Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

The Wisconsin Idea: Show me the money!

Scott Walker’s now-scuttled proposal to scrap the Wisconsin Idea—the search for truth, the duty to extend the benefits of the university beyond the borders of campus, etc.—has generated national media attention. The small-minded, mean-spirited nature of the language change caused far more widespread offense than Walker seems to have anticipated, and his clumsy backpedaling over the proposal and its withdrawal—the initial claim that it was a “drafting error” was quickly revealed to be a lie—drew immediate scrutiny from a national press trying to assess the personal character and political acumen of Walker, an increasingly prominent Republican presidential hopeful.

So it is with no small amount of exasperation that we in Wisconsin now see some national media commentators expressing relief that Walker has “backed down” from his unthinkable proposal. To be sure, removing the Wisconsin Idea from state law was a symbolic affront to human decency and dignity, and at the level of symbolism, things have now been put back in their proper place. Walker’s budget proposal, however, couples that symbolic blow with a very real, material one: a $300 million cut to the UW System over the coming two years, the start of a permanent 13% reduction in state funding. This unprecedentedly massive cut, which will do far more real-world damage to Wisconsin universities and their students than any mission statement rewording ever could, is still very much on the table.

We find ourselves at a place of symbolism without substance. You cannot support the ideals embodied in the Wisconsin Idea while simultaneously imposing the largest budget cut in the university’s history. The great successes of the UW System, its value to the state, the incalculable inheritance it represents, are all the result of the far-sighted material investment the state has made over the course of decades. You want to keep the Wisconsin Idea while slashing that investment? I call bullshit.

The Wisconsin Idea doesn’t come for free.

Indeed, almost everyone in Wisconsin outside of Walker’s inner circle seems to understand the calamity that will ensue if his proposed UW budget becomes law. Walker insists that his proposal to convert the UW System from a state agency to a public authority will generate savings sufficient to offset the cut (never mind the simultaneous unfunded tuition freeze). But this is a massive administrative change, one that will take years to carry through. Any savings will emerge only slowly, over the course of years, but the permanent 13% cut is to begin immediately, on July 1.

There is also a notable absence of evidence or analysis to support Walker’s specific savings claims. Walker says he wants to limit the scope of discussion to “debate about what is the real amount of savings that can be generated by an authority, which we believe is worth $150 million a year.” Everyone in Wisconsin should be asking: Why do you believe this? Where does this number come from? If the Walker administration has produced a report or analysis detailing how they arrived at the $150-million-a-year figure, they certainly haven’t shared it with the public. On the contrary, Walker seems to have plucked this eye-poppingly large number out of thin air in order to impress the small national circle of blue-chip Republican presidential donors.

People in Wisconsin are quickly realizing that Walker is governing with both eyes on next year’s presidential race. Wisconsin Republicans who are politically able to question Walker—those who don’t covet a spot in a potential Walker administration or have any national political aspirations of their own—have begun to speak out against the UW cuts. Like them, we need to keep the focus here in Wisconsin. We need to keep the focus on the students and families who will be left with huge tuition increases to attend diminished universities come 2017. Those of us who care more about Wisconsin and its public inheritance than about securing a patron for 2016 need to speak out, now.

The Wisconsin Idea media cycle has already run its course. The symbolic victory of preserving the UW mission statement will be hollow indeed if it is not followed by a successful movement to combat the very real threat to the UW System and its students that remains.

If Scott Walker truly believes in the Wisconsin Idea, it’s time for him to put his money where his mouth is.

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