What Would Tommy Do?
A Republican governor was once UW’s greatest champion. Those days are long gone.
“At the same time that Republicans were getting their ass kicked for being against the Wisconsin Idea — which was the governor’s problem, not ours — here was UW-Madison saying it didn’t want to spread its knowledge through a charter school.”
(The Legislature dealt with the reluctance, Kooyenga notes, by ordering the UW System through a budget measure to create a special office to authorize independent charter schools in Madison and Milwaukee.)
To be sure, faculty involvement in frontline political issues can be a double-edged sword. A year ago, Deller infuriated state Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) for issuing a UW Extension fact sheet that unfavorably compared the economic performance of “right to work” states to states that recognize collective bargaining rights. Nass, as Isthmus first reported, ripped the Deller report as one-sided “garbage research” — a waste of resources and a product of a professor “hiding behind academic freedom.”
Nass did not respond to a request for an interview about the state of UW-Capitol relations. Neither did Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau). A staffer for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) refused an interview request. Laurel Patrick, Gov. Scott Walker’s press secretary, said via email “our administration has a long history of partnering with the UW System.”
Patrick cited the governor’s support of a three-year degree, the UW’s flexible online degree and certificate program, and the unsuccessful effort to create a UW System Authority. “Therefore, it would be absolutely incorrect to assert that there is a ‘breakdown in communications between the Capitol and the university,’” she wrote, citing my query. “However, don’t let the facts get in the way of your narrative.”
Michael Sussman, a star UW-Madison biochemist and director of the UW Biotechnology Center, is unnerved by the current situation. His unease is palpable in an interview. He’s been at the Madison campus for 34 years. “I love the university. I love the state. There’s no better place to do science,” he professes. “But things are getting worse.”
He cites budget-caused layoffs in his center and legislative criticism of stem cell research. “I’ve put up with it because in the past I’ve felt the state wanted me here. Many of us [in my situation] are wondering if that’s still true. I don’t know how else to say it: It’s shocking how this administration is treating the university compared to previous governors irrespective of their parties.”
Sussman praises Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat who promoted stem cell research, but his voice rises with passion when he mentions Thompson, who served as governor from 1987 to 2001.
“Tommy was a true leader,” Sussman says. “He certainly valued knowledge and education. And he knew how to get things done.”
He recalls how in the 1990s UW-Madison Provost John Wiley brought him to the Capitol to meet Thompson, and how he spent two full hours explaining to a fascinated governor how DNA works and how biotechnology could transform medical research on campus and elevate UW-Madison as an international leader.
Thompson, he says with a note of awe, sought further briefings and responded with extra funding for a cluster faculty hiring in human genomics and for a huge biotech building program, BioStar, and related projects, that have transformed the Madison campus.
“My experience with Tommy was amazing,” he says. “I had never worked with a Republican in my life — I come from a family of die-hard liberal-socialist Democrats, like Bernie Sanders.”
Thompson urged him to stick with Wisconsin, and Sussman did. “I owe him a lot. The university owes him a lot,” he says. But today, he says, the climate is very different on campus. Faculty doesn’t feel valued. Even their research is under attack. Sussman spearheaded an open letter to the Legislature, signed by 700 or so faculty members, defending stem cell research from a proposed state ban promoted by Republican lawmakers.
“It’s greatly worrying to many of us,” he says, adding that sticking with the UW these days may not be the best career decision for a professor.
That point was underlined recently with Education Policy Studies professor Sara Goldrick-Rab blasting UW tenure changes when she announced her departure for a friendlier home at Temple University. Even more revealing was a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report that the Madison campus paid out nearly $9 million in raises and research support to retain 40 top faculty being courted by rival universities.
Their departure for greener pastures, in the face of Wisconsin’s turmoil, could have cost the UW even more — $18 million in federal research grants were in play, the paper reported.
Terry Shelton, who spent 23 years as the outreach director at the UW’s Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs, speaks of the parlous relationship with the candor of a retiree. “There’s a lot of blame to go around,” he says.
