Katherine Walsh is an associate professor of political science at UW-Madison. Since 2007 she has gathered information about how the state perceives the university. Walsh’s research, published in her paper “The Distance from Public Institutions of Higher Education,” has exposed a rift between Wisconsinites and the university and the university’s failure to live up to the high expectations of the Wisconsin idea. By taking an innovative approach to the problems Walsh has highlighted, Wisconsin could join the forefront of the national conversation on how to restructure higher education.
When Walsh asked Wisconsinites what the university did not do well, responses were very diverse. Admissions policies, tuition costs, the party-school label and a perceived liberal bias were all mentioned. But when asked what UW-Madison should be doing, many people responded vaguely with little idea of how a state university should be interacting with the state at large.
Considering Wisconsin has declared 2011-12 the year of the Wisconsin Idea—which is “the principle that the university should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom”—the fact that most citizens could not suggest how the university should or could serve them shows a failure on UW-Madison’s part. Citizens feel distant from UW-Madison because of a failure to listen and respond to taxpaying communities.
Walsh’s data and her conclusions show multiple sides to this disconnect, but I will focus on two: political rhetoric and university policy.
In the conclusions section of her report Walsh connects political ideology with how people view UW-Madison but also notes a solely-political explanation would be deficient. Walsh elaborates on her research in a post on themonkeycage.org, where she paraphrased the beliefs she encountered: “Government employees are lazy. If they do work hard, they get great benefits, so that doesn’t really count as hard work. In other words, they aren’t really like those of us who have struggled to make ends meet, and done so with our hands, ever since we can remember.”
This paraphrase could be lifted straight out of a pro-Walker rally. Conservatives have been tapping into feelings of distrust of the public sector in Wisconsin and across the nation. Although this distrust is not exclusively conservative, it is the conservative establishment that has been using these feelings to manipulate discourse.
Since Obama’s inauguration and the birth of the tea party, American conservatism has been in a state of flux. Unfortunately the rapidly shifting rhetoric has arguably unfairly targeted certain areas including public universities. If the people of Wisconsin were more familiar with the work that is or could be done to serve their communities the conservative agenda would not be as well-received.
UW-Madison needs to act quickly to increase its connections with the state’s population. Walsh suggests UW adopt a model of public relations where listening is crucial, as opposed to focusing on expert knowledge and one-directional communication. Budgetary restraints and red tape will slow down any large institutional response to Walsh’s prodding but UW-Madison must reorient itself now towards an ethos of community involvement.
In Walsh’s report the UW- Extension system was praised, so I think the first step is expanding UW-Extension’s scope and visibility. Extension programs should be tailored to their communities’ wants and needs, but the extensions should also explicitly connect to Madison. Encouraging professors not only to guest-lecture at extension campuses but also sit and listen to why people were drawn to that extension in the first place will help link extensions with UW-Madison, and will serve to keep researchers in touch with in-state communities.
When anyone affiliated with UW ventures into “outstate” Wisconsin—defined by Walsh as areas outside of the Madison and Milwaukee metro areas—they should make a conscious effort to represent UW-Madison as personable and friendly first, then knowledgeable. By doing that, people will be more likely to see UW as a collection of individuals, not as an inaccessible bureaucracy.
Long-term changes also need to be enacted. UW must continue Walsh’s research, which will serve two purposes: increasing the data pool and putting people in contact with UW-Madison representatives. Secondly, UW-Madison should establish a statewide program that can quickly highlight needs and enlist academics to address the issues—an academic SWAT team, basically. Whether people want to be more knowledgeable of linear algebra or second-language acquisition, there should be a system where people can enlist help directly from the university. Not only will this vastly better the public opinion of UW-Madison, but will also help foster an attitude of service at UW.
By realigning itself with the Wisconsin Idea, UW-Madison could become an example of how public universities deserve their massive budgets. The recent and justified political fixations on debt and government spending will not end until the public sphere has changed. With student debt passing the $1 trillion mark, more Americans consider higher education a risky investment. If UW-Madison can benefit communities across the state it will be able to garner wide appreciation that crosses political and community boundaries.
David is a senior majoring in English. Please send all feedback to email@example.com.