MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Scott Walker abruptly backed off Wednesday from a contentious plan to eliminate the University of Wisconsin System’s public service mission statement known as the “Wisconsin Idea” and replace it with the charge of meeting the state’s workforce needs.
Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email late Wednesday afternoon that the change was a drafting error and the Wisconsin Idea will remain in the state budget.
“The Wisconsin Idea will continue to thrive,” she said.
A UW website dedicated to the Wisconsin Idea describes it as “the principle that the university should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom.” It has been a guiding principle of the university, extending to teaching, research, outreach and public service.
Walker, a likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate, had tucked the wording change into his nearly 2,000-page budget proposal on Tuesday but did not mention it in his 25-minute speech to the Legislature.
The governor, who does not have a college degree, has proposed $300 million in cuts to the UW System in exchange for more autonomy and freedom from state oversight. He presented it as a bold idea that will give the university the freedom it wants from state oversight to chart its own future.
Walker angered faculty and staff, though, by suggesting they don’t work hard enough and should teach more classes. His proposal to delete the Wisconsin Idea generated more anger from the university community.
“The Wisconsin Idea is embedded in our DNA,” said UW President Ray Cross in a statement. “It is so much more than words on a page. It is the reason the UW System exists. It defines us and forever will distinguish us as a great, public university. Wisconsin must not abandon this core principle and value.”
After Patrick announced Walker had backed off the change, Cross issued a one-sentence statement thanking him for his commitment to the Wisconsin Idea.
“It didn’t shock me he would propose such a thing but I’m glad he’s willing now to write it off as a drafting error,” said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.
The proposed change had caught Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos by surprise.
“If there’s going to be a rewrite of the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin, there must be a robust public discussion before any changes are made,” he had said in a statement.
Walker had wanted to insert language in the budget stating the university’s mission was “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” He wanted to remove language saying UW’s mission is to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campus” and to “serve and stimulate society.” He also wanted to remove the statement “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”
The governor wanted to further remove language saying that inherent in UW’s mission “are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition.”
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat from Madison who, like Walker, did not graduate from college, had called the change “ridiculous.”
“The issue gets to the heart of what the university system is as a whole and what it’s supposed to be and what it offers,” Erpenbach said. “I can’t think of any reason for any governor to do that.”
The proposed funding reduction, meanwhile, is becoming one of the largest fights this year in the Legislature. While the $300 million cut would amount to a 15 percent reduction in state aid, it’s 2.5 percent of total funding for UW.
Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed concerns about the size of the cut, while reaction has been generally favorable to giving UW more freedom. Some conservatives have worried that allowing UW to set tuition without legislative approval or caps could lead to huge spikes. Tuition would be frozen the next two years under Walker’s budget.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.