Pursuing Virtue in State-University Relations


Guest blogger David J. Weerts is associate professor and faculty director of the jCENTER for Innovative Higher Education at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. His research focuses on state-university relations, community-university engagement, and alumni giving, volunteerism, and advocacy.

uwslideFor those interested in the politics of higher education, the ongoing sparring in Wisconsin continues to hold our attention. Over the last 18 months, Governor Scott Walker delivered major budget cuts and eliminated tenure from state law. Faculty members from eight University of Wisconsin four-year campuses along with representatives from its two-year campuses have voted “no confidence” in its board of regents and system president. Just last week, Speaker of the Assembly, Robin Vos, issued a free speech challenge to the UW system, calling on leaders to invite more conservative speakers to campus as a way to balance out liberal perspectives.

Considering the depth of division in the state, would more campus talks from conservatives cure what ails Wisconsin’s higher education system? While Speaker Vos may be right about the imbalance in political speech on campus, his call to battle entrenched ideology with more entrenched ideology feels exhausting at a time when our country is the most politically polarized it has been in my lifetime. Is there another way forward that can bring everyone together?

In my September–October Academe article, “Contract, Covenant, and the Politics of the Wisconsin Idea,” I suggest that those fighting it out in Wisconsin’s political trenches might look to their own Wisconsin Idea to light the way ahead.  In the late 19th Century, John Bascom, the intellectual founder of the Wisconsin Idea, created the scaffolding for a covenant that brought together Wisconsinites and its flagship university in Madison. The result was reciprocal flourishing that gained national attention: Wisconsin moved from being a declining wheat-growing state to a preeminent dairy state, while the University of Wisconsin–Madison gained a reputation as one of the top research universities in the world. Other UW institutions soon found their place as high quality regional universities that contribute in meaningful ways to the state.

What happened in Wisconsin that led to today’s division?  It is a complicated story, but I believe that one untold piece of the puzzle may be the erosion of a shared moral framework that once united Wisconsin citizens, scholars, and researchers in their efforts to build a good society. While Bascom’s “social gospel” certainly had political elements to it, his vision was situated within a larger non-political framework that promoted human flourishing and the moral development of the state. For reasons I discuss in the essay, the canopy that held together this broader vision of higher education collapsed.

In the wake of this collapse, what remains in Wisconsin- and throughout the country– are ongoing battles to acquire and leverage power at the state and institutional level. State-university relationships today reflect a social contract perspective rather than a covenant perspective. Covenants are built on trust among parties and focus on protecting the integrity of the relationship. Social contracts are based on distrust for another party, focusing on self-preservation and acquisition. Widely publicized fights over tenure, budget, governance, performance-based funding, and political correctness have their roots in a contract perspective.

While attempting to reconstruct a shared view of the world is not practical (or maybe even advisable), it seems that universities could work with their states to pursue a new political culture of virtue. Scholars at the University of Michigan have developed the concept of “organizational virtuousness,” which refers to institutions that pursue higher-order objectives and focus on human impact, moral goodness, and social betterment. In my essay, I discuss how “virtuous universities” might model this way of thinking in ways that promote a covenant mindset amidst deep political division.

In concluding this blog, I note the caution of historians who warn of harkening back to “the good old days” and mythologizing the purity of the past. During Bascom’s era, the nation was struggling to free itself from the vestiges of slavery and other injustices, while entire groups of people were excluded from public dialogue. The world was hardly free of divisive politics. But as historians of the Wisconsin Idea reveal, these ongoing struggles were the very things that gave Bascom’s vision power. Virtuous universities that bravely pursue higher-order purposes in a context of humility and truth-seeking may restore the relevance of and public confidence in them. It is in this context that a 21st Century state-university covenant may emerge.

Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.


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