UW Must Reconnect

The news shouldn’t have been surprising, but in fact I was surprised that it was this bad. A study by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum concludes that state financial support for the UW System, when measured per student, ranks 43rd in the nation.

The good news is that support for the state’s technical colleges ranks fifth. This is the direct result of more than a decade of Republican policies. The party has a disdain for the ivory tower while it does want to train workers. So, in that sense, this makes sense.

Of course, there’s no reason why it has to be one or the other. Wisconsin could rank near the top for both technical school and college funding. And, if all we cared about was the state’s economy, that’s exactly what we’d do. Training workers for specific jobs is important, but it’s no less important to do the basic research that creates new products and jobs. Epic is a great example of a little operation that became a giant, and it’s here in Wisconsin only because of the UW.

The UW also trains business people, doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers, accountants, wildlife managers, nurses and more. And, you could argue that even those of us who just picked up bachelors degrees from Letters and Science became more productive citizens because of it.

But it’s that last point that sticks. The hard-right loves to mock English majors and the like (God help me, I was a political science major) for studying esoteric subjects that have little utility in the marketplace, and getting to do it with a substantial subsidy from taxpayers.

To add insult to injury, a few of those English and poli sci majors march around their campuses demanding all sorts of things, like the removal of big rocks, and disrupting talks by conservative speakers, and just generally making themselves obnoxious. They intend to call out the “oppressive white supremacist patriarchy” for its many sins.

So, what do you think is going to happen when the party of the oppressive white supremacist patriarchy is running state government for better than a decade? We’re going to wind up ranked seventh from the bottom.

It’s a free country and the First Amendment is first for a reason. You can’t and shouldn’t stop peaceful protests just because they’re based on a fallacy or they’re bad public relations for the UW.

But it doesn’t help when administrators cave to unreasonable demands based on unfounded accusations. For example, the Madison campus hurt its own cause with the Legislature and the broader public when it agreed to move the Chamberlin Rock because someone a century ago had referred to it by an offensive name. And it was an even bigger mistake — actually, a miscarriage of justice — to strip Frederic March’s name from a theater in the Memorial Union. In that case, the administration ordered up a study on March, which concluded that he actually had a long pro-civil rights record and that his membership in the unfortunately named “Ku Klux Klan” on campus had no relationship to the racist activities of the real KKK. No matter. The administration cancelled March anyway.

So, it’s a fool’s errand for the UW to try to stifle its students. But how they respond matters a lot. There are at least two actions that the System could take to improve its standing with the Legislature and with sensible people all over the state.

Jay Rothman

First, System President Jay Rothman could order the reinstatement of March’s name to the Memorial Union theater or to some other appropriate and high-profile site on campus.

Second, he could push for the adoption by the Regents of a free speech statement, similar to that from the University of Chicago, which reads in part:

In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.

Republicans, who used to claim to be all about a strong state economy, are undermining that economy when they short-change the UW System. This is mostly on the GOP, but the UW administration can do a lot more to stop pushing them in the wrong direction.

And on a tangentially related matter… The cost of a college football coaching change turns out to be $15.5 million. Yesterday the Wisconsin State Journal reported that the UW paid Cincinnati $3.5 million to cover the cost of Luke Fickell’s contract buyout. That’s on top of the $11 million they paid fired coach Paul Chryst and the $1 million they paid to interim coach Jim Leonhard to just go away. So, again, somebody please explain to me why, if a program has better than $15 million to spend on nothing, it doesn’t have a dime to pay its own players?


Published by dave cieslewicz

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

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