Cranberry bog

Farmers harvest cranberries at Cranberry Creek Cranberries, Inc. in Necedah in 2015. The farm produces several varieties bred at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and licensed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison

Faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are eager to tell the public about their work and how it benefits the state, said Patrick Brenzel, a staff member in the Department of Sociology.

That’s one reason he thinks a class on the Wisconsin Idea that he suggested, available for credit to students and for free to the community, was such a hit last fall.

It attracted a variety of speakers and was well attended by members of the university community and beyond, Brenzel said.

The Wisconsin Idea, a guiding vision that the “beneficent influence” of UW should reach every family in the state, dates back a century. But as the university has weathered a period of budget cuts and political attacks, the Wisconsin Idea could bear restatement to today’s undergraduates, Brenzel said.

“I think we have lost our engagement with state government. The University of Wisconsin used to play a very honorable advisory role in forming laws and creating policy that made Wisconsin a better place to live,” Brenzel said in a news release on the course.

If students understand the history of UW-Madison, “they too will become committed and engaged in following the Wisconsin Idea,” he said.

And so Sociology 496, an undergraduate seminar and public lecture series examining UW’s relationship with the state that debuted last year will be offered again this fall.

The instructor for “Forward: The Wisconsin Idea, Past and Present” will be Eric Sandgren, a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine.

The course will dissect what makes an idea a Wisconsin Idea, Sandgren said. Lectures by a variety of speakers will touch on how discoveries and ideas at UW-Madison advance business and workforce needs or prepare citizens for a participatory democracy, Sandgren said.

“We need to get back to where we acknowledge common ground and try working together from there,” he said.

The first public lecture in the series will be at 7 p.m. Sept. 12, when UW-Madison staffer Gwen Drury presents “The Wisconsin Idea: How do we define the concept that defines us?”

Lectures continue at the same time for 13 consecutive weeks, on such topics as the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, animal welfare and dairy farming realities, and the path from basic to applied research. Other talks will focus on how journalism and the arts demonstrate the Wisconsin Idea.

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Time for questions and discussion is typically reserved at the end of each lecture.

Lectures will be at 1111 Biotechnology, 425 Henry Mall, unless otherwise noted of the class schedule.

Discussion groups will meet at 2:30-3:45 p.m. Thursdays at 6102 Sewell Social Science Building, 1180 Observatory Dr.

Sandgren said an informal group is exploring the possibility of an action agenda out of the series.

“We have an extraordinary breadth of disciplines, and our people are among the best of the best. Effective solutions to big problems almost always require multi-disciplinary responses,” Sandgren said. Not only the sciences, but morality, communications, ethics, political science and sociology come into play in devising solutions to problems or crafting public policy. “You can’t just say, ‘Here are the facts.’ Creating effective solutions requires participation from all of these disciplines.”

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