The present practices of drafting a state budget in Wisconsin is like an inverse Christmas: a drunken anti-Santa stumbles through the people’s house at the dead of night and leaves flaming bags of poo for the citizenry to unhappily discover the next morning. These come in the form of non-fiscal matters attached to the budget itself; the riders typically advance some inane personal/political cause of individual lawmakers.
A recent sad example of this practice is a budget provision which would expel the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from the UW-Madison campus and prohibit UW faculty and staff from working with it in a professional capacity.
The Center has an excellent (and continuously-updated) compendium of information about the controversy and reaction to it. It is worth noting that:
— Not only does the Center do award-winning work and its investigative crosshairs are robustly bipartisan, but the Center’s collaboration with the UW’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication (my master’s alma mater) provides valuable and meaningful experience for journalism students. Opportunities like these are few and far between in the world of journalism education today.
— The Center makes its reportage free to any news outlet who wishes to carry it. And many do: hundreds of commercial and noncommercial news outlets, reaching a total of some 25 million people since 2009.
— The Center receives no direct funding from the University of Wisconsin. It has two small offices in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, but is otherwise completely independently funded – this includes the salaries of its paid j-school interns. In many respects the Center gives back to the University much more than it receives in the use of University space.
To its credit, the University of Wisconsin was quick to pan the budget item. both Gary Sandefeur, dean of the UW-Madison College of Letters and Science, and Greg Downey, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, called it "a direct assault on our academic freedom."
This is not the first time Republicans in Wisconsin’s legislature have attacked journalism programs on the UW-Madison campus. During my time there in graduate school, I co-founded Workers Independent News, the first daily radio headline news program devoted to labor issues to launch in the U.S. in more than 50 years. At first, the program was incubated by the UW-Extension’s School for Workers, an institution with more than 80 years of history to the state and its citizenry.
After two solid years of growth WIN became self-sustaining and moved its operations off-campus. This did not stop Republicans in the Legislature with ideological axes to grind from breathing down WIN’s neck: in 2006, one launched an investigation into WIN’s founder, an emeritus professor, for alleged "inappropriate use" of University e-mail (nothing found). In 2012, the School for Workers bowed to GOP lawmaker pressure and cancelled an exhibit devoted to citizen art inspired by the 2011 occupation of the Capitol.
One of WIN’s long-time detractors, Republican Assembly member Robin Vos, is also justifying the attack of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. "Members in our caucus [have] concerns about the propriety of having a news gathering organization, right, left, center, whatever" on campus, he explained.
If this is true, then it’s time to shut down public broadcasting in Wisconsin (housed in the UW-Extension), both of UW-Madison’s student newspapers, the campus radio station, and a host of other programs that both collect and report "news," however Vos et al. might define it.
Not only does this hit close to home personally, but it especially embodies a direct attack on two things that have made the University of Wisconsin system so unique and successful. The first is the Wisconsin Idea, which defines a core mission of the University to provide service to all of Wisconsin, beyond campus boundaries. The second is the concept of critical inquiry which was articulated by the University’s Board of Regents in 1894 and is today enshrined on a plaque at the entrance to Bascom Hall, UW-Madison’s administrative nexus:
Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism essentially embodies all that’s good about the University and its mission, without any direct cost to the University itself. This would seem to be one of those "win-win" situations of public/private partnership that Wisconsin GOP lawmakers are all about these days. Of course, that assumes said politicians actually care about the principles and values that once made Wisconsin a uniquely great state.
James Madison, after which the state capital is named, once observed that "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a face, or a tragedy, or perhaps both." Tragedy and farce are unfortunately in full effect today.