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Covenant, Contract, and the Politics of the Wisconsin Idea

Reclaiming virtue in state-university relations.
By David J. Weerts

For those concerned about the future of public higher education, the political shake-up in Wisconsin’s higher education system deserves our attention. In 2015, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker successfully delivered major budget cuts, ushered in governance changes, and eliminated tenure from state law. Faculty members from eight University of Wisconsin four-year campuses along with representatives from its two-year campuses have voted “no confidence” in the board of regents and the system president, communicating their discontent about the manner in which higher education leaders have managed the contentious political situation.

Wisconsin higher education leaders are not alone in their lack of success in navigating difficult political terrain. North Carolina, Louisiana, and Texas are just a few of the other states in which higher education leaders are facing challenging political realities related to state funding, the future of tenure, and other key policy issues.

Political, demographic, and economic influences have fundamentally changed the state-university relationship since the “golden age” of higher education in the 1960s: a large segment of the public today views higher education primarily as a private good instead of a public good, and competing state priorities such as health care and corrections crowd out financial support for higher education.

But larger forces are also at play. In On Thinking Institutionally, political scientist Hugh Heclo suggests that the public has a growing distrust of institutions, including public schools, unions, churches, health-management organizations, courts, and colleges and universities. Poor institutional performance, together with high-profile scandals involving ethical breaches within these institutions, has damaged society’s confidence in them. In addition, many believe that institutions get in the way of individual freedom and that leaders of institutions tend to serve their own interests rather than serve the public. A new book by another political scientist, Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, supports this view with an in-depth qualitative study that highlights the growing divides among various groups in Wisconsin: those who live in rural communities and urbanites, government elites and working-class people, and public- and private-sector employees. Cramer finds that many rural Wisconsinites distrust state government and public institutions, including the flagship university, the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The Wisconsin context provides a particularly startling example of a citizenry and a higher education system that have drifted far from their celebrated past. After all, Wisconsin is well-known for the “Wisconsin Idea,” which has come to represent UW’s historic commitment to service and outreach, searching for truth, and conducting research of importance to Wisconsin citizens. John Bascom, a theologian and professor of rhetoric who served as the president of the University of Wisconsin between 1874 and 1887, is often credited with providing the intellectual foundation for the Wisconsin Idea.

The lessons from Wisconsin point to state-university tensions that abound throughout the nation today. The state’s story is a wake-up call about the importance of building a new political culture that restores public trust in America’s colleges and universities.

Wisconsin Idea as Covenant

Governor Walker and his staff deleted the Wisconsin Idea from the UW mission statement in a 2015 budget proposal, removing the phrase “basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth” and adding instead that the system will “meet the state’s workforce needs.” The firestorm that followed resulted in the restoration of the original language, but resistance to the attack on the Wisconsin Idea became a rallying point for UW system supporters. Bascom’s legacy was often invoked by college leaders to justify tenure, fend off budget cuts, uphold faculty governance, and quash the creation of a public authority to govern the UW system. Recent no-confidence votes have cited the Wisconsin Idea as the basis for affirming the importance of faculty governance and support for UW system institutions.

Few commentators have dug very deeply into Bascom’s original vision. In exploring Bascom’s worldview, one would be forced to concede that governance, money, and faculty contracts would likely be far down the list of his concerns. Tenure did not exist during Bascom’s day, and state funding was less than lavish. Bascom would likely be more concerned about the decline of state-university relations and the erosion of the moral philosophy that was the foundation of the Wisconsin Idea.

As historian David Hoeveler explains in “The University and the Social Gospel: The Intellectual Origins of the ‘Wisconsin Idea,’” Bascom was motivated by his moral conviction that the university’s mission was to create redemptive change in society. At a time when many colleges struggled with transforming heritage-preserving institutions into knowledge-producing ones, Bascom embraced the academy’s role in the creation and application of scientific knowledge. He believed that the fruit of knowledge would lead to restoration in the world, and, through an evolutionary process, would usher in the “kingdom of heaven on earth.” For decades, the university and the state reaped the collective rewards of the deep moral commitment to Wisconsin residents that Bascom and his contemporaries, including protégé Governor Robert La Follette, bequeathed to them. As UW–Madison scholar Gwen Drury outlines in the essay “The Wisconsin Idea: The Vision That Made Wisconsin Famous,” Wisconsin moved from being a declining wheat-growing state to a preeminent dairy state, while the University of Wisconsin–Madison gained a reputation as one of the top research universities in the world.

