MADISON, Wis. — On the pristinely manicured grounds of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a guiding principle has informed the instruction of hundreds of thousands of students for over a century.
The Wisconsin idea, a lofty principle first articulated in 1904 by a former university president and later incorporated into the university's mission statement, holds that the purpose of the university is to improve the lives of people in the state through public service and the continual search for knowledge in the classroom and beyond.
But earlier this year, as Republican Gov. Scott Walker was preparing to launch his presidential campaign, the Wisconsin idea and the whole of University of Wisconsin system found itself in his crosshairs.
In addition to a proposed cut of $300 million and the weakening of tenure protections for professors then enshrined in state statute, early drafts of the state budget nixed the Wisconsin idea and held instead that the mission of the state’s public higher education system was to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
Facing a fierce and immediate backlash that crossed party lines, Walker backed away from the change, attributing it to a “drafting error” and miscommunication among his staffers. Emails later obtained by The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel showed that university administrators had registered their objections to the alteration and been rebuffed.
In the final budget, which was passed a day before Walker launched his presidential campaign in July, the Wisconsin idea was restored. Still, $250 million in cuts remained, and tenure protections were stricken from state law and turned over to the purview of the Board of Regents, appointed by the governor.
The episode, in the minds of some Wisconsinites, is the modus operandi for Walker as a politician: taking ideas that have long percolated on the right and turning them into accomplishments popular with his conservative base — in a politically purple state, no less. In particular, Walker’s eagerness to take on liberal or perceived as liberal institutions has helped grease his rapid ascent onto the national political stage and earned him the backing of a well-heeled network of conservatives.
Donald Downs, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a Republican, said he understands Walker’s impulse to rein in state and higher education spending but is concerned about the effects the cuts and changes will have on the world-renowned university system.
“We’re sort of cut to the bone,” he said. “His reforms in terms of tenure and shared governance have created a perception around the country that the status of employment is in jeopardy here. The real problem with that is that other institutions that we compete with for professors are smelling blood and they are trying to raid us.”
As for Walker’s motives, Downs said, “He saw this to his political advantage in the eyes of primary voters, who may not be all that enamored with universities. It served his conservative strategy.”
The notion that universities are bloated bastions for liberal elites that burden taxpayers and do not prepare students for the working world has taken hold among some conservatives in recent years, said Noel Radomski, a higher education expert at the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s School of Education. Walker found a way to act on that premise.
“A lot of today’s Republicans view tenure as a form of a union because it offers lifelong job protections,” he said. “So this is all consistent with Gov. Walker’s political philosophy of believing in the free market and limited government and who he gets support from — his donors and the right-leaning groups that are contributing to his campaign.”
He noted that many on campus are wondering if things would have turned out differently for the university if Walker had not been campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination.
“If he was just a governor and not seeking the presidency, would he be making decisions like this?” Radomski asked. “We’ll never know, but there’s a feeling that he’s pursuing policy decisions that are not necessarily in the best interest of Wisconsin but to get voters and to get donations to his super PAC.”
The governor’s supporters see his unflinching, confrontational style and the results that it has yielded as his biggest assets as he campaigns for president.
“He’s the most conservative governor for the state of this electoral hue, being basically purple,” said Matt Batzel, the Wisconsin-based national executive director of American Majority, a grass-roots conservative organization. “Voters respect that — being authentic and not being the same old politician and doing the backroom deals that no one likes, doing what’s good for Wisconsin.”
But to others, that approach has fueled the perception that Walker has carefully plotted his legislative moves in the service of his political goals.
His first and biggest battle is demonstrative, said Stephanie Bloomingdale, the secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. In his high-profile stand-off with public sector unions in 2011, labor was willing to make concessions in their benefits and wages to maintain their collective bargaining rights, she said. Walker, however, refused to compromise.
“Scott Walker has been campaigning for president for more than a decade. He was campaigning for president when he became the county executive of Milwaukee, and he’s had that eye on personal ambition rather than what’s best for Milwaukee County or what’s best for Wisconsin,” Bloomingdale said. “We fear that if he gets into the White House, he’ll be looking at what’s best for Scott Walker and not what’s best for the American people.”
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat, said that throughout Walker’s political career, he has needed to create enemies in order to show, as his campaign boasts, that he’s a fighter and a winner.
“Unions certainly made a really good fall guy. They made a good enemy, and it generated a lot of attention for him,” Erpenbach said. “We have seen him be conservative to make it through the primary and then try and moderate himself in the general, and a lot of politicians do that. But with him, I think it’s more self-serving than anyone else I’ve seen, with the exception of Donald Trump. Scott Walker is all about Scott Walker.”
Whatever his motives, there’s little doubt that Walker has produced results that have earned him praise from both establishment and grass-roots conservatives. With the help of a Republican-controlled state legislature, he can boast of cutting $2 billion in taxes (with $2 billion more coming in the next two years), passing an abortion ban after 20 weeks of pregnancy, repealing a mandatory waiting period for gun purchases, instituting drug testing for some recipients of public assistance and defunding the state’s Planned Parenthood.
Downs said Walker is not all that different from other politicians with their sights set on higher office.
“This is the nature of a politically ambitious person. It’s a blend of self-interest and getting elected and doing something that resonates with the public,” Downs said. “Walker walks that line pretty well.”