He recalls what now seems like a golden age of faculty engagement. Heavyweight professors like Andy Reschovsky advising policymakers on the budget, Don Nichols on the Wisconsin economy, Graham Wilson and Dennis Dresang on government structure, Don Kettl on state-local government relations, John Witte on education, in addition to a series of ground-breaking economic summits led by a forceful UW System President Katharine Lyall.
“That kind of engagement is what I don’t see anymore,” says Shelton.
A small but telling example he cites is the Commission on Government Reform, Efficiency and Performance that Gov. Scott Walker appointed in late 2015. It is neither staffed by UW personnel nor has any UW members.
The irony, Shelton says, is that two La Follette Institute professors — Susan Yackee and Donald Moynihan — are consulting nationally on government reform for the Volcker Alliance, which was created by the former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker to “address the challenge of effective execution of public policies and to help rebuild public trust in government.”
Shelton says that the breakdown in communications isn’t just a one-way street. Academia has changed too. Young professors aren’t as willing to specialize in Wisconsin issues like those of an earlier era. They’re more likely to pack up, move on and advance their careers than spend 40 years at the UW, he says.
The problem “goes both ways,” he says. “Does this administration want to ask anybody for help? Are these professors willing to go the extra step and think about Wisconsin?”
Smeeding, a poverty and income-distribution researcher at the La Follette Institute, says UW faculty is quietly working with state officials on many issues, but not on critical economic or politically charged matters. “I don’t know if the other end of State Street always wants to know what we have to say,” he says.
Smeeding, who worked with conservative hero Daniel Patrick Moynihan on family issues at Syracuse University, recently addressed Walker’s The Future of the Family Commission. He says his talk prompted a good, vigorous discussion. He pointed out how the declining incomes of the undereducated translated to lower marriage rates and to the dire outcomes of young single women giving birth.
“There’s a Catholic cardinal [Jerome Listecki] sitting there, and I’m saying, what’s wrong with birth control that works? What’s wrong with long-acting, reversible contraception? It’s much better than abortion.”
Another collaborative effort Smeeding points to is the long-running Family Impact Institute seminars that UW’s Karen Borgenschneider quietly runs for lawmakers and their staffs at the Capitol. It is, however, a closed-door affair with no press and no publicity. He says this is by the choice of lawmakers, who feel it allows for freer conversations.
There are other collaborations underway as well. La Follette has run a briefing series for the Legislature. It also works with the Wisconsin Legislative Council on health policy. And the UW School of Human Ecology, in general, is widely praised for its extensive outreach efforts, including a program-rich partnership with the UW-Cooperative Extension.
But it’s a different story for critical issues like economic development, environmental regulation and other politically sensitive matters. Says Smeeding: If Don Nichols, the state’s longtime economic guru, were still alive, “they wouldn’t want to hear what he had to say.”
Democrats share responsibility for the state of affairs. The estrangement became noticeable during Gov. Doyle’s administration, from 2003 to 2011. While the Democratic chief executive stood strong for stem cell research, he did not pull UW talent into his administration.
“Doyle to me was a great disappointment,” says political scientist Joel Rogers. He directs the UW-affiliated COWS think tank and says as part of his policy advocacy he wrote Doyle’s economic development strategy for the 2002 campaign. “As soon as he got in, I didn’t hear from the guy. It was a total shutdown.”
Rogers had a far better working relationship with the Thompson administration, which he says shared COWS’s commitment to creating industry apprenticeship programs to move young people into good-paying craft jobs.
“Tommy used to say, ‘Joel, you’re so far to the left of me that you go all around the table to sit next to me,’” Rogers recalls.
Bill McCoshen, Thompson’s commerce secretary, says he worked with COWS “with Tommy’s encouragement and because I thought Joel was giving me valuable input. Tommy inculcated that in all of us: Just because someone has a ‘D’ behind their name it doesn’t mean they don’t have good ideas.”
It’s a far different story today.