What seems lost in the present debate is how one might understand these long-standing moral commitments in an era when there is little basis to renew them. Bascom’s Wisconsin Idea created a unique covenant binding the state and the university together. Drury explains that the Wisconsin Idea was predicated on the notion that “broad and deep social connections make a democracy stronger.” This covenant was built on loyalty, fidelity, and a moral framework that guided its relationship with Wisconsinites. Current policy debates tend to ignore or downplay this grounding that nourished state-university relationships, most evident in Bascom’s vision. Today, in Wisconsin and across the country, broader discussions about covenant bonds that developed between states and their higher education systems are largely absent.

Seeds of Discontent

The collaborative, moralistic vision that guided Bascom and his contemporaries may be a thing of the past. Bascom and his colleagues were a homogeneous group, largely unified in thought and religious and ethnic identity. As the country has become more diverse and polarized, constructing a common view of the role of public higher education in society has become more difficult. As Heclo argues, the public may have lost its appetite for shared, sustained commitments that would guide higher education as a broad public good.

Even more troubling is the view that colleges and universities have been complicit in diminishing the nation’s moral imagination as it relates to fostering democratic commitments. Moral imagination might be described as the capacity to engage in generative thinking about the pursuit of wisdom and virtue for the good of the commonwealth. A brief historical examination puts these criticisms in context. In her essay “The University and Its Discontents,” historian Julie Reuben shows how colleges and universities have drifted away from their role of applying moral philosophy—a branch of philosophy examining ethical theories about how to live a good life or create a good society—to public problems. In the late nineteenth century, many in the academy believed that knowledge gleaned from the biological and social sciences would collectively provide answers to vexing moral issues of the day. The work across these fields was unified by a larger belief about the role of academia in building a flourishing democracy. Such philosophies were often considered within a theological context, as evident in the origins of the Wisconsin Idea.

The desire to develop these broader understandings waned as scholars disputed basic theories and lamented lack of progress. Ongoing disagreements among biologists, social scientists, and other scholars led many to embrace specialization and move away from constructing grander theories that would unite the disciplines. Academics defaulted to producing knowledge that had material and vocational value, eradicating any treatment of philosophy within their disciplines. Bascom’s vision became thoroughly secularized by the early twentieth century. Knowledge production, influenced by the epistemology of positivism, began to promote scholarship that was supposedly value-neutral. Positivism is anchored in the view that knowledge is based on natural phenomena gleaned only through empirical evidence and rational interpretation. It limits fields of knowledge—such as metaphysics and theology—as legitimate ways to make sense of the world.

By the 1960s, an increasingly diverse American society began to question traditional assumptions about family structure, gender roles, and other aspects of culture. Positivism came to be challenged by faculty and students, paving the way for epistemologies contesting assumptions of neutrality. Yet, Reuben explains, no appetite emerged among scholars to integrate empirical research as it related to moral judgment; the earlier view that the academy was a place to interrogate moral questions faded from view. A focus on civic action and mobilizing power, often through extracurricular activities and service-learning programs, emerged.

This shift created a wedge between academia and a public that had historically looked to universities for guidance on moral questions. Distance grew between academicians and those holding on to theological traditions. As historian George Marsden explains in his book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, Americans in the mid-twentieth century embraced religious belief, but academicians believed that religion could not meet the standards of rationality. A national moral consensus broke down as individual expression and freedom became preeminent. As the Christian Right ascended in power in the late 1970s, public universities were increasingly viewed by the religious public as hostile to their beliefs. The earlier notion that higher education leaders and the public could create a shared commitment to building a good society seemed a distant memory.

