Every struggle in American society is a struggle over the meaning of freedom. Freedom is the keyword of American politics. It is the foundation for individual rights and our market economy. It is the guidepost for all institutions. Our many national heroes – Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, among others – used their power to protect and expand the freedoms of citizens. They spoke eloquently of freedom’s purposes in enhancing the ability of people from all backgrounds to control their lives. Freedom does not guarantee wealth and success, but it promises everyone a chance.

What are the protests about?

The protests around our state Capitol are at the center of our current national debate about freedom. Governor Scott Walker sincerely believes that our government is spending too much money on various programs, services, and employees. He was elected by citizens around the state who feel that excessive taxes and other contributions to government expenses are limiting their freedoms. We must take these feelings seriously. They are a powerful force in American politics today.

The critics of Governor Walker who are peacefully and passionately demonstrating at the Capitol are not insensitive to popular anger about excesses in government spending, particularly during a period of slow and uncertain economic growth. The union leaders, the teachers, the fire-fighters, and especially the students have accepted that they must make serious sacrifices in wages and benefits to support a fiscally sound society – one that lives within its means. Financial bankruptcy for the state would bankrupt every citizen’s freedom. Talking to hundreds of students in the last week, I am certain that our new generation of citizens, raised during a period of recession, understand this fact. They have shown themselves in the last week to be remarkably thoughtful, mature, and reasonable. I am proud of them.

The protesters at the Capitol and their sympathizers are defending their freedom to have some say in their own future. Ironically, their argument is similar to the one voiced by opponents of recent national health care legislation. Citizens object to government actions that deny ordinary men and women control over their lives. Citizens of all political stripes demand the respect to have their voices heard, their legitimate concerns addressed, and their interests represented in decision-making. Governor Walker’s breakneck efforts to balance the state budget by denying citizens any input in the process – through public discussion, open hearings, or negotiations – are an affront to the freedoms of hardworking citizens. The protests at the Capitol are not about the fiscal measures proposed by the governor. They are protests about freedom – the rights of men and women to be included in the process, to feel represented and respected even if they must accept sacrifices they would rather avoid.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison

This is the appropriate context for discussing another major issue, the future of one of Wisconsin’s greatest institutions, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. By almost every measure, this campus has been the leading public university of the last 100 years because it has done more than any other to enhance the freedoms of citizens. This has meant protections for free inquiry, experimentation, and entrepreneurship (“sifting and winnowing”) at times when the larger society frequently expressed intolerance. This has meant a consistent commitment to public service and outreach (“the Wisconsin Idea”) when other elite institution closed their doors to their communities. Most of all, freedom at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has meant a commitment to “shared governance” between all of the major stakeholders in the decisions of the institution. This is an attribute that still sets the University of Wisconsin-Madison apart from its peers. The university emphasizes openness and consensus in its efforts to form policies that bring students, faculty, and community members together for mutual benefit. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a community, not a corporation.

For this vibrant community to survive in an environment of constrained resources and increased competition, the University of Wisconsin-Madison needs more freedom, as proposed by the Badger Partnership. More freedom for the campus will protect the ability of the institution to serve its students, faculty, and especially public constituencies. It will have the opposite effect of “privatization,” as it will renew the “sifting and winnowing,” “the Wisconsin Idea,” and the “shared governance” that make the University of Wisconsin-Madison such an important part of our state. Other campuses within the University of Wisconsin system deserve similar freedoms, based on their respective missions and capacities. The Madison campus hopes to set a positive precedent for all of its peers.

The promise of more freedom on campus

First, more freedom under the Badger Partnership will allow the university to allocate precious resources for the quality teaching, research innovation, and entrepreneurship that our society so desperately needs. Under the present system, the university is severely limited in its ability to reward merit in any of these areas. It is forced to follow hiring and contract policies that do not serve the needs of teaching, research, or community-building. More freedom for the campus will raise the standards for accountability, as faculty and administrators will now be judged by their ability to allocate resources for the university’s core missions – not standards set for other purposes. A freer campus will be a more dynamic, accountable, and humane campus, focused directly on its many stakeholders. A “sifting and winnowing” of the best ideas requires more control for the students, faculty, and staff.

Second, more freedom under the Badger Partnership will serve the “Wisconsin Idea.” The division of responsibilities created by the larger UW system has made it difficult at times for Madison to help diverse citizens in all corners of the state. Other parts of the UW system claim responsibility for outreach. Madison gets limited and highly constrained resources for many of the elements of Extension that the campus pioneered in the early twentieth century. For the prosperity of our state, all UW institutions must do more outreach. A freer Madison campus will renew its commitment to serving the larger community of the state, and it will re-allocate its own resources in this direction with efficiency and purpose. Take innovative teaching to non-traditional students, for example. A freer campus will have the flexibility to invest in online courses, new teaching technologies, and various other capabilities. A freer campus will also control and reinvest revenues from these activities, rather than losing them to the system bureaucracy. The university community is mobilized around renewing and extending the “Wisconsin Idea;” it only needs the freedom to make this possible.

