Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has come under fire this week not only for proposing a controversial and unprecedented $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin, but because his new budget deleted the values of truth and service from the University’s 100-plus-year-old mission and replaced them with the idea that the purpose of public higher education is “to meet the state’s workforce needs.”
Governor Walker’s edits erased language from the school’s founding principles — known as the “Wisconsin Idea” — that declares: “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.” The Governor also struck out the University’s goal of “public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition” and “serve and stimulate society.”
But after professors, students and alumni across the state sounded the alarm about these changes — which were buried in the nearly 2,000 page budget and not mentioned in the Governor’s budget speech — Walker began to back-pedal, calling the change a “drafting error” and promising to restore the lofty goals he deleted.
The Wisconsin Idea will continue to thrive. The final version of budget will fix drafting error – Mission statement will include WI Idea.
— Governor Walker (@GovWalker) February 4, 2015
Documents obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, however, tell a different story: that the Governor’s office deliberately sought the removal of phrases emphasizing the UW’s “search for truth” and the addition of language about preparing the state workforce. After getting called out in the press, Walker released a statement claiming he didn’t have “a change of heart. It was a simple miscommunication during the natural back and forth of this process.” He then told reporters that “someone” in his office “unfortunately interpreted the directions of keeping it simple.”
Many Wisconsinites are not convinced.
“He thinks we’re as stupid as he thinks we are lazy,” UW-Madison graduate student union leader Michael Billeaux told ThinkProgress. “Edits to the Wisconsin Idea don’t even belong in a budget bill. It was obviously deliberate.”
Professors also decried the attempted edits. Richard Leson, who teaches Medieval Art and Architecture at UW-Milwaukee, told ThinkProgress that he saw the revisions as a sign the Governor “would like to wage ideological warfare with us.”
“He’s changing the principles of free inquiry, the search for truth that the UW system is founded upon,” he said. “What’s really implicit in the [edits] is that the humanities and liberal arts are useless, because he thinks they’re not going to help Wisconsin in a financial sense.”
The Governor’s announcement backing off of the change came just hours after students at the UW biggest campuses took over campus buildings in protest, chanting, “We won’t go down without a fight. Education is a right.”
Alumni also joined protests and organizing meetings this week to push back against the changes. Steve Horn, who graduated from UW-Madison in 2011, is one of many speaking out. “The striking of this language is an attempt at memoricide by Walker and his corporate backers,” he told ThinkProgress. “What Walker and his Administration are attempting to do — with the helping hand of UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank — is change the character of the university system going forward.”
Billeaux suspects it was the opposition from fellow Wisconsin Republicans, not the student protests, that forced Walker to back away from the mission changes.
Despite seeing this as a “small victory,” he and people across the state connected to the universities remain concerned about other provisions in the Governor’s budget that could radically change the structure and mission of the public universities. Specifically, the Walker budget would convert the schools into a “public authority” governed by the Board of Regents — the vast majority of whom are appointed by the Governor — instead of the current system of “shared governance” that mandates input from professors, staff and students.
Billeaux told ThinkProgress this change would be more “dangerous” than the $300 million funding cut, while Professor Leson said he fears he and others will lose the voice they now have on everything from what courses to offer to new campus buildings to job security.
“This is not the freedom that the governor tells us it does,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ever a good idea for a partisan, appointed body to be making decisions about something like tenure. Our current shared governance is the only way we stay not answerable to partisan interests.”
Horn, who majored in Sociology and remains involved in campus activism today, shared these worries.
“It’s a gift to those who would like to see the university become even more of an epicenter of corporate-sponsored research and development and even less of a center of critical thinking and inquiry,” he said, predicting that under control of the Regents, “tuition rates will skyrocket, social sciences departments will shutter, and the campus will become more and more of a place corporations go for cheaper [research and development] than they can do in-house.”
Since taking office, Governor Walker’s policies have repeatedly drawn opposition from the state’s students. He signed a bill extending the residency requirement for voting that disenfranchised tens of thousands of students, barring otherwise eligible voters from participating in his contentious recall election.
The Governor also pushed for voter ID laws raised additional hurdles for out-of-state and low-income students, and cracked down on their demonstrations when they occupied the state capitol in protest of his attacks on collective bargaining for public sector unions.
Billeaux told ThinkProgress that the success of these moves emboldened the Governor to go after the university’s budget and legacy.
“We were driven out of the Capitol, our central demand to kill the [collective bargaining] bill was a failure, we had lost in a very real sense,” said Billeaux. “I think the signal Walker got is not that the campus unions and students were a threat that had to be eliminated, but that even though we put up a fight, we were weak enough for our opponents to succeed. But he’s wrong, and we’re going to keep fighting back.”