The 1970s marked the beginning of a sustained slide in state support for higher education. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and his evangelical voting bloc quickly narrowed the purpose of college to functional, privatized ends. Today, policy makers view higher education almost exclusively as serving vocational and economic purposes. This perspective is evident in Governor Walker’s attempted revision of the UW mission statement. Walker, the son of a Baptist minister, may be skeptical about UW’s claim to “search for truth,” viewing the value of the university in purely instrumental terms (as his revision put it) of meeting “the state’s workforce needs.”

Rise of the Social Contract

The legacy of this breakdown has been the loss of earlier covenant relationships and formulation of social contracts between states and higher education institutions. In his book Benefit of the Doubt, theologian Gregory Boyd explains that covenants are built on trust among parties and focus on protecting the integrity of the relationship. Social contracts are based on distrust for another party, focusing on self-preservation and acquisition. British rabbi Jonathan Sacks clarifies the distinction: “Parties can disengage from a contract when it is no longer in their interest to continue with it. A covenant binds them even—perhaps especially—in difficult times. The reason is that a covenant is predicated not on interest, but rather on loyalty and fidelity.”

Today’s higher education political environment is fully anchored within the social-contract mindset. Politicians and the public want universities to deliver education at a faster, cheaper rate, the ultimate ends being good jobs for their children and a stronger economy. Universities want freedom and money. The legalized nature of the contract provides both sides incentives to look out for their own interests rather than build a shared identity in serving a common good.

One does not have to look far to see the social contract in action. Political speeches and university addresses are replete with sound bites that demonize those holding opposing views. College presidents shame short-sighted politicians for shirking their responsibilities to support them, while politicians criticize colleges for neglecting their duty to provide accessible, affordable higher education that benefits society.

The social contract has been formalized in higher education policy. Performance funding, for example, requires evidence of a college’s return on investment in exchange for appropriations. Thirty states now employ such performance-based funding models, and four additional states are racing to implement them. Detractors, mostly college leaders, have called performance funding “punitive,” saying it creates a culture of distrust and oversight; they point out that such measures can be manipulated by savvy universities that “game the system.” Legislators in Oregon and Virginia have granted public institutions more autonomy over their operations in exchange for meeting specific performance goals. A similar proposal failed in Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted one regent who referred to it as “a change in attitude, in relationships, in authority, even in the culture of this system.”

The social-contract mindset offers no way of overcoming the divisions between American higher education and a public that views it as increasingly irrelevant. Perhaps the best one can hope for is an amicable divorce.

Considering Institutional Responses

Is there a way forward? One popular response has been to advocate for public engagement in higher education. Public engagement advances the principles of collaboration, mutual benefit, and exchange in a context of partnership and reciprocity. It fosters innovative teaching, learning, and scholarship that benefits students, faculty, institutions, and society.

For over a decade I have argued for such engagement, believing that it is our best hope for constructing a covenant relationship between states and public universities. Yet engagement has its own limits: it retains strong elements of the social-contract view of an exchange relationship for mutual benefit. While the elements of reciprocity and partnership speak to the spirit of the relationship, allegiances are often still based on instrumental ends. Many senior higher education leaders still view engagement through the lens of public relations, not as a strategy to transform their institutions to be more trustworthy and valued partners in their communities. Engagement is often positioned to secure “goods of second intent” that, Aristotle explained, are sought to obtain something else.

A second problem is that engagement leaves ideological divisions largely intact and often fails to engage diverse perspectives. Several years ago, I attended a national meeting where a leading scholar of civic engagement stated that a key priority for engaged work should be bolstering student-led protests against the war in Iraq. Debating moral philosophies about “what is right and good” has been replaced by mobilizing power for political action. While engagement as a field is on the forefront of promoting social justice and equity, there is little emphasis on developing literacy about how groups with diverse moral philosophies contribute to our collective understanding. As David Brooks said in a New York Times opinion piece, “Public debate is now undermoralized and overpoliticized.”

Engagement must be nurtured through virtues that foster and sustain covenantal relationships. In Commonwealth and Covenant, Marcia Pally, a scholar of religion and culture, explicates the notions of “separability and situatedness” that lie within covenant doctrines. Covenants are maintained by people who are in a position to refuse them but choose to honor them. A covenant, according to Pally, is “the commitment by each other to give to the flourishing of another, generously, not quid pro quo.”

