BY Dennis Riley
Anyone reading this is aware that Governor Walker wants to turn the University of Wisconsin System into a very different animal. In between the Governor’s Budget Address and the writing of this column – about five days – there has been an awful lot of talk about the size, shape, and strength of that new animal. Much of that talk, of course, has focused on the carnage that will accompany a $300 million cut piled on top of cuts imposed over the past half dozen years and seasoned with another two year tuition freeze. Another chunk has been devoted to the proposed UW System Authority, the vehicle for giving us greater flexibility over several aspects of our operations, most prominently over the tuition we charge. We would also get a dedicated revenue stream, one that would come from the sales tax, which just happens to be the most regressive tax imposed by the state of Wisconsin. In case you are not intimately familiar with the concept of a regressive tax it works like this. As income rises, the percentage of that income taken by a regressive tax gets smaller. Rich folks pay more sales tax than the rest of us, but it is a far smaller percentage of their incomes.
But what interested me the most was something else, namely, the vision of a university that animated the cuts, the authority, and most of all the Keystone Cops effort to impose on us a new mission. The antiquated Wisconsin Idea – research that seeks truth, efforts to improve the lives of every citizen in the state, extending ourselves out from campus to community and so on – was to be replaced (sort of) by a focus on the workforce needs of the state of Wisconsin.
In typical college professor mode, my first question was how do we define workforce needs? It could be seen as the needs of the employers of the state? But it could also be seen as the needs of the workforce itself, that is, of the men and women who take the jobs those employers have “created.” I’ve got a strong hunch that the Governor would define it as the former. I’ve got an even stronger hunch that university faculty, administrators, staff, and students would choose the latter. Workforce development is human development and human development is our first priority.
It’s not that we neglect the idea of this human development as part of a process leading toward jobs and eventually careers. There isn’t a professor in the UW System who hasn’t had conversation after conversation with students – even prospective students – about possible careers and how they might prepare for those careers. I did the Freshman Orientation for incoming Political Science majors for 12 years and jobs/careers was part of the discussion we had every time. Beyond that, the data is just as clear and convincing now as it was 54 years ago when it was my turn to figure out if I wanted to go to college. People who graduate from college are less likely to be unemployed for any length of time and are almost certain to make more money over their lifetimes than are the people they went to high school with who decided not to join them. Finally, employer after employer agrees that college graduates bring to their jobs skills that are essential, skills that can transfer from one type of task to another.
We are preparing a work force. But, two things have to be kept in mind.
First, we often have no idea what jobs we are preparing them for. The Geography and Psychology Departments at UWSP had no idea in the late 1990s that they were preparing Paul Graham and Anello Mollica, respectively, to develop what a nationally respected publication has called the best brewery in Wisconsin. On one level, they didn’t learn brewing or business. On another, they learned to think and plan, and it seems to have worked wonders. I didn’t know I was helping so many other departments prepare Kyle Chivers to be a fantastic organic baker – and businessman. We here at UWSP have prepared young men and women for far more conventional career paths – law, medicine, accounting, politics, teaching, and so many more. The point is, we prepare them by helping them learn to think.
Second, we try to prepare the young people who come to spend time with us to lead a full and satisfying life. The discouragingly well-kept secret of universities is this. We are bait and add institutions. We bait people with the job/career side of human development and then slip in the development for life side. When I left for Willamette University in the fall of 1961 it was a strictly a job oriented decision. I didn’t want to follow my Dad into the shoe business, my Mom to Penney’s, my uncle Emil to the General Mills plant, or my grandfather to repairing sewing machines. College seemed to offer the possibility of all sorts of open doors. The only one I thought about was high school History teacher and baseball coach. Nope. But I stumbled into one, and along the way I also stumbled into a vision of life that was so much broader and more satisfying than the one I came there with. I was still grounded in my parents’ most basic values, but I could look at music, art, literature, society, history, and who knows what all else through a very different lens. And I got that lens from friends, roommates, acquaintances, and most of all from Ed Stillings, Ted Shay, Noel Kaestner, Jerry Canning and a host of others. They were my teachers and my role models. I hope I have done the same for at least some of the students I have taught here over the past 36 years. Actually, I am pretty sure I have.
So, we do a lot more of what the Governor seems to want than he appears to see. But more to the point, we do more than he seems to want to see. It’s important. Let us keep doing it.
Enough out of me.