university of wisconsin bascom hall
Column
February 5, 2015

The War on the Wisconsin Idea

It Is Terrifying That Attacking Public Education Is What It Takes to Earn Republican Support in Contemporary Politics

For more than a century the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been lead by the Wisconsin Idea, a belief that the state universities of Wisconsin should be focused on improving the quality of life in the state and of society at large, rather than monetary gain. It is an idea that epitomizes the need for public education in the United States and illustrates the core purpose of education.

The University of Wisconsin System was founded on a belief that professors are responsible for far more than teaching. Rather, they are responsible for using their craft to better Wisconsin and to inspire their student’s to follow their lead. The Wisconsin Idea has encouraged students and alumni to look beyond personal enrichment at the way’s their lives can positively affect the world around them.

In short, the Wisconsin Idea aims to prepare students to be contributing members of society. It is no accident that UW-Madison is so widely respected around the world. It is the Wisconsin Idea that makes the university strong.

You would be hard pressed to find a Wisconsin student who has not given back to the community in some way. Since the creation of the Peace Corps in 1951, more than three thousand Wisconsin alumni have joined, making the university the second highest producer of Peace Corps volunteers.

The university has an active ROTC program encouraging students to serve their country proudly following graduation. Alumni have carried on to become dedicated public servants, from journalists to government officials and Nobel Prize winning laureates.

As a third generation Badger, the values taught at Wisconsin permeated my family and my upbringing. The Wisconsin Idea inspired my grandfather to devote his life to research penicillin and my father the law. I myself embarked on a career of public service, becoming a White House Intern in the Obama administration following my graduation.

To say that I am proud to be an alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Madison would be a gross understatement. I am honored to be a part of an alumni network so passionately focused on improving the world around them.

Yesterday the Wisconsin Idea came under attack by Governor Scott Walker. In his 2015 budget initiative, the governor stripped the university mandate of the Wisconsin Idea, making the sole purpose of the Wisconsin System to “meet the state’s workforce needs”.

Rather than reinforcing the university’s admirable commitment to public service, Governor Walker made clear he does not consider public service, or therefore public education, to be a virtue worth preserving.

After being met with bipartisan outrage, the governor claimed the re-write to merely be a drafting error. However, considering the governor’s track record, it is clear to me that he has only further revealed his blatant disrespect for the value of public education in Wisconsin.

Governor Walker is waging a war against public service. From stripping teachers of their union rights to drastically cutting education funds, Walker has made it clear that he values individual gain and self aggrandizement over civil service. His attempt today to disregard the Wisconsin Idea is just a further example of his disrespect towards public interest.

In Walker’s Wisconsin, corporate interests and funds reign supreme over the public good. Since he was elected governor in 2011, the state has drastically reduced financial aid for eligible students and imposed a double-digit tuition hike. Yet despite the rising cost of education, Walker has refused to support bipartisan state legislation to help student loan borrowers to refinance their loans and avoid going greater into debt as a result of higher education.

Just this week, in his 2015 budget plan, the governor proposed to cut $300 million of state funds from the UW system and will allow the UW system to impose unlimited tuition increases on Wisconsin students after 2016. Despite his claims that the cuts will provide the UW system with greater fiscal freedom, research by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau concludes that, if tuition increases are used to makeup the state funding cuts, tuition could skyrocket by 40%. The University of Wisconsin-Madison would no longer be the value university that has given it such a strong national reputation.

Walker will say and do whatever it takes to receive the funding necessary to run for president. It is terrifying indeed that attacking public education is what it takes to earn Republican support in contemporary politics.

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Adelaide Davis is a former intern at One Wisconsin Now & the Institute. She is an Assistant Account Executive at GMMB, a progressive political consulting and advocacy firm based in Washington D.C. She previously served in the Obama administration and is a 2013 graduate of UW-Madison.

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