Education is Not a Zero Sum Game

“The mission of this System is to develop human resources; to discover and disseminate knowledge; to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses; and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional, and technological expertise, and a sense of value and purpose. Inherent in this mission are methods of instruction, research, extended education, and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the System is the search for truth.” UW system mission

As the UW system leadership has increasingly advanced partisan and ideological control of resources and political pandering rather the Wisconsin Idea or the pursuit of truth, we see a new rhetoric emerging. This language reframes higher education not as a public good, but rather as a free market enterprise available to a few.  It celebrates the acquisition of a narrowly defined form of human capital, rather than cultivation of  human capital. In this paradigm, it’s the job of UW to attract students and staff who are already academically socialized into the college gig.  In the past, the Wisconsin Idea prompted politicians and leaders in the UW System to consider how to expand the resources of the university across the state to benefit all its residents.  In this new paradigm, leaders are inverting  this way of thinking.  The UW-Madisonification of the UW System frames those defined as having “talent” as being resources for the university.

At the February 2016 UW Board of Regents meeting, Regent Higgins criticized Madison’s expanded admissions numbers, complaining that additional admissions to Madison would come from the population of “best and brightest” that the other campuses also would admit. A February 2017 Board meeting reported on new legislation that would create funding for a Wisconsin Merit Scholarship Program, to enhance the ability of the state to retain “the best and brightest students,” which of course is narrowly defined by standardized test scores which are documented to disadvantage students who are not white and upper-middle class.

Ironically, as well, a December 2016 Board meeting bemoaned trouble “Keeping the best and brightest faculty and staff at the UW Madison campus,’ after years of relentless budget cuts; the prospect of program closures based on fiscal considerations that the new Regents Policy Document RPD 20-24 empowered; and removal of tenure policy from state statute to a much-easier-to-change location in Board policy.

Founded on the principle of the land grant university that the 1862 Morrill Act authorized, UW Madison and its extension centers throughout the state are inherently and historically supposed to fulfill this goal: “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” Instead, it seems the new mission is to exclude students who the mission would serve–those who would “develop human resources” and to “developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional, and technological expertise, and a sense of value and purpose.” Rather, the paradigm shift instead calls to narrow access and to reward students who have already had privilege and opportunity. By contrast, a recent New York Times article articulated the value of the land grant university in its transformative effect on area residents and the important role that lower tuition plays for its low-income students.

With the UW Restructuring, which enacts the dismantling of the UW Colleges as the third-largest UW institution in the state and instead assigns individual campuses as branches to nearby comprehensives or research institutions, the UW System is failing that mission. Instead, even in a recent communication, the UW System leadership reframes the mission of the UW Colleges from one in which the goal includes “preparing students for success at the baccalaureate level of education, providing the first two years of a liberal arts general education that is accessible and affordable” to, as a recent communication from the System office explains:

Our shared goal is to serve the best and brightest students in Wisconsin, giving them the
opportunity to hone their intellect and shape their future at our family of UW System

If the shared goal is now to serve the best and brightest, Cross’s stated reason for the merger seems mutually incompatible at best, and disingenuous at worst: “Our goal is to expand access and provide more educational opportunities for more students, while ensuring our faculty are appropriately organized and supported.”

The UW Colleges embodied the Wisconsin Idea because of our open-access mission, modest tuition price, and high quality foundation of liberal arts general education that prepared all students, anywhere in the state, to transfer successfully to any UW campus in the System. Students with backgrounds that may not have looked exceptional, or those who may not have had the finances to begin at a comprehensive institution, could start at the UW Colleges where they could benefit from the resources that the University of Wisconsin system offered.  Whether in Cumberland or Peshtigo; Edgar or Wisconsin Dells, aspiring students could access UW quality. The rhetoric has changed. The system has changed. The values have changed.




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