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Wisconsin Idea (copy) (copy)

A shadow from morning sunlight shining through an arch frames a view of on the "Sifting and Winnowing" plaque mounted in the portico of Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on July 25, 2012. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Jeff Miller

"We want regents to advocate for students. We want legislators to create a budget that is ethical." — UW-Stevens Point student Valerie Landowski.

"We do not wish to disrupt the organic discussion that is currently occurring." — UW System President Ray Cross.

Ms. Landowski has blessed us with clarity. She moves past being told that UW-Stevens Point must eliminate majors in history, English, political science and Spanish because the world has changed and studying these subjects no longer fits in. Aristotle was so yesterday. There is no alternative, say the powers that be — life is economic life. They don't even offer a comforting "alas."

The students have been handed a manifesto, "Reimagining our Curriculum for the Future," declaring liberal arts is not the future for UWSP students. It is in more technical fields.

Irritatingly, the fields chosen are short on job openings and long on qualified applicants. UW-River Falls political science professor Neil Kraus has shred those claims by simply checking the numbers.

Valerie resists. The students of UWSP resist. As did the Portage County Board, which voted unanimously to voice support for the humanities at their campus.

UW Regent Regina Millner rightly called all of this a "communications nightmare."

The Wisconsin Idea is not that you tell people in any corner of the state what is the right policy. You ask them.

And, the "it's not my job" attitude of the UW president toward the turmoil at Stevens Point probably is the end of the type of presidency envisioned when the position was created.

In 1970 when the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State University campuses around the state were to be merged, the UW-Madison campus leadership and faculty were against it, fearing association with the "out-state" schools would hurt their academic reputation and their independence. The state universities were not so sure about the deal either. They wanted the cachet of becoming a "University of Wisconsin" but feared the new system would be dominated by Madison.

The compromise adopted by Gov. Patrick Lucey and the Legislature was that the first president of the system would be the sitting president at Madison, professor John Weaver, a distinguished professor of geography, but that the powers of the president would be very limited by statute.

The president would have responsibility for coordinating systemwide policies. It was not to be that each campus went to the Legislature trying to make its own deal. Students were to be the focus.

One of the first things to happen was to set standards for courses and require that those credits would transfer. Before then, for example, if you went to UW-Madison, credits would transfer to Whitewater State University. But Whitewater credits would not transfer to Madison.

The regents would act on the president's proposals.

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Most important, the president was to be the advocate in every corner of the state for Wisconsin's great public universities.

The president would be the maestro conducting the orchestra. He or she would have a stage and a dais to stand on.

The merged system of 26 campuses became the most successful public policy initiative in Wisconsin since the Progressive Era.

The orchestra now awaits. The maestro's baton currently sits in a case on the top floor of Van Hise Hall on the Madison campus. It is the large room with the stunning view of Lake Mendota where the regents meet. 

Tom Loftus of Sun Prairie is a former member of the UW Board of Regents and speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, and was the Democratic candidate for governor in 1990. He was ambassador to Norway from 1993 to 1998. From 1998 to 2005 he was the special adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization. 

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