Third, more freedom under the Badger Partnership will make the campus a model of “shared governance.” In present circumstances, students, faculty, and staff have very little control over the allocation of their resources. They are told to govern, but then restricted from making decisions that align budgets with priorities. This discourages participation in decision-making, it diminishes morale among the hardest working members of the community, and it chokes any serious discussion of goals. The misalignment of resources and governance is, in fact, a recipe for mediocrity. The resources follow rules made off-campus, not those who are doing the most for the campus and the larger community. Above all, the Badger Partnership will change this by requiring the University of Wisconsin-Madison to articulate its priorities in teaching, research, and service and then allocate its budget accordingly. Citizens around the state will be able to judge the university on the fulfillment of its goals and hold it accountable. Students, faculty, and staff will feel that they are really part of the decision-process, and they will have to perform. True “shared governance” under the Badger Partnership will make the University of Wisconsin-Madison the model community of freedom that it strives to become.

Public discussion

The whole world is indeed watching Madison. Our city and state have played this role many times before. In the past, we have shown leadership in efforts to expand the freedom of citizens so that they can produce more and live better lives. Our present struggles are the newest chapter in this proud history. Proposals to give the University of Wisconsin-Madison more freedom to fulfill its mission should not be accepted or rejected out of hand. Instead, they deserve serious public consideration, along with all other budget measures, in the coming months.

The solutions are not simple, and they are not without risk. The challenges we face are great, but so are the opportunities for reform and renewal. In the end, we must find new ways to protect the freedoms of hard-working citizens and innovative institutions. Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan are, of course, revered for doing just that.


9 Responses to “Fighting For Freedom in Wisconsin”

  • Fran Schrag:

    Jeremi–I’m not sure why you say the current system doesn’t permit reward on the basis of merit. In my experience elected faculty committees in departments allocate merit pay on the basis of contributions to our core mission. In recent years the gap between “stars”
    (defined as those with or likely to get outside offers) and solid performers has grown. Do you see this as a good or bad thing?

  • Christine Lamberson:

    I’m glad to see you post on these issues. While most people seem more interested in your thoughts on the badger partnership, I want to add to your analysis of the protests, which I think deserve more discussion.

    I agree that freedom is certainly a keyword in American politics today and in these protests. It is only one keyword though, not THE keyword. As you point out, one of the most important, and in my opinion disturbing, features of Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill campaign is the way in which he attempted to pass a bill with far reaching consequences in less than a week with essentially no public debate. (Those consequences go well beyond collective bargaining rights and benefits as well.) The brief hearings that were conducted were cut off before people finished speaking. Moreover, Walker and some of his allies have made a show of telling the news media that they are uninterested in hearing the views of the public workers whose benefits and collective rights change because of the bill. The governor has also repeatedly shown that he has no interest in bipartisanship or compromise. (Even in the prank phone call he reiterated negotiation was out of the question).

    To me, regardless of your views on collective bargaining and how the budget shortfalls should be remedied, these actions demonstrate a profound disinterest in good faith democracy and a disrespect for many Wisconsinites. My sense is that for many of the protesters, this makes democracy another keyword in this debate. It is about having the freedom to have a say in their futures as you say, but also about having a voice in what should be a democratic system. Thus far, the actions of the Senate Majority leader and Governor seem to say, “your views, opinions, and well-being do not matter to us.” Those actions also make it clear that Walker believes he represents the people who voted for and donated to him, not everyone in this state.

    Furthermore, power is as much, if not more, at the heart of this bill as freedom. The bill will eviscerate the power of unions, which will also weaken the power of Democrats given the historical tendency for most union’s to support Democratic candidates (of course, the unions exempted in the bill were among the few who supported Walker…). At the same time, the Bill’s other, less talked about, provisions–its provisions to transfer a number of civil service positions to governor appointed positions, the ability of DHS to bypass normal legislative processes and only gain approval from the Joint Finance Committee for changes to Medicaid, the ability of the state to sell public power plants in no-bid contracts–are all about handing greater power to fewer people. This may be more efficient as backers claim, but that does not mean it is good or that it won’t be harmful to those using these services as many fear.

    I absolutely agree with your claim that we must take seriously the citizens who believe that cutting government spending is necessary to preserving the state, but I also strongly believe we must recognize that THIS bill is about much, much more than that for both its opponents and its advocates–at least the ones in the statehouse. The public discussion needs to consider the multiplicity of implications and possible consequences of the bill, so the people of WI are weighing in on ALL of these issues.

