UW Screws Up Again

What is it with my alma mater?

Last year the UW became a national curiosity (to put it gently) when it banished a boulder for committing the offense of being referred to by an ugly name. Once. A century ago. At a time when the ugly name was in common usage.

On the heels of that embarrassing episode, the UW cancelled alum Frederic March, an actor with a long history of fighting for civil rights, because he briefly was a member of a campus group calling itself the Ku Klux Klan. Never mind that this KKK had nothing at all to do with that KKK.

New York Times columnist, linguist John McWhorter, who is also Black, had a field day with those two escapades. “What is it about the University of Wisconsin and race?” he asked. YSDA reader and fellow UW alum George Gonis wrote me to let me know that he was a behind the scenes player in both McWhorter’s columns and a letter from the NAACP calling for March’s reinstatement to a place of honor. Among the facts Gonis discovered in his research: “The officers of March’s UW honor society in late 1922 (more than two years after March received his diploma and left Madison) pretty immediately dropped the KKK name as they were mortified that people were confusing their academic-achievement honorary with the hate group.”

Well, McWhorter may want to send a thank you note to the UW for providing him with yet another idea for a column. Last week, the interim chancellor of the Whitewater campus resigned and created a fuss over a student survey intended to determine the free speech climate on UW campuses.

Now, in my mind and in the minds of traditional liberals like me, there is nothing more important than free speech, especially on campuses. The idea that we should allow a full airing of ideas and then allow individuals to “sift and winnow” and make up their own minds is at the very heart of what it means to be an educated and thoughtful person. (And in this sense, by “educated” I don’t necessarily mean holding a college degree. I mean simply being curious and widely read, something that doesn’t require a piece of paper.)

Interim Whitewater Chancellor Jim Henderson resigned because he did’t like a survey on free speech.

But here’s the problem. We’ve raised a generation of college students and, apparently of professors and college administrators, who don’t share that view. A story in the Wisconsin State Journal summed it up:

Tyler Katzenberger, a spokesperson for UW-Madison’s student government, said… free speech is important but he would prefer to focus on what he said were more pressing diversity problems, such as students of color feeling unwelcome on campus.

That’s it in a nutshell and Tyler inadvertently made a case for the need for the survey. The attitude that someone’s idea of “social justice” should justify quelling certain speech is at the very heart of the matter. That’s why the survey is a good idea. And why wouldn’t a university system want to use a research tool to understand just how significant that issue is on their campuses?

Now, to be sure, the funding behind the survey raises eyebrows. The money comes from an outfit funded by John Menard, an outspoken conservative and the owner of a hardware store chain that is inferior to my local Ace. But liberals need to check themselves here. After all, they chafe at the idea that get-out-the-vote efforts funded by Mark Zuckerberg in the 2020 election were anything but healthy civic engagement. You can’t have it both ways, people.

Moreover, the survey was vetted and overseen by the System’s own research unit and it was reviewed by campus committees set up to screen surveys for ethics issues.

It certainly isn’t a perfect tool. For example, one professor noted problems with a question asking if students were ever made to feel “uncomfortable” in a class. He correctly notes that one job of a university is to make students question their assumptions, which can be uncomfortable. I’d lose that question.

The upshot is that the UW Eau Claire prof who is running the survey, and who describes himself as a liberal, has pulled it back for now. That’s smart on his part, I suppose. The thing has become so controversial at this point that any results would probably be tainted anyway.

But we’re left with the impression that the UW System simply doesn’t want to know the truth about the free speech climate on its campuses because Tyler Katzenberger got it right. Free speech has become supplanted by the vague but zealous desire to be “welcoming.”

And on a related matter… the Biden Administration has, without reason, extended yet again the moratorium on collecting student debt. The moratorium, which allows borrowers to forego making payments without accumulating penalties or interest, has already cost the treasury $100 billion and this latest extension to August will cost another $15 to $20 billion. In what alternative universe is this “progressive”? The unemployment rate among college grads is only 2%, below the general rate of 3.2%. College grads make about twice as much as workers without a four-year degree and those with advanced degrees have higher debts but also earn even more. And this is a blanket moratorium, applying equally to truly struggling grads and successful professionals alike. So, this is a big wealth transfer from less well-off people to wealthier people. A guy can’t help but feel that what’s going on here is that Biden and the Democrats are playing to the affluent college grads who now make up their activist base.

Want to read more curiously conservative views from a liberal? Pick up a copy of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

2 thoughts on “UW Screws Up Again

  1. Mayor Dave,

    I generally like your opinions but get off your high horse on student loans. The moratorium includes a moratorium on interest which is really helpful to those of us paying down our loans. As a reminder not all college grads have cushy high paying jobs. Yes it was my responsibility and yes I believe in paying off my loans but for heaven’s sake the interest rates can be ridiculous and maybe they should be low to no interest loans to begin with.





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