Midwest: Wisconsin Idea Has to Flow in Both Directions

The senseless dustup over the appointment of UCLA Law School Dean Jennifer Mnookin as the new UW Madison Chancellor has raised a more interesting — and worthwhile — question about the Wisconsin Idea.

In case you were tending to more important matters, here’s a quick recap. The Board of Regents — both Democratic and Republican appointees — voted unanimously to offer the job to Mnookin, who will replace outgoing Chancellor Rebecca Blank. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Sen. Steve Nass (who makes a career out of hounding the UW while making himself look like an idiot) and even former Governor and System President Tommy Thompson (who should have had better sense) immediately attacked the choice.

Their complaints came down to a vague xenophobia — she’s from the dreaded Left Coast. It’s also a fair bet that they liked the home town favorite, Provost John Karl Scholz, for the job. Thompson said as much and, for the record, I agree that Scholz seemed like the best choice, at least on paper.

Nonetheless, the Regents made their choice after reviewing the records and meeting in depth with all the candidates, and they made that choice without dissent. I’m going to express some faith that they saw something in Mnookin that was the right fit for the Madison campus — and no, I don’t think it was just her gender. They had other female candidates to choose from and keep in mind that this is the same group of Regents that selected Thompson and then another white guy to be System President.

But here’s the interesting thing. Of the candidates to make it to the final round, Mnookin was the one to emphasize her commitment to the Wisconsin Idea. That’s the notion, articulated more than a century ago, that the boundaries of the University should match those of the state, that the University should be of some service to every Wisconsinite, not just some out-of-touch ivory tower. In fact, it’s just an extension of the purpose of land grant institutions articulated in the Morrill Act of 1862, but Wisconsin put a clear focus on practicality and usefulness.

That was a great idea when it was first articulated by UW President Charles Van Hise in 1905 and it’s even more important today. Former Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans have used the UW as a punching bag, exploiting a growing and very real disconnect, which is present not just here but internationally, between the expert class and average people, but especially with blue collar citizens.

When the economy transitioned to a knowledge-based, worldly economy the premium paid to the better educated classes grew wildly. The income gap between those who finished college and those who didn’t is wider than ever. And the better-educated have stronger marriages while they live in safer neighborhoods and have more secure retirements. Most tellingly, their political concerns run to what I would classify as boutique issues — things like race and gender equality and climate change as opposed to more immediate concerns like jobs and crime.

We have a group of people — roughly the third of Americans with a four-year degree or more — that has benefited handsomely from the premium paid to education and the benefits of globalization. We have another group — the other two-thirds — which has seen their wages stagnate, their neighborhoods deteriorate and their life prospects for themselves and their children turn dark.

For those readers who are math-challenged, two-thirds is more than one-third. Hence, Donald Trump. And Brexit. And Viktor Orban. And Jair Bolsonaro. And Marine Le Pen, who lost but not by enough.

The new great challenge of college educated people is not to lead the great unwashed, but to save democracy and liberalism by reconnecting with them, by bringing them along into our success. By knocking off the condescending B.S. and respecting them as human beings.

The UW has to be here.

So, if the Wisconsin Idea is that experts at the University will impart their wisdom to legislators, farmers, industrialists and everyone else, well, I’m not sure everyone else is going to be all that receptive to the expertise. There is an unfortunate tendency among liberals to be pedantic, preachy and self-righteous. You might have the answer to a problem, but if you present it as your gift of enlightenment to undeserving fools, you will never be heard.

I don’t know to what depth Mnookin has studied the Wisconsin Idea. Maybe it was just good salesmanship on her part. But maybe it was the key thing that sold her to the Regents. If so, she now needs to take the next step — Wisconsin Idea 2.0. In this iteration the concept has to be about listening as much as telling. It has to be about not just pointing out how local communities benefit from the UW, but how the UW learns from and benefits from all of Wisconsin. Wisconsin Idea 2.0 has to be a conversation, not a lecture.

Welcome to Midwest, a regular Sunday morning feature here at YSDA, where we explore what’s good about the center. Want to read more about why it’s good to be in the middle? 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.

One thought on “Midwest: Wisconsin Idea Has to Flow in Both Directions

  1. The cart is in front of the horse. We don’t even have a democracy that listens to the will of the people. Somehow the University system is going to? Sure, sound good. But first things first. Our political system is so screwed up there’s no chance for our university system – the politics define the parameters of the university.

    There are plenty of problems people want solved, that academics are happy to research and discuss, but that will never see the light of day. The only problems that money/power cares about are those that increase their own money/power.

    What problems do any of you think exist that the university system is ignoring? Inflation? The answer to that is easy – plenty of people have plenty of solutions to address it, none of which are acceptable to money/power.
    So sure, academics can hear there’s a problem, lay out multiple paths to address the problem, then be completely ignored because the solutions don’t support current money/power dynamics.

    How many ideas have the support of the vast majority of Americans yet, somehow, politicians never quite find the time to tend to? We are well on our way to diminishing democracy even further – until that fire is under control every other issue is moot.


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