On Wisconsin

April 21, 2015
President, Campus Compact|

One of the many pleasures of my job is traveling around the country seeing the inspiring work of our state and regional Campus Compacts and the faculty, staff, and students of our member colleges and universities. Last week, I was in Madison for the annual Wisconsin Campus Compact Civic Engagement Institute. It was a daylong gathering featuring an intriguing keynote address by Ed Morrison, founder of Strategic Doing, located at Purdue University’s Center for Regional Development. I had the opportunity to sit down with chancellors and presidents, participate in the introduction of WiCC’s talented new executive director, and cheer along with everyone else at the extraordinary award winners celebrated at the event.

Public higher education in Wisconsin, as everyone knows, is under assault. The state that launched the Wisconsin Idea—the notion that the core purpose of the university is to serve the people of the state—has been threatened not only with preposterous budget cuts to its public universities but even with the evisceration of the universities’ public mission. The details are complex; some proposals include moves that in other states might seem like a welcome change, such as the creation of greater distance between the university and the legislature. The overall direction, however, is clear: State leaders have concluded that an effective public higher education system serving the people of the state is contrary to their political interests. That is the chilling reality.

So I headed out to Wisconsin with some trepidation. I worried that I would arrive in Madison to find a group of demoralized people, tired of fighting to defend principles that should be self-evident. I feared that the energy of administrators, faculty, and staff for the public work represented by Campus Compact would be sapped. I worried that in this moment, the people who have advanced partnership-building, service and civic learning, and community-based research would be preparing to retreat into the safe space of their offices and labs to wait out the storm.

I found the opposite. I found a group of people coming together to celebrate and re-affirm the public purposes of higher education. I found people committed to the enduring principles of the Wisconsin Idea. Most importantly, I found people who recognized that playing the long game means consistently showing how higher education—public and private—can and does serve the public.

The central lesson of all movements for change is that progress is not linear. Victories are often followed by defeats, sometimes strings of them. Those of us who believe in the public purposes of higher education may feel at the moment that we are on the defensive. Leaders in Washington discuss higher education as if its only purpose were job training. Few states are willing to commit to the robust support of higher education that created the conditions for the shared prosperity of the second half of the twentieth century. Scholars who address important public issues face retribution. Faculty and staff who engage students in democracy keep it under the radar. 

My visit to Wisconsin was a welcome reminder that the best defense of our work is simply to keep doing it. Through the creation of partnerships and the engagement of students and scholars in positive change, we build stronger communities with a deeper commitment to the common good. That is not a short-term tactic for defeating terrible proposals. It is a long-term strategy for creating a more just and democratic society.