23 February 2011

Freedom and the Greater Good

I wasn’t going to do it. I wasn’t going to allow myself to lose focus on my current projects and take on Chancellor Martin’s support for breaking apart Wisconsin’s higher education system. Right now I’m focusing on ideas of teaching, education, and – as my post earlier this week indicated – the way that these issues play out in science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) fields. Focus is good and I need to work on that.

But, alas, I could not help myself. Too many important ideas are at stake and this should not pass unnoticed. Too many foundational values are being tossed around and misrepresented; and, somewhere between high rhetoric and self interest, the big ideas behind the real issues deserve at least a little attention.

* * * *

Last week, it came to light that UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin had been engaging in closed-door discussions (without the UW President or Regents) with Governor Scott Walker. The result of these discussions is an imminent proposal to separate UW-Madison from the UW System and establish it as a stand-alone public authority. The proposal has been met with support by some, apathy by others, and outrage by others still.

Differing opinions are good. They lead to healthy debate. However, as is typical of discussions about complex issues, some commentators have taken up the cause and put forth arguments that sound nice but turn out to be deeply flawed upon closer examination. Poorly conceived arguments and half truths are frustrating, but they are a fact of life in democracies. The right of an individual to say thoughtless things is – however distasteful – unassailable. However, the right to go off half-cocked and make cavalier use of language and reason does not include the right to go unchallenged or even to be taken seriously.

This brings me to a recent blog post by Professor Jeremi Suri entitled "Fighting For Freedom in Wisconsin." Professor Suri is a faculty member in the History Department at UW-Madison. He’s written several books and is a well-respected intellectual. I have never met him but I have seen and heard his public remarks on a few occasions. I also have a number of friends, whom I trust and respect, who have studied with Professor Suri. He is, by all accounts, a very talented and truly intelligent man. I have not chosen to respond to his remarks out of any desire to critique him personally or professionally. However, the post in question has been making the rounds here on campus. It has been touted by many – presumably because of Professor Suri’s success and visibility within his field – as an authoritative analysis of the educational and intellectual issues surrounding the proposed split. As such, it has become a minor rallying point for those who support the Martin-Walker plan to separate UW-Madison from the rest of the system.

Professor Suri, however, offers a deeply troubling defense of a potential UW split and demonstrates the kind of mixed reasoning that has fueled the heated events here in Madison for the past week. In fact, he begins his post with a look at the issues at stake in the budget/labor legislation that has resulted in a week of protests.

He starts with an excellent recap of the basic issues surrounding Governor Walker’s Budget Repair Bill and the protests. And, at the end of this introduction, he concludes:

The protesters at the Capitol and their sympathizers are defending their freedom to have some say in their own future. Ironically, their argument is similar to the one voiced by opponents of recent national health care legislation. Citizens object to government actions that deny ordinary men and women control over their lives. Citizens of all political stripes demand the respect to have their voices heard, their legitimate concerns addressed, and their interests represented in decision-making. Governor Walker’s breakneck efforts to balance the state budget by denying citizens any input in the process – through public discussion, open hearings, or negotiations – are an affront to the freedoms of hardworking citizens. The protests at the Capitol are not about the fiscal measures proposed by the governor. They are protests about freedom – the rights of men and women to be included in the process, to feel represented and respected even if they must accept sacrifices they would rather avoid.

This is a reasonable assessment of the situation. It helps highlight the deeper issues of freedom and the right to be heard on issues that impact your life, your family, and your community.

This is also the beginning of the end of my agreement with Professor Suri.

* * * *

Professor Suri makes some rather wild and unhelpful jumps from the issues of freedom and individual rights to the issues of administrative discretion and flexibility that UW leaders have been asking for. This is confounded by the lack of effort put toward differentiating between the discretion that all UW System leaders ask for and the UW-Madison split that only Chancellor Martin seems to endorse.

Yet, despite these logical weaknesses, Professor Suri’s post is seen by many as very moving. This, in my view, is the result of his grand rhetorical gestures and language. Language, though I could go on at length, is not actually the point of my own argument. It is a significant factor, however, and a brief case-in-point helps to explain why language and clarity of thought are so critical at times like these.

