The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Scott Walker moved to drop ‘search for truth’ from the University of Wisconsin mission. His office claims it was an error.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker walks off the stage after speaking at the Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, in this file photo January 24, 2015. (REUTERS/Jim Young/Files)
Placeholder while article actions load

This post has been updated.

In his 2015 budget proposal, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) offers an unusual change amid the details of how and where he proposes spending the state's money. As noted by the watchdog site PR Watch (and brought to our attention by journalist Abe Sauer), Walker would like to change the statement of purpose and mission for the University of Wisconsin system. Less talk about searching for truth; more talk about meeting the state's workforce needs.

Update: Not anymore. The Wisconsin State Journal quotes a spokesperson for the governor saying that the change "was a drafting error. The final version of the budget will include the Wisconsin Idea," a core philosophy of the school embodied in the language that had been removed.

Update Thursday: New reporting from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal calls that claim into question. E-mails obtained by the paper show that an analyst from the state Department of Administration called for the mission edits that appear in the final proposal. A Walker spokesperson denied to the paper that the governor was involved in the final language.

The rest of this article appears as originally written.

Walker's proposal amends the university's mission as follows. (The key here: something added, something removed.)

The mission of the system is to develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs, 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 develop in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.

And he wants to change the statement of purpose to read like this:

The legislature finds it in the public interest to provide In recognition of the constitutional obligation to provide by law for the establishment of a state university at or near the seat of state government, and for connecting with the same, from time to time, such colleges in different parts of the state as the interests of education may require, there is hereby created a state system of higher education, provided by the authority, to be known as the University of Wisconsin System, which enables students of all ages, backgrounds and levels of income to participate in the search for knowledge and individual development; which stresses undergraduate teaching as its main priority; which offers selected professional graduate and research programs with emphasis on state and national needs; which fosters diversity of educational opportunity; which promotes service to the public; which makes effective and efficient use of human and physical resources; which functions cooperatively with other educational institutions and systems; and which promotes internal coordination and the wisest possible use of resources. The principal office and one university of the system shall be located at or near the seat of state government.

(The big chunk added to the second section is mostly a consolidation with an existing part of the legislation elsewhere.)

There are other proposed changes to the university, too. Among them: a new oversight body called the "University of Wisconsin System Authority," removing a prohibition against allowing private construction on state-owned land without prior approval of a building commission, and limiting the powers of the Board of Regents. As you might already have read this week, the budget also proposes a massive cut to the university's funding. It is a substantial overhaul -- one that almost certainly reflects the change in language guiding the institution.

There's no question that the shift in verbiage provides much more worldly framework for an educational system. Gone is talk of cooperation with other institutions in favor of a focus on the state itself. No more educating people and improving the human condition; instead, the goal is to get workers out the door.

Why the change was proposed isn't clear. We reached out to Walker's office, as well as the offices of state Sen. Alberta Darling and state Rep. John Nygren, who co-chair the Joint Committee on Finance that published the proposal.

UW System President Ray Cross said the "Wisconsin Idea" "defines us and forever will distinguish us as a great, public university. Wisconsin must not abandon this core principle and value. We will work to preserve the Wisconsin Idea in every form."

Walker, it's worth noting, doesn't hold a college degree, which is far more unusual for a nationally prominent elected official than it is for an average American. Walker left Marquette University early to take a job with the Red Cross, a move that is a core component of his biography.

Walker has built his name on challenging bases of institutional power in the state, particularly its labor unions. He's planning on running for president, of course, and a move to shift the focus of a liberal arts university to one focused on workforce education fits neatly into the sort of narrative Walker will want to offer on the campaign trail.