The “Wisconsin Idea” first articulated one hundred years ago, is currently under assault. The concept, simply put, stated that the primary mission of two ends of State Street, the Capitol and the University of Wisconsin, was to work together first and foremost to serve the interests and needs of the people of the state; that “the boundaries of campus are the boundaries of the state.” The Idea is currently being dismantled, laid to rest not only by Scott Walker and his big business cronies but by related interests, represented by Chancellor Biddy Martin, who are in the process of selling off the patrimony of generations of Wisconsinites to further privatize the increasingly corporate-driven U.W.-Madison.
Where did the “Wisconsin Idea” come from? Put forward by a broad range of pragmatic and far-sighted progressive innovators, it arose on the heels of over a quarter century of unprecedented economic hardship and political turmoil commonly referred to as the Age of the Robber Barons – an era when corporate moguls, the “titans of industry” ruled unrestrained, no social legislation or protections for working families existed, and state houses were run by political machines bought and paid for by “the Trusts.” That same period saw massive, often violent social explosions – the Great Strikes of 1877, the 1886 mass strikes for the eight-hour day that included the "massacre" of workers at Milwaukee County's Bayview Rolling Steel Mills, and the gigantic national railway strike of 1893. The 1890s also witnessed the most severe depression up to that time. Brought on by corporate avarice and speculation, it devastated the entire working class in unimaginable ways while “Gilded Age” elites gorged themselves on what Mark Twain called “the Great Barbecue.”
Here in Madison in the decades following, a broad coalition of middle class reformers, U.W. trained professionals, enlightened business types and Milwaukee Socialists primarily concerned with restoring and maintaining peace and stability embarked on a road to transform social, economic and political conditions – the heart of what became known as “Lafollette Progressivism”. Advised and informed by the expertise gathered at the U.W., the state house not only became a national example of “clean government” but went on to pass protections for workers – the first social security and worker’s comp laws in the country, laws governing child labor, the working day, public health standards, progressive tax reform, public regulation of utilities and environmental safeguards. Legislation passed from 1911-12 became the national model for real improvement through a positive interventionist state dedicated to serving more than just the interests of a few. It laid the groundwork for the New Deal.
And now, it’s as if Wisconsin is being taken back to the future. It’s as if the “Great Barbecue” has returned as the people of this state are being blamed and asked to sacrifice while the truly privileged and well-heeled take comfort and joy in their tax shelters. Not just a push to destroy collective bargaining and the union shop, Walker’s bill will give away state-owned power plants and diminish controls on phosphates in our water. It will savage those most in need as the remaining protections and securities devised by that first generation of “Wisconsin Idea” innovators are scuttled.
And at the other end of State Street, Biddy Martin is busy engineering the separation of the Madison campus so that it can “remain internationally competitive” as “a major research university”. Meeting with Walker’s people even before he was in office, the U.W. team devised a strategy that will raise tuition even further and thereby price yet another tier of Wisconsin students out of Madison. The further privatization implicit in the cleaving off of the Madison flagship will relegate the rest of the U.W. system to an ever declining inferior status and also spell the end of faculty, staff and service workers’ unionism. They call it “flexibility”.
Speaking before the Board of Regents on February 25, the Chancellor never once mentioned what she has been extolling elsewhere: That the U.W.-Madison this year passed the billion dollar mark in research and development monies; that the university ranks third in the nation, only behind Harvard/MIT and Stanford in the receipt of R&D grants. Most of that either comes from giant corporations, “philanthropists” expecting some return, foundations set up as tax shelters, or the Federal Government, arriving all too often from swollen Defense Department and other “national security state coffers.” While crying poverty and an untenable position, Martin even went so far as to suggest that the corporate university’s international market positioning is but an extension of the “Wisconsin Idea” - a kind of free market global “trickle down” that will serve the people of the state.
In his election night acceptance speech, Scott Walker proclaimed that “Wisconsin is open for business.” Biddy Martin’s main arguments for severing a corporate U.W.-Madison from the rest of the state system are those of big business. It’s time for both ends of State Street to be taught the true meaning of the “Wisconsin Idea,” a history lesson they will not forget.