The Rise and Fall of the University of Wisconsin


In the late 19th and early 20th century, the University of Wisconsin established itself at the forefront of the wars over academic freedom. The battle cry of “fearless sifting and winnowing” came out of struggles for academic freedom fought in Madison against the moneyed interests who wanted universities to be subservient and produce docile workers. This phrase was immortalized on a famous plaque on Bascom Hill on the Madison campus after a professor was attacked for inviting radical anarchist Emma Goldman to campus, even though he didn’t agree with her.

That was the University of Wisconsin-Madison I went to in 1988 for my Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences. It became my impression (only after long reading in the literature of higher education) that the UW had peaked by 1988. But it was still a special place, because of the many decades of hard work, enlightened leadership, and passionate resistance to the kind of dull mediocrity that characterized too many other state universities around America.

That Wisconsin — both the university and the state, which for many decades were inseparable — died some more this week. It’s been dying for the past several years under an extremely hostile administration of Gov. Scott Walker, but this week a lot more of it died under a similarly hostile Board of Regents. It’s not just that tenure as it was known in Wisconsin is now over. It’s that the Governor and his Board of Regents have zero interest in what the leaders of those universities think, and zero knowledge of how the past policies led to the great university system that they are now dismantling.

And as bad as the consequences will be in Madison, they’ll be worse at the less heralded but many quality institutions throughout the UW System, from Milwaukee to Superior and everywhere in-between.

Once gutted, the UW System will not come back easily. Wisconsin was never a wealthy state. Derek Bok, the former Harvard president, once referred to the UW as a “levitating act” because of the disproportionate quality of the university compared to the state’s resources. But it wasn’t magic. What Bok didn’t seem to know or understand was Wisconsin’s history, again both the state and the university: forward-thinking immigrants, progressive government, wise leaders, synergy between higher education and government, recruitment of out-of-state leaders and students. That’s going, going, gone. It’s like topsoil; once you eliminate the essential nutrients for a great university and great university system, you eliminate the possibility of ever growing it again.

The current leadership in the state of Wisconsin does not care about any of this, and has been uncommonly frank about how much they do not care. This is the same leadership that has utterly tanked the state’s economy, seemingly in competition with Bobby Jindal in Louisiana for who can ruin a state and a state university system the fastest.

But, with apologies to Louisiana, the wasting away of the UW and the UW System is of greater, and international significance.

One of the world’s great universities is going down. Attention must be paid.

As Robert F. Kennedy famously said, the ripple effects of a courageous person’s life can build a current of change. The same is true of institutions. Wisconsin’s stand for a unique progressive form of education that united the farm, the state capitol, and the university rippled throughout higher education and changed universities and lives forever.

This Wisconsin ripple effect is documented. For example, my employer, the University of Georgia (UGA), emulated Wisconsin when a progressive chancellor decided to elevate UGA from the ranks of the ho-hum Southern state universities. Here’s the official account, from

“Chancellor Walter Barnard Hill, who led the University of Georgia from 1899 until his death in 1905… first articulated the university’s modern public service and outreach mission. He admired the close relationship that existed between the University of Wisconsin and the state of Wisconsin and led a pilgrimage of nearly 100 Georgians to see the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ in action. As a result of this journey and the power of Hill’s vision, Georgia’s leadership endorsed Hill’s plan for a modern, public service oriented university and backed that endorsement with increased support for the institution.”

It’s been over 110 years since that memorable train ride from Georgia to Wisconsin, but the ripple effect keeps rippling in Athens, GA. The latest data I can find indicate that the University of Wisconsin-Madison is the #1 source of Ph.D. recipients for UGA’s faculty (other than in-house UGA Ph.D.s). It’s not at all uncommon to see Wisconsin license plates in Athens, or to meet Athens residents who grew up there, went to school there, etc. My own department at UGA was composed of almost 20% UW-Madison Ph.D.s when I was hired in 2008. Many of the top faculty across all disciplines at UGA are from Wisconsin. And on and on — a century-plus of influence half a continent away, just one example of Wisconsin’s global ripple effect.

That ripple effect is now diminished, thanks to the Walker administration and its spokespeople on the Board of Regents. There’s nothing special about a cut-and-slashed-and-gutted university; indeed, American higher education is littered with such rotting corpses. No one needs to get on a train or a plane and go 1,000 miles to visit their remains. But the Wisconsin Idea of a university vigorously serving its state, and its state vigorously supporting the university? Now there’s something unique, worth investigating and emulating. But Scott Walker’s killing it, and taking down his state’s influence in higher education for reasons apparently known only to himself and those who bankroll him.

Public education matters in the United States. Public higher education in the United States matters for the entire world. Public research universities such as the UW-Madison create the next generation of scholars for the globe, at the same time that they create the next generation of leaders for America.

This isn’t hype. I went to graduate school and shared offices with people from every continent except Antarctica (although several of my officemates went to Antarctica, setting up automated weather observing equipment on the ice that is now crucial for understanding weather and climate there). My students when I was a teaching assistant at Wisconsin are now rising high in their own professions.

But, speaking of hype, you know those private universities who want you to think they’re worth the price tag? Check out where their faculty got their Ph.D.s. Lots of the prestige universities’ faculty members were grad students at public research universities — they taught labs and ran discussions for the great unwashed Public U kids before being hidden away behind the quarter-million-dollar paywalls of the Privates.

And in that sense the ripple effect is not just diminished, but inverted — a negative ripple effect. If the Wisconsins are gutted, everything goes down: fewer international leaders, fewer top faculty for both the public and the privates to hire, the works.

And so this isn’t just about one university in one state. No man is an island, and no university is isolated in its own bubble. Especially not a world leader in higher education such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and especially not the many fine institutions in the UW System.

And that is why attention must be paid.

A geography professor and meteorologist at UGA in Athens, GA. I write about news, sports, weather, climate, education, journalism, religion, poetry, the South.

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