Wisconsin Governor Stirs a Debate Over What Professors Actually Do

Just what do university professors do all day?

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has been hearing plenty on that topic since he remarked this week, during a discussion of his proposal to cut state appropriations for the University of Wisconsin system by $300-million over two years, that the universities “might be able to make savings just by asking faculty and staff to consider teaching one more class a semester.

The governor’s comment, writes the Journal Sentinel, a newspaper in Milwaukee, bares “one of the most enduring sources of friction” in American higher education: What is the primary function of the faculty? On one side of the question are critics of universities who see it as working with students in the classroom. On the other are defenders of advancing knowledge through research, and sharing it in ways that go beyond the classroom.

The question is part of a larger public debate that goes back to at least 1967, when another Republican governor, Ronald Reagan of California, asserted that taxpayers should not be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” (See an article in The Chronicle, “The Day the Purpose of College Changed.”)

On campuses in Wisconsin this week, Governor Walker’s comment has been met with incredulity. “Most faculty members I know are working 60, 70 hours a week,” Jo Ellen Fair, a journalism professor and chair of the faculty’s University Committee on the Madison campus, told the Journal Sentinel. “I’m not sure what else they can do.”

The university system’s president, Raymond W. Cross, has expressed similar dismay. Asked during a radio interview about the governor’s remarks, Mr. Cross paused before giving a measured response. “I’m frustrated over that,” he said. “I think it’s a shame that people don’t understand what faculty really do.”

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