Consider the absolutely reckless and repeated use of the word “freedom” and other freedom-like images. Immediately following his introduction (above) Professor Suri begins his defense of the recent moves by Chancellor Martin, including the UW split, with the following statement:

This is the appropriate context for discussing another major issue, the future of one of Wisconsin’s greatest institutions, the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Without necessarily saying so, he extends the individual freedom issue to encompass the UW-Madison campus. This is one of the most disingenuous points that someone as well-educated and talented as Professor Suri could make.

Individuals enjoy natural rights and freedoms, institutions do not. The very notion that any institution should enjoy the same kind of self-determination that individuals enjoy is contrary to our entire notion of natural rights as well as our governmental structure. No institution in our society is deemed to enjoy the same basic freedoms as individuals. This is evident in the explicit creation of checks-and-balances within the federal government; the long-standing (and oft-debated) balances between the respective rights, prerogatives, and powers of the states and the federal government; and our use of recalls, term-limits, and – gosh – elections. Philosophically and logically, the “Freedom for UW-Madison” argument fails and it bears no substantive resemblance to the issues of workers’ rights and freedoms being protested at the statehouse. Its only purpose, as far as I can tell, is to transfer the campus’ sympathy for the protestors onto the argument in favor of a UW-Madison breakaway.

I have every confidence that Professor Suri means well, but his words and reasoning here are a prime example of, as Plato would say, illiberality:

You mustn’t let [the unphilosophic argument’s] partaking in illiberality get by you unnoticed. For petty speech is of course most opposite to a soul that is always going to reach out for the whole and for everything divine and human. (The Republic, 486a)

* * * *

Even if we put aside the foregoing as an unfortunate case of rhetoric-run-amok, the foundational shortcomings of the argument remain glaring and significant.

…[M]ore freedom under the Badger Partnership will allow the university to allocate precious resources for the quality teaching, research innovation, and entrepreneurship that our society so desperately needs. Under the present system, the university is severely limited in its ability to reward merit in any of these areas.

Again, note the highly problematic use of “freedom” and the way it might mislead a reader to conclude that the important individual freedoms that opened his post are the same freedoms discussed here.

Consider, also, the appalling lack of specificity or justification. How, exactly, is UW-Madison hamstrung when it comes to quality teaching, research innovation, and entrepreneurship? Furthermore, are shortcomings on these issues really the fault of the campus’ relationship with state government?

Do I believe that there are, for example, laws and rules regarding contractors and the use of public funds that were developed for government agencies writ large and which do not fit well with the unique mission and nature of education? Absolutely. However, I also believe that other powerful forces (which have nothing to do with an administrative relationship with the state) are present and significantly hindering the pursuit of, say, quality teaching.

Consider the pressure placed on graduate students and post-docs to avoid teaching and service responsibilities (or simply to do the bare minimum) in favor of research productivity. Consider the near-scandalous use of grant money to endlessly buy-out faculty teaching duties, freeing said faculty to pursue individual research projects that frequently take them far from campus and educational duties such as advising. And consider the way that these pro-research, anti-teaching tactics are shamelessly rewarded in tenure and promotion cases.

Are there ways to improve the structural relationships between higher education and state governments? Without question. But let us not ignore the very real and insidious obstacles we have constructed and perpetuated for ourselves – especially when it comes to quality teaching. To suggest that the relationship with the state and whatever bureaucratic strings it includes are the primary source of subpar decisions about teaching would be an insult to, well, the truth.

Finally, to note over and over again that higher education requires administrative discretion different from the Department of Transportation, for example, neglects the issue that so deeply troubles many of us – the separation of UW-Madison from the rest of the state’s postsecondary infrastructure. Should one’s concern for any of these three points (teaching, research, entrepreneurship) be genuine, one ought to care about the state of these issues at all public institutions of higher learning. Self-interested pursuit of them for one campus is exactly that: self interest. And to slyly cover up this fact with the supposed hope that Madison will serve as a “positive precedent” for other campuses is to conflate selfish actions with actual partnership, leadership, and advocacy.

* * * *

Professor Suri eventually turns his full and honest attention to the question of a UW-Madison split. And this, sadly, is where some of the most unfortunate aspects of the argument emerge.

