The culture wars come for public higher education

The culture wars come for public higher education June 12, 2015

Connor Wood

Source: Eric E. Johnson, (Creative Commons)

Everyone holds something sacred. Whether you’re a devout believer or a hard-nosed atheist, there are at least a few values and ideas that you consider inviolable. I often write about sacred values from a cool, academic distance – dissecting them in order to, say, better understand the culture wars. But what happens when a clash of sacred values gets personal? Well, I’ve just found out – the evangelical Christian governor of Wisconsin is about to enact a set of laws that will effectively gut my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. Needless to say, this makes it a lot harder to stay cool and objective.

For more than 100 years, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been a beacon for people who love learning, are drawn to the pursuit of truth, and aren’t snotty about it. It’s a rare, top-level state university, where up until now you could receive a world-class education for a price that’s practically a rounding error compared with the tuition tab on an average private university. (Case in point: I paid about $6,000 a year.) Make all the jokes about state schools you like, but Wisconsin, a founding member of the Association of American Universities, is a powerhouse of research – with more than a billion dollars a year in research activity, it perennially ranks near the very top.

But these are statistics. It’s the personal stuff that matters. Being a student at the University of Wisconsin was, frankly, magical. You lived in a beautiful city ringed by trees and sky-blue lakes, where you could walk down the mile of State Street from the Capitol to the Memorial Library and run into a half-dozen friends sitting at outdoor cafés. You could go to a party and find yourself, at two in the morning, engrossed in an animated conversation about Hindi, Urdu, and the Indo-European language family. After partying all night, you’d show up for class and learn about the history of agriculture or work through Faust in German. For a nerd like me, this was a small slice of heaven: I was surrounded by thousands of people who actually liked learning.

Now, the legislature and governor of Wisconsin are cutting $250 million in funding from the UW system (at the same time that they’re pledging $250 million in state funding for a new stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks). But it gets worse. A lot worse. The legislature is about to pass a new law allowing tenured professors to be fired for essentially any reason by the Board of Regents. That’s right: tenured professors, men and women at the very top of their fields, will be under threat of losing their jobs if the UW Board of Regents decides they’re not longer needed.

The kicker? Sixteen of the Board’s eighteen members are direct appointees of the governor. Sixteen! This means that whatever political agenda the current governor sets will be the ultimate arbiter of academic freedom in the University of Wisconsin, putting the sword of Damocles over the heads of professors whose research is politically inconvenient, threatening – or simply too esoteric to be translated into the language of immediate cost-benefit analysis for business meetings. This is exactly what the American system of university tenure was designed to prevent. Now, consider that Walker’s administration is suing the federal government to stop climate change legislation, and that a state agency in Wisconsin recently banned its employees from using the term “climate change” (yes, for real) and you can see a very, very, very, dangerous precedent looming. Scientists studying climate change at UW-Madison should be worried.

And in fact, they are worried. But because of who they are, they don’t have to take it sitting down. In response to news of the impending legislative changes to tenure, professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are beginning to head for the doors. It will not be hard for them to find new positions at other universities. If you’re a tenured professor at UW-Madison, you’re ipso facto at the top of your field. You’re capable of hauling in big grants, producing splashy research, and making important advances in your area. Make no mistake – other universities are greedily eying the talent at the University of Wisconsin. And, in fact, the hemorrhaging has already begun: top faculty have recently left for the University of Minnesota, Harvard University, and Oregon State, taking entire research labs and teams of graduate students with them.

These labs brought in millions of dollars from outside the state to Wisconsin. They funded grad students, lab assistants, administrators, and their families. They generated income for contractors. They stimulated entrepreneurs and patent-producing inventors. Researchers like these are a major reason – actually, the major reason – why UW-Madison produces about $15 billion in annual economic output for the state of Wisconsin. So what happens when enough researchers like them leave?