  • Professor Suri,

    In a spirit of honest and respectful critique, I find (1) your comparison between individual freedom and New Badger Partnership highly problematic and (2) some of the assumptions in your argument deeply troubling. As such, I offer the following response

    Sincerely yours,

    Ed Connery

  • Noel Radomski:

    Professor Suri,

    1. Have you read the Governor’s (final) proposed 2011-2013 Biennial Budget?
    2. Have you read the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau’s analysis of the yet-to-be-released Governor’s 2011-2013 Biennial Budget?
    3. If you answered no to #1 and #2, then how can you support the NBP without having all the facts?
    4. If after you receive and review the Governor’s (final) proposed 2011-2013 Biennial Budget and the the budget bill’s analysis by the WI Legislative Reference Bureau and you determine that there are several “poison pills,” will you then write a blog entry and encourage the Governor, representatives, and senators to modify or withdraw the legislation?
    5. Since January 7th, have you participated in campus forums to share NBP ideas, invite and address questions, and collect thoughts on how the campus could improve the NBP?
    6. Have you talked with campus, system, and state leaders from other states that have attempted similar efforts and studied the results and the unintended consequences of similar state efforts, which the New Badger Partnership is based?
    7. If the legislature drafts and approves accountability measures which goes against the wishes of the faculty, staff, and student leaders, would you write a blog and consult with the Chancellor to lobby against those suggestions?
    8. What are the biggest concerns with the NBP and what do you believe the campus has done to address those?
    9. If the Assembly and/or Senate makes significant changes to the NBP language as introduced by Governor Walker, then will you write a blog entry and advocate for the withdrawal of the legislation?
    11. If the UW System BOR approves a resolution opposing the separation of the UW-Madison from the UW System, then what advice would you proffer?
    12. If other UW campuses approve resolutions opposing the separation of the UW-Madison from the UW System, then what advice would you proffer?
    13. If out-state legislators (e.g., beyond Dane Co.) oppose the separation of the UW-Madison from the UW System, then what advice would you proffer?
    14. If campus governance leaders advance a series of winter/spring/summer forums then will you use your blog to encourage students, staff, faculty, alumni and friends to attend and discuss the NBR?

    Thank you, in advance, for responding to my questions.

    Noel Radomski

  • Would you be willing to elaborate on the Partnership’s priorities for the Humanities and Social Sciences? Some of us students, especially those of us considering graduate school, are quite worried that they would be pushed aside in favor of faculties that produce greater profit (which some, unfortunately, see as the “core mission” of the University). The faculty petition to Governor Walker, for instance, did not have one business professor sign on (as of Monday). As a history professor, what are your feelings on this? Is the fear real or imagined?

  • Ryan Panzer:

    At this point, I have yet to hold a conversation with any student that is completely comfortable with the New Badger Partnership. The reason for this is not because they disagree with it- but because they do not understand what these changes entail. I myself am not sure the exact form these change will take. Will we become a privatized university? Are we completely separating from the UW system? What does this mean for the typical ratios of instate vs. out of state students?

    Ultimately, most students, myself included, do not have a detailed knowledge of the inter-workings of a University of this size, which is why Chancellor Martin’s emails and the New Badger Partnership website seem vague and occasionally misleading to us. I would hope that in the coming weeks, we will have increased clarity as to how this partnership will specifically impact the lives of UW students.

  • Not that Paul, this Paul! I dunno who that Paul is.

    From other Badgers out here, union support is very strong; they tend to know what’s going on. Opinions in Boston are about as divided as they are elsewhere in the United States. Personally, I don’t think the newspapers and news stations are reporting enough on the idea that the unions have already agreed to paying in for benefits, and now the situation is really about power. I’ve had to explain the situation a few times already.

    Of course, the people I have talked to that are not Badgers are pro-union. In honesty, the story hasn’t caught on so much here as it has in New York or Ohio. Probably because the unions are a little more secure here because of the composition of state government.

    I have been following the story closely. By day two, I knew that this was going to get serious. Now, the Daily Show was interviewing protestors. It’s officially big. I could write a huge blog post about this situation, and probably will later, but suffice to say now that the protests in Madison are basically the only thing on my TV and most of my internet, and I’m following it very closely.

    And as I write this, I now hear that Gov. Walker will be making a statement tomorrow to the people of Wisconsin. Part of me wagers it’s more of the same stubbornness, but who knows?

    Like I mentioned to you a few days ago: Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Yemen, Djibouti, Bahrain, and Madison. We’ll be talking and writing about 2011 for a very long time.

  • Thanks, Paul. How does this look from Boston? What are people saying there?

  • Please comment here.

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.