Rep. Katrina Shankland: It’s time to renew the Wisconsin Idea

By Katrina Shankland for The Cap Times

Bucky Badger gets the smiles and high-fives. Abe Lincoln draws legions of photo-seeking graduates.

But if you want to know what UW-Madison is really all about, look to the big bronze “Sifting and Winnowing” plaque at the entrance of Bascom Hall.

For students on their way to lectures or administrators heading to work, it can be an easy thing to pass by — another historical marker on a hill dotted with them.

But it’s worth stopping for a second to ponder the words on the plaque, first written in 1894 by university regents who refused to censure a professor accused of being a pro-union socialist.

You’ll realize they form a mission statement for UW-Madison:

“Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth may be found.”

The statement grounds UW-Madison in a tradition of free thought, declaring the university a place where ideas are presented, challenged, analyzed and advanced.

The words tell students and visitors they have arrived at a place that welcomes their perspectives and encourages them to take in those of the people who are here with them.

UW-Madison has produced tie-dyed hippies and buttoned-down conservatives; Ayn Rand disciples and, yes, even some pro-union socialists.

The plaque at the center of campus gives you an idea why.

In 1905, University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise passionately proclaimed that he would "never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in the state.” Wisconsin’s 26 UW campuses strengthen the state by giving everyone equal access to education and opportunity. They’re also our state’s economic engine, creating jobs, educating future leaders and innovators, and sustaining economies through ground-breaking research and partnerships that extend well beyond the boundaries of each campus.

It’s time to revitalize the Wisconsin Idea.

Since Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators took control of our state, the UW System has sustained over half a billion dollars in budget cuts, massive faculty layoffs, weakened shared governance and tenure, and emergency reserves at lower levels than businesses would operate under. At the same time, Republicans have poured hundreds of millions of our tax dollars into private voucher schools and a sports arena and approved billions in cash handouts to a foreign company. Eleven people who make over $30 million each get access to a tax credit that costs us $22 million. It’s not that we’re broke — it’s that Republican leaders have given away the farm.

On the heels of the restructuring of two-year and four-year campuses, both UW-Superior and UW-Stevens Point announced the elimination of major degree programs due to budget deficits. Without political science, history, art, English, sociology, or foreign language, students in northern and central Wisconsin will lose access — the kind of access Van Hise dreamed of. He didn’t envision students being forced to forgo college because they couldn’t afford the pricier schools or trekking hundreds of miles to a “have” university while their local “have not” campus is limited to specialized fields. Instead he believed that every student, regardless of zip code, deserves an equal shot at an education.

Program changes will also affect workforce development. Wisconsin has a teacher shortage: The same forces behind the attacks on higher education have also waged rhetorical and budgetary attacks on our public schools, leaving public school funding below 2010 levels when adjusting for inflation. How will northern and central Wisconsin schools find teachers if program changes spur students to head to Madison and Milwaukee instead of Superior and Stevens Point to become English, civics, and art teachers? How will we recruit future educators with faculty being driven out by these policies?

The liberal arts don’t teach you what to do at a job site — they teach you how to think so you can capably perform on any job site. That’s why tech giants are increasingly turning to liberal arts majors. They know they’re flexible, adaptive, and ready for anything — it’s called “grit.” One need look no further than the articulate students who have demonstrated leadership in light of the Point Forward proposal.

From applied agriculture to the Zika virus to the ethics of big data, the research the UW System achieves supports all of us.

It’s no coincidence that in his 2015-17 state budget, Walker tried to rewrite the UW’s mission statement to eliminate the Wisconsin Idea, glibly replacing it with “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” He revealed his hand years ago. It’s time for all of us to reinvest in the UW System, stand up for the students who deserve the same opportunities that the generations before them had, and reclaim the Wisconsin Idea as a cherished value that makes us proud.