By Christine Evans Feb. 16, 2015 NYTimes Op-ed
MILWAUKEE — EARLIER this month, Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin and potential Republican presidential candidate, unveiled a proposed budget that would cut $300 million of funds to the University of Wisconsin system and shift power over tuition from the Legislature to a new public authority controlled by appointed regents. The initial draft of Mr. Walker’s budget bill also proposed to rewrite the university’s 110-year-old mission statement, known as the Wisconsin Idea, deleting “the search for truth” and replacing it with language about meeting “the state’s work-force needs.”
This attack, surely meant to impress possible donors to the governor’s potential presidential campaign, squanders the inheritance of all Wisconsinites: an affordable, top-ranked university system that attracts students and scholars from around the world and is a major contributor to the state’s economy. Criticism prompted the governor to restore the Wisconsin Idea’s wording, but the budget cuts remained.
Mr. Walker’s action implies that Wisconsinites no longer share their parents’ and grandparents’ values. He suggests that a university system with a mission to “educate people and improve the human condition” is no longer a priority here. He is wrong.
I teach history, a discipline that is always in the cross hairs of cuts designed to make a public university education more “practical.” But my students have shown me that they find the study of the past very relevant to their lives.
Many have already had careers when they come through my classroom door. Quite a few are military veterans, others have worked in factories and trades. We have a master’s degree student who runs a successful local business; other graduate students are former teachers who intend to return to their schools.
These students do not come to our university to get basic vocational skills or a modest-paying job. They already have those things, and they want more.
One recently returned veteran in my 20th-century Russia class was struggling emotionally. The tone of his questions could be hostile or abrupt. He missed classes because of medical appointments at Veterans Affairs. Then, a few days before a paper on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and Varlam Shalamov’s “Kolyma Tales” was due, he wrote to me. The descriptions of the Soviet gulag brought back his experiences of fear and privation as an infantryman. He wondered if other vets had been similarly unsettled.
I urged him to write about his experiences, because his story mattered. We met to get him back on track academically. I was so proud when he passed.
Signs that my students know what a humanities education is worth abound in more everyday moments as well. When, in an introductory lecture, I offhandedly mentioned Andrei Bely’s “Petersburg,” a novel about terrorism and revolution in Russia, undergraduates lined up to ask me to repeat the details, so that they could read it on their own time.
I ran into a former student recently and he mentioned that his mother was looking forward to reading the books from our class last year. One history major, an avid gun collector, commuted five hours each way from rural Wisconsin to take my historical methods class.
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I work, is an urban research university that has been nationally recognized for service to the community. Twenty million dollars — our campus’s likely share of the cuts — represents the entire annual budget of our business school, or our college of engineering, or our schools of public health, information studies and social welfare combined. Which should we eliminate to help students prepare for “real world” jobs?
We should reject Mr. Walker’s claim that he knows best what the limits of Wisconsin students’ education should be. As my students understand, the humanities train critical thinkers and citizens. That may be inconvenient for politicians who see their constituents as merely a “work force,” but it is definitely good for our democracy, as well as our economy.
Students like mine are the ones who will be hurt most directly by Mr. Walker’s proposed changes. The experiences of the Wisconsin system and that of other state universities show that when state funding is cut, regents raise tuition sharply to compensate. Students pay more and get less. This has already happened in Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal has implemented similarly drastic cuts to the public university system. During his time in office, tuition at public universities in the state has nearly doubled.
The Wisconsin Idea has been a national model for over a century. Mr. Walker’s assault on it is meant as a model, too — a guide for dismantling the public universities we’ve all inherited.
Christine Evans is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.