With Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, incredibly enough, having vaulted to the front of the GOP pack of 2016 Presidential hopefuls in Iowa and a number of other states, he'll undoubtedly (or, at least, hopefully) come under much more scrutiny on a national level for the kind of policies he's been carrying out back home. (And, additionally, as Brendan Fischer explains, "Rumors of the Walker [John Doe] Probe's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated")
One aspect of those policies was noticed by Jonas Persson and Mary Bottari at the Center for Media and Democracy's PRWatch this week. It seems Walker, without publicly mentioning it during a recent speech on his newly proposed state budget, included $300 million in cuts to the University of Wisconsin (UW) System along with some other troubling changes.
"The unprecedented cut, which amounts to 13 percent of the state funding for the university system and 2.5 percent of the total budget, accompanied by a tuition freeze will result in the defunding of scores of departments and jeopardize the livelihood of faculty and graduate students," PRWatch reports. The cuts come on the heels of Walker's tax breaks for the wealthy and cuts to social services which have left Wisconsin "32nd in the nation in new job growth," while "the state faces a $2.2 billion dollar deficit." Not helpful numbers when running for President (at least in a general, versus primary, election.)
"In a grim irony, the cut also comes amid reports that other states in the Midwest, such as Minnesota (which recently reported a $1.04 billion budget surplus), Indiana, Iowa and Ohio, are ramping up funding for its state universities, the Wisconsin State Journal reports."
PRWatch adds that, under Walker's proposed new structure for the UW System, "The Board of Regents appointed by the governor would be the governing body and the legislature and the public would have less of a role in protecting academic freedom and other statutory rights."
As much as some are alarmed by the restructuring and massive budget cuts to state education, a rather striking change to the UW System's written mission statement in the budget proposal has left some "nearly speechless", setting off arguably more controversy about what Walker, after being called on it, initially described as little more than "a drafting error"...
"In the proposed budget he released Tuesday," the Journal-Sentinel reported, "the governor made the UW System's mission to 'meet the state's workforce needs.' He also proposed striking language about public service and improving the human condition, and deleting the phrase: 'Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.'"
Beyond removing "the search for truth" from the statement, nixing the language about "the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state" seems to have been the cruelest cut for some in the state.
That phrase is at the heart of the more-than-century old "Wisconsin Idea" held dear by many in the state, as a driving progressive principle that has otherwise served them proudly and well since the concept was first articulated in the early part of the 20th century.
According to a University of Wisconsin-Madison webpage devoted to the state's achievements under it, the concept of the "The Wisconsin Idea" is described as "the principle that the university should improve people's lives beyond the classroom. It spans UW-Madison's teaching, research, outreach and public service."
"Nationally, the Idea has come to epitomize an enlightened role of government that exists solely to serve the people," a document [PDF] describing the Wisconsin Idea at the state legislature's website explains.
In the 1950s, that document details, former IL Governor and two-time Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, wrote: "The Wisconsin tradition meant more than simple belief in the people. It also meant a faith in the application of intelligence and reason to the problems of society. It meant a deep conviction that the role of government was not to stumble along like a drunkard in the dark, but to light its way by the best torches of knowledge and understanding that it could find."
Little wonder Walker and his team had hoped to quietly disappear those ideas.
"We aren't just training people to be workers," said James Baughman, a UW historian. "We're training them to be citizens, to be leaders. It's not that we don't have a responsibility to serve people to get training, but it's a lot more than that."
"Stunned educators accused Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday of trying to kill the Wisconsin Idea, which has guided the mission of the state's public higher education system for more than a century," is how the Journal-Sentinel led their initial coverage earlier this week.
The paper goes on to report that "Some critics immediately compared Walker's action to the surprise introduction in 2011 of Act 10, which all but ended collective bargaining for most public employee unions."
After being publicly called out for the proposed change to the mission, Walker attempted to marginalize the matter as little more than a "drafting error".
But that doesn't seem to have been the truth. In fact, PolitiFact Wisconsin now calls it a "Pants on Fire" lie.
As the controversy grew locally and in social media, Walker quickly said that he'd have no problem changing the statement back, but suggested there had been no objections from university officials previously.
The Journal-Sentinel reports, however, that's not true either. "UW officials did raise objections before the budget proposal was released, according to Alex Hummel, associate vice president for communications."
In a follow-up report on Thursday, the paper reports that Walker had revised his initial comments to acknowledge UW System officials had raised objections to the changes on several occasions previously. But, they say, "They had been told the changes were not open to debate."
For his part, Walker was forced to walk pretty much all of it back, without acknowledging his own roll in the matter. "Clearly, changing the Wisconsin Idea serves no purpose," he says in a full statement finally released on Thursday. "That is why I made it clear on Wednesday that we would not change it in the budget. It is not a change of heart. It was a simple miscommunication during the natural back and forth of this process.
Democratic state Sen. Janet Bewley said Walker "blamed somebody else. To me, there's no integrity there. I'll leave it to somebody else to decide if there's a lie in there."
Even Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos quickly threw Walker's scheme under the bus after it first came to light. "I think every once in a while taking a look at our mission statement is important, but it probably shouldn't be done in the context of the million decisions we make in the budget," he said.
John Erpenbach, another Democratic state Senator and outspoken Walker critic, told the paper he didn't believe the Governor couldn't have known about the proposed changes to do away with the Wisconsin Idea which, he said, are "'written in stone' on the university's foundation."
"This isn't something that would be an oversight. This is the governor directly aiming his arrow at the heart of the UW and what it's all about," Erpenbach said.
It'll be interesting to see what effect, if any, these sorts of things --- both the local controversies and Walker's by now well-worn style of governing by saying one one thing publicly and then doing something entirely different --- may have on the national electorate's concerns about him as the public spotlight grows brighter and brighter on one of the GOP's current front-runners for the 2016 Presidential nomination.
Of course, that all relies on the national media's diligence in its "search for truth", which is something Walker has demonstrated he'd very much prefer to do away with.