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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.

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The protests that have shaken the Egyptian government in recent days raise some of the most enduring questions for observers. After years of relative calm, why do mass demonstrations emerge so quickly? After decades of determined police repression, how do the organs of state power become so uncertain and precarious? Most of all, how does the momentum of power shift away from the men with the guns to the people on the streets?

Whether or not the protests in Egypt unseat long-time dictator, Hosni Mubarak, they have transformed the Egyptian landscape as no other popular movement since the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the assassination of Anwar Sadat thirty years ago. Understanding why this transformation has occurred is incredibly difficult, but absolutely crucial for anticipating future developments in the region. So far, American and European observers have failed to understand the dynamics of political change in Egypt, Iran, Syria, Yemen, and of course Iraq. Better policy requires more acute understanding of when and why ordinary citizens, like those in Egypt today, take to the streets against their American-supported leaders.

So why did Egypt erupt in street protests last week? One cannot explain this phenomenon by pointing to the “objective” suffering of Egyptian citizens. Poverty, crime, and corruption have been rampant in their society since Mubarak first took power. If anything, recent government efforts have contributed to some minor improvements. People in Egypt are not revolting today because they have suddenly awaken to their suffering. In the past, Egyptian suffering has kept Mubarak in power. With his strong connection to the military, the Egyptian leader has asserted that only he can preserve the basic rudiments of order and economy. Without Mubarak, citizens have feared a far worse descent into violence and deprivation.

Mubarak has continued to make this argument about his indispensable role in the wake of recent protests. The difference now is that his claims no longer command public credibility. Thousands, perhaps millions, of Egyptian citizens no longer believe that Mubarak can or should preserve order. They no longer see him as a lesser evil when compared to alternatives.

This is the crucial tipping point: when established leaders lose their image of indispensability. As never before, citizens now believe that Mubarak stands in the way of order, and they believe that almost any alternative would be better. This change in image does not reflect a change in Mubarak’s behavior, but a transformation in the expectations and fears of citizens. Expectations and fears, it turns out, are susceptible to rapid alteration because of circumstances.

The key circumstances for events in Egypt today are the popular overthrow of the government in Tunisia, the election of a Hezbollah-backed government in Lebanon, and the emerging movement to unseat the leader of the Ivory Coast. In each of these cases, long-established patterns of government authority have shifted because weak leaders could no longer control the institutions of governance in their societies – the military, the economy, and the ballot box.

Mubarak is stronger and more effective than his counterparts in these neighboring countries. He has not lost control of his government, not yet. What Mubarak has lost is the expectation that any replacement would be worse and the fear that any effort to challenge him would result in overwhelming repression. The protesters do not believe either of those things any more.

That explains the true “demonstration effect” of the events in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Ivory Coast for Egypt. Watching events closely on Al-Jazeera as these neighboring societies embark on a new path, citizens of Egypt have asked themselves: “why not us?” These nearby examples have shown that radical change is less dangerous than everyone claimed. These nearby examples have revealed that the fears of repression are, perhaps, exaggerated. It is not that the Emperor has no clothes. It is that the Emperor’s clothes are far less impressive and intimidating than ever before.

Understanding mass protests and political change is very difficult, especially in the Middle East. Theories and formulas offer few reliable predictions. The best analysis is one that examines how circumstances near a society transform the ways in which citizens within a society view their leaders. Expectations and fears shift in comparison to what citizens see in other places. Altered expectations and fears send largely passive citizens into the streets.

What does this analysis mean for U.S. foreign policy? Above all, the United States should avoid any direct intervention in the popular protests and government reactions. American leaders should express support for the democratic aspirations of Egyptian citizens and they should call for an avoidance of violence. They should not, under any circumstances, take sides. The best policy is to hang back and wait, even if the violence increases. The United States did not contribute to the protests in Egypt and the United States cannot channel those protests, or Mubarak’s reaction, in a clear direction. Washington should emphasize its principles, wait, and then assess the politics that follow the protests. In the end, the United States should work with whoever leads Egypt to encourage long-term stability, openness, and economic growth in this vital region.

This blog post originally appeared at http://globalbrief.ca

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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.

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