Covenant thinking requires a dramatic shift in the conceptualization of higher education. Today’s campus CEOs are often hired by boards to be empire builders or turnaround specialists skilled in acquiring resources and building their institution’s brand. Market forces and our cultural obsession with institutional rankings reinforce this view of leadership. Covenant dispositions run counter to it.

The field of positive organizational scholarship can help conceptualize covenant thinking within complex organizations. Management professor Kim Cameron and his colleagues at the University of Michigan have developed the concept of “organizational virtuousness,” exploring the attributes of organizational cultures or processes that enable or disable virtuous deeds. According to Cameron, virtuous organizations create cultures that promote Aristotle’s goods of first intent: love, wisdom, and fulfillment. Such goods are not means to something else but are desirable for their own sake.

Virtuous organizations perform at high standards and engender loyalty and trust among organizational actors. They go beyond asking, “Are we achieving our goals, creating value, and performing successfully?” They inquire, “Is there profound purpose in our objectives? Are we pursing the highest human potential?” “Virtuous universities” would pursue higher-order objectives and focus on human impact, moral goodness, and social betterment. They could help heal a divisive political culture.

What might a virtuous university look like? Examining pedagogical practices within civic learning programs may be a place to start. Contributors to the essay collection Debating Moral Education argue that students must have an opportunity to think deeply about moral issues and be reflective and self-critical in making moral commitments. Such opportunities could be more clearly connected to civic learning programs that focus on skills and competencies for a democratic society. They could become a permanent part of the institutional fabric.

My own institution, the University of Minnesota, is focused on addressing five “grand challenges”: creating just and equitable communities, fostering human potential, advancing human health, developing sustainable cities, and providing food and water security. Each of these areas is ripe for moralistic inquiry among students, faculty, and the public. Creating space for discussing moral traditions relative to these challenges would develop literacy about how various groups conceptualize and seek to address these challenges. In The Purposeful Graduate, sociologist Tim Clydesdale provides empirical evidence that such an approach would significantly enhance the educational experience. Encouraging venues that air these challenges builds understandings about our common human experience and may ultimately reinforce our commitments to one another.

Finally, covenantal thinking invites us to reconsider how we train future leaders of higher education. Today’s leaders are under pressure to keep their institutions at the head of the pack. Few programs orient higher education leaders to see themselves as civic professionals leading through covenantal thinking. I suggest that future leaders who develop skills in creating and leading virtuous campus cultures will be those best prepared to manage political instability and boost public confidence in higher education.

Out of Ashes Comes Beauty

The political discourse about higher education has bottomed out in Wisconsin and nationally. Today, the Wisconsin Idea has been reduced to a political tool, and in some circles, symbolizes the arrogance of the university. It is in this smoldering environment that the light of Bascom’s vision is revealed. The Wisconsin Idea was centered in a moral philosophy that elevated the notion of the university as a centrally important institution that nourished democratic decision making and shared progress among Wisconsinites. Closely connected to the values of Wisconsin citizens, Bascom’s view of higher education became the basis for intense loyalty to the University of Wisconsin.

I note the caution of historians who warn of harkening back to “the good old days” and mythologizing the purity of the past. During Bascom’s era, the nation was struggling to free itself from the vestiges of slavery and other injustices while entire groups of people were excluded from the public dialogue. But, as Hoeveler’s account reveals, these ongoing struggles were the very things that gave Bascom’s vision power. His primary interest was the spiritual and moral advancement of humankind, and the university was viewed as an agent in this advancement.

No doubt, introducing questions of morality in today’s diverse and politically sensitive university culture would be disruptive. Rival views of morality are in constant competition, and these competing perspectives should be on full display in higher education, not hidden. Virtuous universities that bravely air these perspectives in a context of humility and truth-seeking will restore the relevance of and public confidence in higher education. It is in this context that a twenty-first- century state-university covenant may emerge.

David J. Weerts is associate professor and faculty director of the jCENTER for Innovative Higher Education at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. His research focuses on state-university relations, community-university engagement, and alumni giving, volunteerism, and advocacy. His e-mail address is dweerts@umn.edu.

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