Towards a strong Badger Partnership

I landed upon the shores of Lake Mendota, a wandering international student from India, in search of masters degree in the field of power and energy engineering, having built in my mind an image of a cow-college nestled among the pastures of the Midwest in the United States. I not only got to learn power and energy engineering, the University of Wisconsin turned out to be my window to the world beyond any boundaries.  

At graduate school, we had a weekly seminar every Friday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. following which the group reconvened for a ‘symposium’ at the Red Oak Grill in the rather drab Union South of the bygone era for casual conversations, popcorn and beverages – caffeinated, malted, fermented or carbonated. I remember (or I imagine) a recollection from one of my professors about his career – “I was graduate student, I was doing what my professor wanted; I was in industry, I was doing what my manager wanted; you could start your own company, you would do what your customer wants; I came to UW-Madison, now I do what I want; and my students do what they want (for the most part)”. He is now among our Emeriti, a Hilldale Awardee, a Fellow of the National Academy, Royal Academy – the list still growing. I have a hundred stories like this, and when I left the University of Wisconsin, I was full of inspirations filled in me by its finest masters of the tradition of sifting and winnowing, and living the Wisconsin Idea.

Not much later, I found myself fortunate enough to return to Madison, to practice my own attempts at sifting and winnowing in search of the truth, and stumbling in my attempts to extend the traditions of my engineering profession in service to the aspirations of our people, I keep asking myself – ‘What would Van Hise do? What would Babcock do? What Steenbock do? What would Leopold do?’ In the past decade here, I have come to appreciate that, while the Wisconsin Idea gives us a mind to inform our actions, it is our Academic Freedom that is carefully balanced by our Faculty Governance structure that makes the flesh and blood of our university. Now, the uncertainty in the rules of engagement and the lack of transparency in the campaign for the New Badger Partnership has me suddenly worried about our shared future.

To be sure, the lack of flexibility in various dimensions does impede us from reaching towards certain resources. For instance, just a couple of years ago, I personally experienced a period of intense stress over an employment situation, that UW-Madison struggled in vain to make a difference, particularly when you are constrained by homeland security department’s rules. Things got resolved, Badger willpower, one may say.

I am sure each of us has similar stories about what brought us here and what keeps us here, also horror stories on what we would like to change. A more flexible operating structure may perhaps permit us to solve our problems with less stress. But articulations of the new flexibilities such as, ‘no longer subject to state requirements and restrictions’, ‘current statutory restrictions would not apply’, ‘BOT would establish its own policies … determining which initiatives to fund’, ‘exempt from state civil services laws’, etc. should raise precautionary flags in us. If not, we should be accused of burying our heads in sand.

In my discussions with some faculty/staff colleagues, some students, some parents, in the recent weeks there are many share my concerns, while others are optimistic. While we may feel pressured by the need for political expediency in this situation, my gut tells me that this will not set our rudder in the right direction for us to thrive in the long term. I feel that we need to listen to a number of voices – ourselves, our students, our stakeholders (who, by the way, are the people of Wisconsin, not the top 1% who may have the wherewithal to underwrite us), our alumni, our colleagues at other campuses, our students’ employers (I don’t know who else I’m missing) before we develop a blueprint to help us move forward, well, to define where forward is! I am sure that an inclusive and transparent process will lead to a strengthening of our partnership with our constituents, call it what you may, one we can all own and be proud of. A hundred years from now it will be a part of our growing legacy.

Giri Venkataramanan
Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering

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