Let’s take this one bit at a time:

…[M]ore freedom under the Badger Partnership will serve the “Wisconsin Idea.”

Freedom again. And, this time, it is combined with another sacred term in Wisconsin discourse, The Wisconsin Idea. Wonderful.

The division of responsibilities created by the larger UW system has made it difficult at times for Madison to help diverse citizens in all corners of the state.

The language here betrays, perhaps, the fundamental failing in the reasoning of UW-Madison leaders who want to separate from the System. It assumes that it is the responsibility and purview of the flagship campus to serve every conceivable need experienced by all people from Ashland to Beloit. It assumes that UW-Madison, its students, and its faculty are fully competent and justified in discerning what kind of “help” all our “diverse citizens” need or want. Nevermind that UW-Marionette might be attuned to the issues and pressures that face its students. Madison doesn’t need local yokels mediating its greatness and insight. And it certainly doesn’t need the yahoos at UW-LaCrosse trying to tap into the knowledge and expertise that Madison may have to offer. We know what kind of help people need and, left to do it our way, we will help them better than they’ve ever been helped before.

This perspective assumes that UW-Madison has a unique, superior claim to the concepts embodied in The Wisconsin Idea. The Wisconsin Idea was articulated over a century ago by government reformers who wanted to use research and expert knowledge to guide public policy. And educators, like Fredrick Jackson Tunner and Aldo Leopold, took that notion into the field. They used the land and people of Wisconsin as resources for studying how life works and how, through the pursuit of knowledge, we can make life better.

Of course UW-Madison was central to the "educators + research + policy + service"equation. UW-Madison was the University of Wisconsin at that time. The fact that there was no UW-System at that time does not somehow remove UW-Milwaukee or UW-Stevens Point as legitimate heirs to an idea that belongs in the public domain rather the private estate of UW-Madison.

Unfortunately, this Madison-knows-best mentality gets worse…

Other parts of the UW system claim responsibility for outreach. Madison gets limited and highly constrained resources for many of the elements of Extension that the campus pioneered in the early twentieth century.

The language as well as the spirit of the assertions here are very troubling. True: The Wisconsin Idea has its roots in Madison. The Wisconsin Idea also played a role in the creation of UW-Extension. UW-Extension, however, came into its own during the Great Depression when it was obvious that one central location was not sufficient to serve the emerging needs of the state. Furthermore, educators started to realize that coming to Madison and staying for a few years was simply impossible for many people due to familial, economic, or other obligations. Denying someone access to a UW-quality education, because of economic hardship or home circumstances, was (and is) neither ethical nor practical. One campus simply couldn’t do everything that needed to be done and Extension became the way to bring the benefits research and higher education to the whole state.

Over time, this proliferation of public higher education from Madison outward gave rise to satellite campuses and smaller colleges that were, though officially separate, a way to connect many communities with the University of Wisconsin. Not UW-Madison, the University of Wisconsin.

This was the birth of a higher education system that would not be formally unified until the 1970s but which grew out of the recognition that Madison cannot do everything. Other offices, bureaus, colleges, and full campuses would have to be created to make a UW education genuinely accessible to everyone. Certain activities, such as large-scale outreach, would have to be shifted to “other parts” of the university’s whole. And UW-Extension, which became a massive organization, would legitimately become its own entity serving a massive university that was growing into something that could not and should not be confined to the acres surrounding Bascom Hill. The Madison campus would remain a powerful presence with much to offer, including experience and leadership, but it simply was not enough to meet the needs of everyone.

Outreach and Extension do not belong to Madison. The Wisconsin Idea does not belong to Madison. And the University of Wisconsin does not belong to Madison. These are the intellectual property and public goods that belong to the State of Wisconsin. To suggest that Madison understands them better and would be more successful if it did not have to share resources, identity, and fate with the other campuses and entities that comprise a united University of Wisconsin is, quite simply, arrogant and self serving.

Professor Suri covers other issues in his post and I could continue at length in an effort to counter his points. However, I will limit myself to highlighting the problematic use of important values and ideas and the deeply biased assumptions made about UW-Madison and its relationship with the rest of the UW System.

