Hello Wisconsin! On the Road with the Wisconsin Idea Seminar


A week-long bus trip around Wisconsin with some forty faculty and staff members from the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. All with the aim of learning about unique partnerships and collaborations between the university, organizations, and citizens that are helping make a difference throughout the state, while making good on the vision of Charles Van Hise.


It was Van Hise, a President of UW from 1903-1918, who is considered the source of the Wisconsin Idea. In a 1905 speech, he spoke of the ideal of a state university, asserting he would “never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family of the state.”


The notion of UW’s commitment to public service, to influencing lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom or the campus, is not only the University’s mission, but a fundamental part of the state’s DNA. In my first week on the job at the Wisconsin School of Business, Governor Scott Walker announced his proposed $300M budget cut for the UW system, along with a stunning move that would have removed key elements of the Wisconsin Idea language from state law, stripping out references to service and truth for a diminished mission—“to meet the state’s workforce needs.” Thankfully, the sharp and immediate public outcry caused the Governor to reverse course.


So the Wisconsin Idea survived and the Wisconsin Idea Seminar rolls merrily along.


The seminar is annual affair, one that has endured for 30 years, a road trip of discovery and an opportunity for members of the campus community to come together, connect with colleagues, and explore real-world examples of the Wisconsin Idea in action.


We boarded the bus shortly after 8:00 a.m. on a Monday morning in mid May and set off for a short jaunt to Observatory Hill, where we took a walking tour of a part of campus that contains Ho-Chunk effigy mounds. We were guided by Tribal Preservation Officer Bill Quackenbush and Rebecca Comfort, who is the Interim American Indian Curriculum Services Consultant for the UW School of Education.


From there, it was off to the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, for a tour of the facility and a panel on collaborative efforts to protect crane species all over the globe. Then it was on to Trempealeau, to learn about the area’s architectural history, and on to Perrot State Park and the Little Bluff Mounds. After a lively dinner at the Trempealeau Hotel, we headed to the Radisson Hotel in La Crosse, to retire after a busy day and catch up on the news and our day’s emails.


(One of the best parts of this seminar was the opportunity to put aside our online activities and engage in some real-world connecting for an extended period of time.)


Each day of the trip offered an array of activities and learning opportunities, from the “bus talks” given by guests who hopped aboard at various points to talk about a particular topic, to the well-planned and well-thought-out at panel discussions and site visits. Among the highlights of the week:


  • Having the chance to learn about the La Farge Medical Clinic, a facility launched to provide much-needed birthing assistance to the fourth largest Amish population in the U.S. Dr. James Deline, the clinic’s founder, has been practicing rural medicine for decades there and is considered the “Albert Schweitzer” of the area.


  • Hearing from CapTImes columnist Bill Berry and retired DNR Statewide River Protection Coordinator Bob Martini about the “Evolving Stewardship of the Wisconsin River”. Martini may be retired, but that didn’t stop him from organizing a group of scientists and former DNR colleagues to serve as media spokespeople on conservation issues after a gag order was imposed on current DNR staffers.


  • A visit to Vincent High School in Milwaukee, a public high school seeking to become the state’s first agricultural high school. Against long odds, including recent administrative leadership changes and its status as the district’s “school of last resort”, Vincent High School is committed to doing something special—providing inner-city students a unique learning opportunity and meaningful career pathways.


As someone who grew up in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where we took great pride in being a commonwealth and not merely a state, the Wisconsin Idea has always appealed to me. Just as “commonwealth” suggests a commitment to the common weal, the notion that as a people, we are only as successful as the least among us, the Wisconsin Idea evokes a similar spirit.


We are all in this together. Despite decades of harmful political rhetoric, it is essential to remember that government is not the enemy. In a democracy, government is us. It can be effective, impactful, and a force for good. It can also be the opposite of those things. We decide.


When one works on a college campus, particularly this one, it is easy—amidst the almost daily barrage of troubling news about U.S. politics and what seems to be a relentless assault on science and expertise—to feel under siege. But embarking on a bus trip with a large group of colleagues and re-connecting with the incredible stories of people doing important work throughout the state and their collaborations with the UW, well…that can make you feel like part of something special, something worth fighting for.


The Wisconsin Idea Seminar is an inspirational opportunity and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to be a part of it.


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