Signs of Campus Dissent in Madison

Not surprisingly, the University of Wisconsin at Madison has been deeply affected by the important labor dispute that has consumed the state, its capitol, and the nation the last two weeks. Passions are high, especially over the part of Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal that will drastically limit collective bargaining by state employees covered by unions. The budget proposal also requires public employees to contribute substantially more to their healthcare and pensions. But the collective bargaining provision has generated the most heat.

Libertarian thinker Alvaro Vargos Llosa has remarked that Wisconsin’s debate over collective bargaining is of “planetary” significance, while Walter Russell Mead of The American Interest claims that the standoff constitutes a “watershed” event in American history, as the nation vies over the size and scope of public finances.

At an overflow law school forum on the issue on February 23, I stated that the conflict is an example of what the great political scientist Samuel Huntington called “creedal passion” in American Politics and the Promise of Disharmony. Creedal passion involves the intense conflict that periodically erupts over which fundamental values will shape public policy and philosophy.  As Huntington wrote, “The history of American politics is the repetition of new beginnings and flawed outcomes, promise and disillusion, reform and reaction. American history is the history of the efforts of groups to promote their interests by realizing American ideals.” In the Wisconsin case, the creedal debate concerns the proper balance and arrangement between the private and public sectors in an era of crippling debt.

Creedal passion describes the situation at the University, as the issue has reverberated across campus, triggering much discussion and debate. In this respect, it represents what a university is supposed to be: a place of intense intellectual engagement regarding matters of importance. In another respect, the nature of the debate also sheds some light on the political and cultural tensions of the contemporary university. What emerges is an ambivalent picture. On the one hand, many parts of the University have spoken as a chorus against Walker’s proposals. The budget bill is controversial in society, dividing the public according to polls; so the chorus on campus appears to be but another example of the ideological one-sidedness of major universities. On the other hand, examples of counter-discourse have also appeared, and the university appears to be groping toward a measure of intellectual diversity on the issue.

A good example of one-sidedness is what happened at a meeting of Letters and Sciences department chairs and program directors a few days ago. At the beginning of the meeting, the dean of L&S announced that the state budget for the University was still in abeyance because the Democratic state senators were still in hiding out of state. This announcement was met with universal cheering in the room, to the consternation of a few of my colleagues whose views were less cast in stone. Students have also told me of numerous instances of faculty members and teaching assistants taking stands in class against Walker’s proposals, and even cancelling or altering classes in order to allow—and even encourage—students to participate in demonstrations. Such actions constitute violations of pedagogical responsibility, not least because they entail selective politicization and disrespect the views of students who might disagree. There is also the problem of students already in debt not receiving the education for which they have dearly paid.

PROFS, the lobbying arm of the faculty in relation to the legislature, has issued public statements about class policy that have clearly supported faculty members who choose to treat their classes in this fashion. (Some of my colleagues interpreted the statements to actually encourage such behavior, but in my view the language is more ambiguous.) Meanwhile, the two student papers (Madison is one of the last campuses that has two student papers with standing on campus) have been on the same page, descrying the policy brewing at the other end of State Street. Even the Herald, which has earned a deserved reputation over the decades of questioning the conventional wisdom on campus, has led the chorus against Walker.

But the campus appears less one-sided upon closer inspection. Though student opposition to Walker is conspicuously more pronounced, other student viewpoints are revealed if given the opportunity. In my lecture course on Criminal Law and Justice of 200 students, opinion was pretty evenly divided in the one major discussion we had about the issue. (Despite qualms, I felt pedagogically obligated to have the class discuss the issue for 25 minutes.) If you make the effort to encourage all viewpoints, the picture of reality on the ground can change.

The law school forum also suggested more diversity of thought that many had expected. Though some expected a political rally mentality, the audience was respectful of all opinions, and was very responsive to my talk on the First Amendment and free speech aspects of the controversy, which encouraged them to consider and give due respect to all relevant viewpoints on the issue. The audience was clearly there to learn, not to push a political agenda. Meanwhile, the administration has maintained a neutral position on the issue.

One reason for the undercurrent of diverse viewpoints is that many individuals understand that we are confronting difficult times that call for major financial changes. No doubt the vast majority of my colleagues oppose Walker’s collective bargaining restrictions, which are the most radical part of his proposals. But many of those opposed to this measure also accept the fact that the world has changed, and that the status quo is no longer viable. Change is necessary, so the real question is what form it takes. The most thoughtful see our time as not simply a retrenchment, but as an opportunity.

Enter UW-Madison chancellor Biddy Martin and her own reform proposal, the New Badger Partnership, which is a kind of sideshow to Walker’s center stage. As has been reported in these pages and elsewhere, the gist of Martin’s reform proposal is for the Madison campus to become more independent of the state financially and in dealing with regulations. Rather than being part of the UW system, we would become a “public authority.” Major budget cuts regarding state support would be offset by the University hiking fees and tuition. Whether you agree with Martin’s agenda or not (and it is radical in its own right), at least it embodies the spirit of reform and realism, and is an effort to renew the prospects for a historically major university. As Martin espoused her proposal in an email letter to the campus following Walker’s highly controversial budget address on March 1, which called for cutting $250,000,000 from the UW system, one half of which would come from Madison, “The Governor has also included language that would create public authority status for UW-Madison. That model will give us greater ability to deal with the challenges we face and remain one of the nation's great public flagships. There is no way to avoid pain in the short term, but we have the opportunity to rebound more quickly so we can continue to thrive and serve the state and its citizens.”

Amidst the chorus of condemnation of the Walker budget, counter-views are stirring that are the sign of historical change. As Huntington concluded the statement quoted above, the point about creedal passion is not that it be “realized but that is not and never can be realized completely or satisfactorily.” The debate has just begun.


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

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