As the University of Wisconsin invokes the Wisconsin Idea to justify its growing scientific collaboration with corporate America, and the once famously publicly oriented government of Wisconsin declares itself “open for business,” it may help to revisit the true spirit of Wisconsin’s progressive idea.

In 1912 Charles McCarthy, head of the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau, wrote a short book explaining “The Wisconsin Idea,” the state’s innovative effort to counteract a growing corporate tyranny.

Here is how he opens the book: “The reason for the Wisconsin legislative program is not hard to find. ... The problem is one with which the whole American people is grappling. It presents no particular mystery nor is it difficult to understand. Take up any newspaper. What are the headlines? — Monopoly — Trusts — Trusts and the tariff — High cost of living — Predatory wealth.”

How could Wisconsin’s university and Wisconsin’s government work together to reduce the effects of “predatory wealth” -- unemployment, poor working conditions, environmental ruin, corporate and governmental collusion -- on the people of Wisconsin?

The answer, a century ago, was cooperation between professors and politicians to serve the public interest. This public-public partnership produced laws that regulated the railroads, corporate stocks and insurance companies. It also created a workers’ compensation program, factory safety laws, business cooperatives, a state income tax, humane working hours for children and women, and significant environmental protections.

In the book’s conclusion, McCarthy sums up that progressive agenda: “Whatever has been accomplished in Wisconsin seems to have been based upon this idea of making practice conform to the ideals of justice and right which have been inherited. If the weak ask for justice, the state should see that they get it certainly, quickly and surely.”

Contrast McCarthy’s Wisconsin Idea with the definition found on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin Idea website under “Building Wisconsin’s Economy”: “UW-Madison is a powerful economic engine for the state of Wisconsin. ... Direct services to the business community are keeping the state competitive.”

Such direct services include 218 new companies “with a direct connection to UW-Madison”; the most graduates (tied with Harvard) now CEOs of corporations in the S&P 500 index; “creating a new generation of talent for Wisconsin’s fast-growing biotech industry.”

While public funding for our public university system may indeed be appallingly low (about 20 percent), what does it mean when a public university becomes so well-connected to and dependent upon corporate profit-making? Is there a skeptical “department of hogwash” at UW-Madison that can challenge in the name of public interest what may be the hasty and greedy “talent” working in support of the biotech industry?

These days, ecologists and humanists lack political capital.

What UW-Madison does have is an Office of Corporate Relations, created in 2003, that, according to its website, “plays an even more critical role in serving and growing 21st century companies.” But how does such “serving and growing” square with the university’s mission of educating?

In an op-ed that appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Jan. 30, UW System President Kevin Reilly touted UW as a cutting-edge jobs machine, stating that “academic research and development is now a $1.1 billion industry in Wisconsin -- one that helps create well-paying private-sector jobs all across the state.” Jobs in desperate rural and inner-city communities? And what precisely are these “high-paying” jobs helping to create?

Examples of public-private collaboration cited by Reilly may have serious side effects for we the people. Bioscience research and development is not without grave risks, including unforeseen ecological and agricultural disasters and increased risk of bioterrorism as such knowledge spreads. Nanotechnology made news in 2008 when the National Research Council accused federal regulators of failing to prove that such small particles will not harm people or nature. As for the production of isoprene from paper mill waste, this “high-value chemical,” as Reilly calls it, is a hazardous industrial substance and a likely carcinogen. Isoprene is now controlled as a pollutant in Canada.

When the chasing of big-time profit in the name of “progress” and “prosperity” trumps the judicious and just use of public institutions, legislation and public funds, the state finds itself conniving in predatory wealth against which the weak and small have no recourse. With the election of Scott Walker and a Republican majority in Madison, Wisconsin is about to embark upon precisely the sort of crony capitalism the Wisconsin Idea was meant to overcome. It would be tragic if our admired university system now abandoned its intellectual and political responsibilities.

John Kaufman is a freelance writer and poet from Wauwatosa.

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