieving a proper balance between domestic security and individual liberty. That is something worth talking about. 




John Wiley is the chancellor of UW-Madison. Respond to Responses will be printed on Friday. 




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