My “Wisconsin Idea” moment, 20 years later

When I attended UW-Madison, we didn’t talk about the “Wisconsin Idea.”

It wasn’t part of our freshman orientation, which was spent more telling us not to drink at frat parties and how to deal with roommates who might be “different” from us. Professors didn’t include it in the boilerplate material in their syllabus, along with the information on office hours and how they would abide by university rules regarding students with special needs.The chancellor, the provost and the college deans didn’t pontificate on it during public speeches and graduations. Truth be told, I hadn’t read a single word about it until years later when I was applying for some award and was told that preference would be given to people who embodied the “Wisconsin Idea.”

We didn’t talk about it. We lived it. And 20 years ago tomorrow, I took my first steps toward understanding what it means to do so.

On Feb. 7, 1995, I was a student journalist at the Daily Cardinal, one of the university’s student newspapers. It was the sixth-oldest student daily in the country and had a venerable tradition of speaking truth to power, covering the campus and offering students the opportunity to develop their skills as media professionals. On that very day, I was pulled into an office and told by the editor in chief, “We’re not printing tomorrow.” I don’t remember much after that other than to say my life changed.

To that point, I was probably more representative of what Gov. Scott Walker wanted the Wisconsin Idea to be. I came from a middle-class family that included teachers and factory workers. The idea was to go to school, get an education and use what I learned to get a job. I went to college to become a lawyer. After one class, I realized that wasn’t for me and my life was set adrift. I remember talking to my dad about changing majors, figuring on going into English, as I was always a good writer.

When I told Dad I didn’t want to go into law and I wasn’t sure where I would go, he told me he understood.

“Just pick a degree where you can get a job,” he told me. “Don’t go into something stupid like English.”

With that in mind, I continued to take general education courses as I sought inspiration and potential employment. I eventually found my way into a journalism class. That led me to the yearbook, which led me to the Cardinal, which led me to that crossroads in life when the paper closed under more than $137,700 in debt.

(If you want a full read of how this all happened, pick up A’s incredible book: “It Doesn’t End With Us.”)

The easiest of choices at that point would have been to quit. The Badger Herald was a competing daily on campus, so I could go get my experience there. A lot of local weeklies and start-ups needed writers as well, so I could nab an internship and add a lot to my fledgling resume. I could probably concentrate more on my studies, as being in student media had led to my GPA diving south of the Mendoza Line.

Instead, I stayed. I wasn’t alone.

A small cadre of us dug through the months of financial mismanagement for answers that were incomprehensible and scary. We built filing systems and collected financial records. We negotiated debts. We did more than we thought we could, all with no promise that the newspaper would ever again publish.

We were the sons and daughters of small Wisconsin towns like Cadott and prominent cities like Milwaukee. We were imports from Illinois and Maryland.

We were Badgers who had been taught that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

In the end, we won. The paper re-launched that September.

Twenty years later, it still serves as a training ground for student journalists and a surrogate family for all who embrace its proud history.


The Wisconsin Idea, now more than 100 years old, explains that the mission of the UW System is to improve people’s lives beyond the classroom through teaching, public service and outreach. It requires that those who attend the system use what they learned to benefit everyone in every corner of the state. This is why university leaders, students and others have gone all “rabid badger” on the governor for his attempt to gut the language at the heart of it.

The Idea is not taught to us for rote memorization, but rather imbued in every individual who teaches at the system’s 26 institutions. For our tenure as students, the Idea bathes us in its idealism and sends us back into the world to share it with others. It serves to benefit those who attend the state universities and those who don’t. It is why every edit to its language and every cut to the UW system is an assault on all who call this state home.

And in the end, it can even lead to Gov. Walker’s desires for improved employment. Two months after the paper started back up, I got a phone call from the Wisconsin State Journal. A Badger alumnus and former Cardinal staffer was looking for some part-time reporters and was looking for people to apply. I did and I started on my path to actual employment in this field I love.

And on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015, a group of students will gather in the same dank, windowless newsroom I called home as a Badger and continue their own journey, publishing yet another edition of the Daily Cardinal.

They do it for no pay and little glory, but because they love it.

And they, too, instinctively know they embody an “Idea” bigger than themselves.

4 thoughts on “My “Wisconsin Idea” moment, 20 years later

  1. And that’s why Scott Walker and the folks pulling his strings are working so hard to overturn the “Wisconsin Idea,” or re-purpose it. See, if everyone is feeling a responsibility toward the society they live in, they might waste a lot of valuable and productive time looking out for their fellow citizens. That will surely have an impact on the bottom line, and mean less money for the makers and the takers at the top.

    So Gov. Walker tried a couple of little tweaks to the language of the Wisconsin Idea. Improving it, you might say. So that citizens would concentrate a little more fully on What’s Really Important, and that’s the profitability of their time dedicated to their masters. Not for the citizens’ own welfare, but that of Capital, who are the Real and True Beneficiaries of the Wealth generated by Labor. The last 40 years have been a re-ordering of Lincoln’s misguided belief that Labor precedes Capital and that the worker is therefore worth the wage.

    Wisconsinites caught him this time, but you can bet that Scott Walker will be back to try it again.

  2. I went into English, too. And into journalism.

    In the unlikely event I’m ever invited to speak at commencement at my alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, or any of the other 15 UNC campuses, there’s one line I’m going to make sure to use: “1.8 million North Carolinians living in poverty helped pay for your degree. What are you going to do to pay them back?”

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