State Rep. Terese Berceau
Op Ed

GOP Attacks Threaten UW Free Speech

Liberal and conservative professors, students must be able to discuss any issues.

By - Jan 11th, 2017 02:29 pm

Bascom Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus. Photo by Rosina Peixoto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Bascom Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus. Photo by Rosina Peixoto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

When Republican legislators threaten to withhold funding from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, fire professors who teach material they deem controversial, or comb through the list of course offerings to make sure classes meet some conservative definition of what is legitimate to teach, it has a chilling effect on academic and intellectual freedom and threatens our democracy. These attacks on free speech will continue to poison the atmosphere on our campus and do significant damage to Madison’s national and international reputation.

The masculinity workshop now under GOP fire and the African Studies course Republican legislators attacked a few weeks ago are completely voluntary. They have very small class sizes to facilitate in-depth, personal discussions about sensitive topics. Given the resurgence of white supremacy and racism during the presidential campaign and the problem of sexual violence on college campuses, the issues covered in these courses are clearly worthy of discussion.

Republicans go down a very dangerous road when they try to dictate the learning opportunities our universities offer. Higher education gives students the opportunity to open their minds and acquire new information, re-examine existing assumptions, foster curiosity, and develop critical thinking skills.

Conservative and liberal students alike should be able to expand their understanding of the world by discussing and debating perspectives other than their own. That was definitely my experience when I studied at Madison after growing up in Green Bay, and one that I treasure for the value it brought to my intellectual and personal growth. Unfortunately not all of my colleagues share that same academic curiosity and openness to different ideas.

Frankly, the issue isn’t the subject matter being taught in any particular course or program. The crux of the problem is Republican legislators believing they can micromanage the UW, attack the free speech rights of professors, and use the budget to blackmail the university into subservience whenever instructors espouse ideas that challenge conservative orthodoxy.

I see this as the worst kind of legislative micromanagement. I don’t think the Republican legislators complaining have taken the courses in question. Their outbursts seem to stem from visceral assumptions about the subject matter, which then lead to attempts to coerce the university into silencing views with which they disagree. I agree with the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign‘s Matt Rothschild’s description of them as “budget bullies.” As we all should have learned on the playground, trying to appease or caving in to the demands of bullies never puts an end to the problem: It only exacerbates and perpetuates the intimidation.

We’ve already seen the problems caused by drastic Republican cuts to UW funding over the past six years. Stellar professors have already left. UW-Madison dropped off the list of the top five research universities for the first time in decades. When the university recruits new instructors and researchers, candidates frequently ask about the political climate here and how it might negatively impact their work.

UW–Madison is a vital engine for job growth and economic development. Its overall economic impact tops $15 billion annually. It is responsible for almost 200,000 state jobs. NorthStar Consulting found the university returned $24 to the state economy for every tax dollar invested. Research performed here generated over 300 new businesses. Parents all over our state hope their children can attend our flagship university. Obviously the campus must be doing something right.

GOP harassment imperils that success. Having a vibrant, well-regarded university system benefits everyone in the state. We can’t afford to lose our hard-earned reputation as a world-class institution of higher education because of Republican anti-intellectualism.

There are many more important issues that should concern the Legislature: college affordability and accessibility, retaining top faculty, keeping students educated at the UW in Wisconsin after they graduate. These should be given much higher priority than dictating what can or cannot be taught in voluntary classes.

Terese Berceau D-Madison, represents District 77 in the Wisconsin Assembly. 

Categories: Education, Op-Ed, Politics

9 thoughts on “Op Ed: GOP Attacks Threaten UW Free Speech”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    Clearly the best and only way to protect free speech and academic freedom is to let GOP legislators approve all courses taught at UW schools and implement & monitor an ideological quota system for campus speakers.

  2. Jason says:

    When college Professors go to the voting booth in many cases they are pulling the Democratic lever at a 20-1 margin over Republicans. How is it that Republicans are bullies in asking for academic classes that meet real life job placement. How do classes that help students manage the stress of college life benefit a students future career path. There are 80, 000 jobs are available on the Wisconsin Work force site? Is it so much to ask for tax payer funded education to be some what linked to a real career path. Wisconsin Professors want to teach social justice, safe zones, unionization and bathroom politics how this puts students on a career path is unclear to me.

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    Yes Jason at a massive university like UW-Madison every professor is only interested in teaching social justice, safe zones, unionization and bathroom politics. No student is taking “real” classes that will land them a job. What’s Madison’s post-graduation job placement rate? 0% right? Actually nearly 90 percent of liberal arts graduates are employed full time, attending graduate school, or both. So your hyperbole is overheated and has no basis in reality. Par for the course for you.

  4. daniel golden says:

    This is part of the long term campaign set forth in the blueprint for conservative corporate control of all aspects of our society by Lewis Powell, as an attorney for the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. He was rewarded for his work with a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court by Nixon. The Koch brothers are becoming more blatant in their making financial support of Universities continent on teaching “the right things”, no pun intended. They conditioned a multi million dollar donation to the Florida State business School with them having veto power on faculty appointments. The existing faculty went ballistic, as well they should. The Florida Board of Regents, appointed by Governor Scott, overrode their objections, took the money and the conditions are in place at Florida State. The goal of the radical right wing Republicans, which is most all of them presently, is not to teach actual science ,history, and critical thinking, but actually quite the contrary. Indoctrination of the student body with dogma and having schools turn out subservient cogs for the corporate machinery they own and control is the real goal. Governor Walker’s attempt to gut the 100 plus year old mission statement of the UW, as well as the GOP censoring of all discussion of climate change from the DNR’s website are examples of this campaign. As George Orwell wrote in 1984: If all others accepted the lie the party imposed, if all records told the same tale, then the lie became history and became the truth”.

  5. Brian says:

    Jason, did you go to college? Your question “How do classes that help students manage the stress of college life benefit a students future career path.” is utterly ignorant. Having classes that help you deal with the stress of college life helps the student concentrate better on their core classes (you know, the ones that will get them the real life job after graduation). Plus it just makes the student a well-rounded individual that can think for themselves…instead of like you that just gets their talking points from Fox(fake) News and the talking heads on conservative radio and buys into their propaganda.

  6. Jason says:

    Brian, I went to college. In the old days we did n’t call it stress. It was an anxiety, yet we got through it. We didn’t need dog petting stations for students to cope with the stress of life, adult color books, or a self help college app. We didn’t mix red bull and vodka, your weed is stronger but this generation has to deal with stronger addictions. The millennials seem to not be able to function with out their smart phones. It is quite sad to watch.

  7. Vincent Hanna says:

    What do smart phones have to do with not wanting GOP legislators to approve all courses at UW-Madison? And do you ever leave your retirement home Jason? Millennials are hardly the only generation addicted to smart phones. You people always pining for the “good ol’ days.” It’s pathetic.

  8. Jason says:

    Vince, if you get a chance do the Arby’s on Port Washington and go through the drive thru. You find yourself making multiple trips around the store just to get what you ordered. There is no focus anymore. Same thing with a Culver’s in Oak Creek. The server screwed up the order three times in one family setting. Where I work you can not find most younger people engaging customers. It is the smart phone that runs their lives.

  9. Vincent Hanna says:

    Again, it’s not strictly a Millennial problem. Not even close. It’s a societal issue Jason. Go anywhere, the mall or a restaurant or a sporting event, and everyone is on their smartphone. Drive anywhere and half of the drivers you encounter are on a smartphone. My parents are nearly 70 and I am shocked by how many people their age talk and drive and text and drive. I am with you that smartphones have taken over people’s lives, but it’s all generations, yours too.

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