* * * *

The Capitol protesters are, indeed, defending their freedom to have some say in issues that impact their future. They are demonstrating as an exercise of their rights of free speech and in an effort to be included as equal partners, with legitimate claims and valuable experience, in the discussion about how the state can best face difficult times. They are also speaking up as a reminder to the Governor and the new legislative majority that rights and freedoms among individuals do not include the ethical forbearance to throw others under the proverbial bus. Our society is arguably governed by majority rather than consensus, but this does not come from a belief that the largest or loudest among us are relieved of a higher-order responsibility to promote the greater good. Difficult, immediate concerns – balancing the budget or securing institutional discretion – do not eliminate the importance of big picture issues – workers’ rights or statewide educational alignment and equality.

The public employees marching and chanting downtown are not, as some have suggested, demanding special treatment. They are demanding a seat at the table and a respectful acknowledgement of their role as partners in navigating hard times and negotiating solutions. They, if we want to talk about values inherent in the American social order, are a reminder that our Constitution opens with a declaration of togetherness, unity, and partnership as the means to domestic tranquility, the general welfare, and the formation of a more perfect union. Freedom, liberty, and rights are unquestionably central to our philosophical and political heritage and our ugliest national fights have emerged from debates over how to make these values a reality. But each of these ideals is, and should be, counterbalanced by the obligations we have to one another, our interdependent needs, and the fact that together we are stronger, more effective, and better positioned to face the challenges that come our way.

Union members and their supporters are speaking up for freedom. But they are also speaking up for respect and fact that truth and justice are better served when everyone is at the same table, negotiating together, and pursuing the common good. The Governor’s hasty, unexamined proposals – developed in the executive’s office rather than a public forum – are an affront to the social checks-and-balances that so many workers and citizens have fought to institute. His proposals are self-interested, neglect the real contributions and legitimate agency of employees, and are an attempt to sacrifice the notion of balance and unity for the sake of political expediency.

That is an appropriate context for discussing the future of UW-Madison and the proposal coming from Chancellor Martin’s office. We, the Madison campus, can pursue our own special interests, or we can stand together with educators and students from across the state in the hopes that our coordinated, balanced, and unified higher education system can long endure. Just as union members are fighting for a seat at the table with their employers, UW-Madison can fight to ensure that the higher education table – with isn’t ours alone – is big, respectful, and inclusive. Or, well, we can abandon our friends and partners for our own selfish gains.

Together we are a diverse and multi-purpose university of the people, by the people, for the people of Wisconsin. Apart we are less. Under this division we would be UW-Madison. But together we are the University of Wisconsin, sifting and winnowing ideas about the nature of a great public university and moving Forward.


  1. "No institution in our society is deemed to enjoy the same basic freedoms as individuals."
    I think this is a really important point that is missing in all of these debates, whether is be UW-Madison or the right to collectively bargain. I read that these moves towards institutional (and corporate) control are the first in a long time to attempt to create equality through subjugation. Individuals working collectively are supposed to be the most powerful force and that is slowly but surely being taken away.

  2. Equality through subjugation... A fascinating idea to explore!

    I think you're onto something there. When we begin to confuse the nature and intent of institutions (and, you're right, corporations) we begin to confuse and undermine the nature and rights of actual people.

    Thanks for the comment, Sylvia!

  3. Ed , I am very impressed. And very glad you are blogging on this. As reflected on my own blog I share many of your sentiments. Eduoptimists.blogspot.com

  4. Thanks for reading & commenting, Sara. It's much appreciated!

    This division is an enormously important issue and simply cannot be accepted (or, to be fair, rejected) without some very serious though about both the specifics and the underlying assumptions/implications.

    Just doin' my part for the sifting and winnowing...

  5. Wonderful, eloquent evaluation...thanks for the context.

  6. An excellent argument eloquently stated -- thank you for helping me better understand the bigger issues and for clarifying and solidifying the position I intuitively held.


  7. rwcroft,

    Thanks for the kind words -- my vanity will survive another day. :)

    Actually, though it is always satisfying to hear that folks agree with me, it is even more rewarding to hear from readers and know that -- if nothing else -- the conversation is continuing.

    So, again, many thanks for stopping by and commenting. I hope to see you around again soon.