Should 'meet the state's workforce needs' be a university's mission?

Proposal would have changed mission of state's university system

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is walking back a proposed change to the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin (UW), is angering administrators by deemphasizing the school's civic mission, the Washington Post reports.

Cultural significance

The century-old mission statement is called the Wisconsin Idea, and it is so ingrained that it is written into state law. In a recent budget proposal, Walker amended the statement to remove references to "improve the human condition" and "search for truth," replacing them with "meet the state's workforce needs."

The change caught observers by surprise, as Walker had not mentioned it in earlier speeches on the budget. For many, the mission statement has significant cultural value.

"The Wisconsin Idea is embedded in our DNA. It is so much more than words on a page. It is the reason the UW System exists. It defines us and forever will distinguish us as a great public university," said UW System President Ray Cross.

More than a mistake?

Walker says the change was inadvertent, and he will resubmit the budget with the original language intact. However, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that emails exchanged between the governor's office and those drafting the law at Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) suggest the change was intentional.

For example, on Jan. 12, an analyst from the state's Department of Administration emailed the LRB explicitly asking that the language be struck from The Wisconsin idea.

Walker insists he had only intended to add the phrase pertaining to workforce development and says the controversy is a distraction from the larger debate about the future of the university. "The real debate should be about two things: 1) governance of the UW System and 2) how much an authority is worth in savings," he said in a statement.

The governor has been pushing for steep cuts to UW's budget coupled with more autonomy for administrators. If approved by the legislature, Walker's budget proposal would cut state aid by nearly 13% and freeze tuition for two years. However, it would also exempt the Board of Regents from certain state rules and processes, awarding them more power over construction and service contracting.

Officials say they welcome the autonomy, but funding cuts would mean significant changes in system operations, possibly including layoffs. Originally, the system had requested an additional $95 million (Strauss, Washington Post, 2/5).

The takeaway: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says a change to the UW's mission statement in his budget proposal was a mistake, but the issue has added new controversy to an ongoing budget debate between Walker and the state's university system.

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