Buried in a 2,000-page state budget that Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, proposed in February 2015 were a few sentences that eradicated a century-old principle from the University of Wisconsin system’s mission statement.
The principle, known as the "Wisconsin Idea," states that the knowledge and positive influence of those at the university should spread beyond the bounds of the campus and into every town and home in the state. It has been a guiding tenet of Wisconsin’s higher-education system since the Progressive Era. But in Governor Walker’s proposal, that thesis was replaced by a call for universities to prepare their graduates to "meet the state’s work-force needs."
That substitution — as well as the budget-related provisions of the bill, which would cut university funding by $250 million over two years — provoked an outcry among university faculty members. Eventually, after the governor blamed the new wording on a "drafting error," the original language was restored.
Now several professors and staff members at the University of Wisconsin at Madison have decided to turn the debacle into a teachable moment.
They brainstormed a course that Chad A. Goldberg, a professor of sociology at the university, will teach this fall called "Forward? The Wisconsin Idea, Past and Present," in which students will learn about the evolving meaning of the historic principle through class sessions and a series of public lectures by faculty members and guest speakers.
Mr. Goldberg, who has taught at the university since 2001, spoke this week with The Chronicle about the impetus for the seminar and why he thinks, now more than ever, that it’s crucial to foster a debate about the purpose of higher education. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. There was a public outcry over the attempt to write the Wisconsin Idea out of the university’s mission statement. Was that the inspiration for this class?
A. That was definitely a contributing factor. Many people at the university saw that as a pretty clear signal of the higher-education agenda of the current political class in Wisconsin. Some of us thought there’s really a need to spark a public conversation about the function of a public university … That debate wasn’t really happening. And we thought it was important to try to stimulate that discussion.
I should add that although Governor Walker backed away from that effort to literally rewrite the mission statement, more-recent changes — such as Act 55 [which eliminated the state law protecting University of Wisconsin system tenured professors from being dismissed without just cause and due process] and new policies adopted by the Board of Regents, most of whom are appointees of Governor Walker — are an attempt to further the governor’s vision of what the mission of the university should be through other means.
The undermining of tenure, the weakening of faculty governance, the funding issues that the university has been dealing with — all of these problems have to be seen in context as part of a larger effort to really transform the mission and role of the university in a pretty radical way, and in a way that I personally think would be terribly mistaken.
Q. You mentioned that revising the university’s mission to focus on work-force development would be a mistake. Why?
A. I’m not saying that preparing students for their future careers is unimportant. I do think that’s part of what a public university should be doing. My concern is, I don’t think that’s all of what a public university should be doing. And it would be a terrible mistake to narrow the mission of the university exclusively to work-force training.
We have to remember that as we are preparing workers for jobs, we are also preparing citizens for society. And there’s a whole lot more that goes into promoting democratic citizenship than making sure someone has a particular skill for a particular job.
Q. Has the Wisconsin Idea personally affected you and your research?
A. It certainly shaped my understanding of what I do for a living. There are people who would say that scholars produce knowledge for its own sake. I’m a pragmatist. I don’t agree with that. I think knowledge ultimately has to be useful in some way to have value. Now my concern is too often the conception of what’s useful is defined very, very, very narrowly.
Q. There’s been a lot of attention paid to Wisconsin higher education lately. Do you feel any sense of responsibility to either have the class go well or reach a broader audience?
A. Yes, I would say absolutely. I feel a pretty heavy sense of responsibility. I think many of us who have worked at the university for any significant length of time feel the same way. There is this amazing legacy, this amazing kind of inheritance that we are the custodians of. And personally it is sort of my professional responsibility to preserve that heritage and to pass it on.
Q. Are you afraid that there might be some backlash or you might be persecuted for teaching the course because it is a very political topic?
A. It is possible, and I have some concerns about that. As you know, last year faculty members passed a series of no-confidence votes for the system president and the Board of Regents [and Mr. Goldberg played a role in that movement]. When that was going on, some politicians made threatening remarks about what the faculty were doing. At that time, I said I hoped very much that most of the legislators understood that the free exchange of ideas was the lifeblood of a great university. And that they may disagree with the faculty expressing an opinion, but that they wouldn’t punish the university because of the expression of an idea.
So I think that goes for this course as well. There may be some politicians that threaten some kind of reprisal because they don’t like the course … but I would hope that whatever disagreements they may have, they would understand the value of academic freedom.