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The Wisconsin Idea: Under Siege but Stronger Than Ever


The EvoLLLution | The Wisconsin Idea: Under Siege but Stronger Than Ever
Outreach and engagement activities, coordinated through an active Extension, help public universities follow through on their mission to support local communities and businesses.

The Wisconsin Idea is the guiding principle of the University of Wisconsin. This approach to higher education emphasizes service to the state: working shoulder-to-shoulder with people in their communities to solve problems and make life better. The philosophy was first articulated in 1904 by University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise, who said he would “never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in the state.”

While other land-grant universities share our mission to disseminate knowledge and serve the public, the Wisconsin Idea is distinguished by its steadfast commitment to two-way engagement. We engage with local communities about issues important to their residents, businesses, and government leaders. The mission of our public university is:

…to develop human resources to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses, and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional, and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training, and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.

For a concept that’s over a century old, the Wisconsin Idea is suddenly a hot topic in 2015, thanks to a proposed biennial spending bill that would have excised that noble language, removing the Wisconsin Idea from the University of Wisconsin System’s statutory mission. Amid outcries from many fronts, those proposed changes were quickly scrapped.

“The Wisconsin Idea is embedded in our DNA,” said UW System President Ray Cross. “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.”

Citizens understandably feel protective of the Wisconsin Idea. This is no mere abstraction, but a call to action that has transformed lives in every corner of the state. The Wisconsin Idea began at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lives on throughout the UW System. When the UW System formed in 1971, the University of Wisconsin-Extension was created as its entrepreneurial and outreach arm. UW-Extension serves families, businesses, and communities through offices in all 72 Wisconsin counties and three tribal nations; provides continuing and online education through all 26 UW System campuses; offers the UW Flexible Option partnership with UW System campuses; organizes the statewide broadcasting networks of Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television; and supports small business and entrepreneurship activities throughout the state. UW-Extension partners with every UW institution to enable programming that any one institution is not able to do alone, helping our entire system deliver on that central Wisconsin Idea.

As the UW System’s flagship campus, UW-Madison also remains the standard bearer for the Wisconsin Idea. The Wisconsin Idea website keeps track of projects at UW-Madison inspired by its guiding principle, while UW-Extension tags its Wisconsin Idea stories with #OurWisIdea on Twitter.

UW-Madison, in partnership with the UW-Extension, does some significant outreach work with members of our community. We run the the School of the Arts at Rhinelander, which encourages creativity among a broad range of participants during an annual event in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. We also host the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, which coordinates activities—such as an aquatic invasive species survey by UW-Madison, UW-Extension, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources—to protect the state’s natural resources. Additionally, through Covering Kids & Families Wisconsin, UW-Madison reaches out—through a statewide coalition of agencies and partners including UW-Extension—to those who need help finding affordable health care.

Such projects clearly serve society and improve the human condition. The same outward-facing philosophy drives us to improve the profitability of major industries, stimulate start-up businesses, and address workforce needs.

On this front, we run the Center for Dairy Profitability at UW-Madison, which, through help from UW-Extension outreach specialists, develops and delivers education and applied research to dairy farms and dairy-industry service providers, resulting in sustainable, profitable decisions and a healthy, progressive dairy industry. We also run a Wisconsin Small Business Center Network at UW-Madison (as do other four-year University of Wisconsin campuses around the state, all hosted by UW-Extension), which provides no-cost consulting, business education, and regional expertise. Finally we run the BSN@Home online bachelor of science in nursing, which trains Wisconsin registered nurses through a collaboration including UW-Madison, UW-Eau Claire, UW-Green Bay, UW-Oshkosh, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Milwaukee, and UW-Extension.

In addition to traditional online programs, we are developing new ways for people to obtain advanced degrees without disrupting their lives. In Wisconsin alone, some 75,000 job openings will emerge between now and 2020 that will require people to seek education beyond their current degree.

One innovative way we have expanded access to university resources is through the UW Flexible Option. Led by UW-Extension and in collaboration with institutions throughout the UW System, UW Flex is the nation’s first competency-based program that allows students to receive degrees and certificates from established public institutions. We have degree programs in nursing, IT, diagnostic imaging (all from UW-Milwaukee), and will soon offer a business-oriented bachelor’s (from UW-Parkside) and a graduate program in geographic information systems (from UW-Stevens Point). UW-Madison will offer its certificate in alcohol and other drug abuse counseling through the UW Flex format.

UW Flex is one example of over 100 degrees available across the UW System to address local and emerging educational needs of adult and non-traditional students. UW-Madison launched a web portal to specifically promote the 40-plus online degrees and certificates it offers. The new website,, makes these programs even more accessible to people beyond the campus borders.

Public service also is a key component of the Wisconsin Idea for students and program participants. The UW-Madison campus has a proud tradition of being among the nation’s top producer of Peace Corps, Americorps, and Teach For America volunteers. The Morgridge Center for Public Service connects students and faculty with communities to solve problems through service and learning. The center coordinates Badger Volunteers, which sends UW-Madison student volunteers to schools, nonprofits, and other community organizations. Meanwhile, UW-Extension trains and supervises the adult volunteers who run Wisconsin 4-H. They estimate that 17,000 4-H volunteers donate an average of 128 hours per year, which contributes approximately $65 million to the state’s economy.

Initiatives like these—and many others—have established the beneficent influence of the university in Wisconsin. And the good news is that more such initiatives are on the way. They’ll ensure that the Wisconsin Idea continues to thrive, and with it, the entire state.