These folks didn’t leave because they wanted to. Anyone who has ever lived in Madison, Wisconsin, wants to stay there. They left because the University of Wisconsin is being undermined by lawmakers and a governor who either do not see or do not care about the value of this tremendous institution. If the law as written does pass and is signed by Walker, the ramifications for the university  – and the state – will be difficult to overstate. It won’t take long before more and more of the top faculty are poached, and the top graduate students will follow them. Research funding will lose steam, and the reputation of the university will sink. Without the reputation, the university will lose the ability to attract top undergraduate students from around the state and country – one of the major funnels for local talent into the Wisconsin economy and social fabric. It will be a vicious cycle.

The upshot is clear: nobody wins here. What the governor and legislature are doing is, from every objective angle, economic and social suicide.


So there must be tacit, less rational reasons for this course of action. And there are: the culture wars. Make no mistake – this is, among other things, an ideologically motivated attack by conservatives on what is one of the most liberal public universities in the country. There are tangled social reasons why the conservative legislature and the university – separated by only a mile-long stretch of State Street – are so often at odds. For instance, conservatives are often baffled at the odd habits and seeming lack of discipline of the liberals who populate the campus, and when they look down State Street at the wild lifestyles of the students, they have a point. Lots of drinking and casual sex – playing fast and loose with the body’s delicate reward chemistry – is both socially and individually destructive. Conservatives and religious people tend to have higher levels of self-control, and self-control is in fact a good and valuable thing.

Liberals, meanwhile, are often disgusted at the seeming callousness of conservatives toward outsiders and the disadvantaged, and by what seems to be their almost clinical detachment from the normal responses of empathy. Liberals are utterly bamboozled (this is certainly true in my case) by the utter incuriosity, the sheer lack of interest in learning and exploring for its own sake, that many conservatives not only exhibit, but seem to actively take pride in. Exploring the world, crossing boundaries to see what happens, is a sacred value for many liberals. It’s not subject to utilitarian calculus. It’s a deep, irrational, fundamental axiom. And most conservatives couldn’t care less about it.

This is why conservatives look so odd and threatening to liberals. They can tell that conservatives don’t value the thing that they consider sacred. Conservatives value order, self-control, and deontological social obligations. Conservatives and the religious are more likely than liberals to attend and enjoy family reunions. Conservatives are the ones who do things out of a sense of duty – and anyone who thinks that a community could survive without people who value duty is living in a dream land (or hasn’t visited a hippie farm). There are lots of good things about the sacred values of conservatives.

So, in an abstract sense, I get and appreciate this. I understand that conservatives and liberals both have important gifts to offer, different fundamental values. And yeah, I perceive that, in an ideal world, these different values would be complementary rather than antagonistic.

But right now it’s pretty hard to see things through a neutral, impartial filter. My alma mater is under attack. Within a few weeks, unless there is some sort of popular uprising, the University of Wisconsin will be effectively hamstrung. Freedom of academic speech will be shredded at one of the world’s most productive research institutions. Worse, the value of the low-cost, high-quality public higher education will be undercut – and if it happens in Wisconsin, it will begin to happen elsewhere. This may be the beginning of a frontal assault on public higher education in the United States.

I don’t know about you, but this is a direct attack on my own sacred values.

I’m always trying to see everything from all sides. In an age when many people’s entire identities hinge on which ideological team they root for, this habit has made it very hard for me to be a good culture warrior. Add to that the fact that studying religion (and being influenced by Jonathan Haidt) has convinced me that many “conservative” values are worthwhile – such as tradition, ritual, self-discipline, and a level of respect for authority – and I’m constantly finding myself in the position of defending positions that my peers find reprehensible. But this assault on the sanctity of my beloved undergraduate university has me feeling positively…tribal.


Addendum: If this issue is important to you, you can sign and share this petition to ask the UW Board of Regents to adopt language that keeps current tenure policy in place. If you’re from Wisconsin, you can call your legislators to politely but strongly express your support for the university. This matters for everybody.

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