Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker delivers his state budget address at the state Capitol in Madison on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, John Hart)

You might think that changing the mission of a flagship public university would be an issue put up for public discussion. Not in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker submitted a budget proposal that included language that would have changed the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system — known as the Wisconsin Idea and embedded in the state code  — by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Walker, in a budget speech given earlier this week, didn’t bother to mention the change, which is more than a simple  issue of semantics. There is a national debate about what the role of colleges and universities should be. One group, including Walker, see higher education in big part as a training ground for workers in the American workplace; another sees college education as a way to broaden the minds of young people and teach them how to be active, productive citizens of the country.

After fierce public criticism, Walker, who recently said that faculty and staff throughout the university system needed to work harder and who is seeking to cut funding for the university system by $300 million over the next two years, said the change in language was a mistake. A Walker aide called it “drafting error,” according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Walker, in a statement (which you can read below), said the whole thing was a result of miscommunication between his own staff and that of the university system. All he wanted, he said, was to add the language about meeting workplace needs and not remove anything else. The Journal-Sentinel, however, reported that Walker’s office had “requested in painstaking detail the removal of phrases central to the Wisconsin Idea — the guiding principle of the state’s public university system for more than a century.” And it said it found references in the budget proposal in which the administration requested that the changes be made.

The paper said it discovered a  Dec. 30 e-mail from state Department of Administration budget analyst Nathan Schwanz that was sent to nonpartisan  attorneys at the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau who were drafting the bill “to make a number of changes to the mission statement of the UW-System as it is enshrined in state statutes.”  Then, on Jan. 12, the newspaper reported, he sent another e-mail explicitly saying that the Walker administration wanted changes made; it said: “To extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses should be removed.”

Academics were, of course, furious. The paper quoted University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross as saying:

“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.”

Here’s Walker’s statement:

“We encourage a vigorous debate over the idea of an authority to govern the University of Wisconsin system or the status quo, as well as a debate about what is the real amount of savings that can be generated by an authority, which we believe is worth $150 million a year.  However, there is no debate over the principles contained within the Wisconsin Idea.  We are, and have been, in agreement.

“So how did a change to the Wisconsin Idea get into the budget?

“While we had extensive discussions about the merits of an authority and about variations of how higher education is organized in other states, my staff, the state budget team, and I did not have much discussion about the mission statement. The only real mention was about adding something to existing language related to workforce development.

“Staff from the UW, the state budget office, and my office met several times to discuss the authority idea.  In anticipation of these meetings, draft language was prepared by the state budget shop to serve as a starting point.  At this initial meeting, my Chief of Staff directed the state budget office and the UW to continue working on statutory language changes and to elevate concerns or disagreements to his attention when agreement could not be reached.  The guiding principle was to keep this process simple because the main focus was on providing the maximum amount of flexibility under the new authority.

“Staff from the UW System reviewed drafts of the budget language on various occasions, so I was surprised we had not heard concerns about the final version.  Late on Wednesday, my Chief of Staff spoke again with UW System staff and found that they had raised a concern with the state budget office about the specific language.  Unfortunately, when my office told the budget staff to keep it simple, they took that to mean that we only wanted workforce readiness language in the mission when we really wanted the language added to the existing mission statement.  They also responded to UW staff that this change was not open for discussion because they were told to keep it simple and only add in workforce readiness language.

“Clearly, changing the Wisconsin Idea serves no purpose.  That is why I made it clear on Wednesday that we would not change it in the budget.  It is not a change of heart.  It was a simple miscommunication during the natural back and forth of this process.

“The real debate should be about two things: 1) governance of the UW System and 2) how much an authority is worth in savings.

“In the 2003/05 state budget, former Governor Jim Doyle cut the UW by $250 million.  He did not give them reforms to make up for the lost state aid.  They made up most of it with higher tuition.

“Our proposal gives new cost-saving reforms to the UW though an authority—while freezing tuition.  We believe it is a good plan.  Let the debate begin.”