Paul Fanlund: For embattled UW, is blasting back smart?

The following column was written by Paul Funland, editor and executive publisher of The Capital Times. It’s been published by The Capital Times and republished here. 

UW Madison science communication professor Dietram Scheufele says a more effective response to GOP attacks on higher education in Wisconsin would be to win the hearts and minds of political noncombatants across the state.
UW-Madison science communication professor Dietram Scheufele says a more effective response to GOP attacks on higher education in Wisconsin would be to win the hearts and minds of political noncombatants across the state.

In March 2013, Rebecca Blank had to know the touchy political terrain onto which she was stepping.

The last hurdle to her getting the job offer as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison was her then-current role as acting U.S. Secretary of Commerce for President Obama. Legislative Republicans were wary of her, but were eventually reassured that she was an apolitical, economics policy wonk and that her husband worked for a conservative think tank, according to my sources privy to the process at the time.

These days, Blank is warning campus faculty that the ongoing war of words pitting UW against Gov. Scott Walker and other statehouse Republicans has reached a danger point.

The backstory is familiar. Since his election in 2011, Walker has made public employees public enemy No. 1, first attacking school teachers along with local and state employees, more recently going after the state’s public higher-education system through budget cuts.

Walker recently criticized a wave of no-confidence votes across UW campuses directed at System President Ray Cross, whom Walker supported, and the Board of Regents, now dominated by Walker appointees. Blank told faculty that they had “raised the ire” of some legislators and that Walker’s response was neither “healthy nor productive.”

“But with dueling press releases, dueling op-eds, we are engaged in precisely the wrong conversation,” Blank told Madison faculty recently. “This is dangerous, should this continue.”

Dietram Scheufele would agree.

Scheufele, a tenured UW-Madison science communication professor, recommends another path, one premised on winning the hearts and minds of political noncombatants across the state.

A native of Germany, Scheufele holds many academic honors and received his master’s degree and Ph.D. from UW-Madison. His largest class focuses on the intersection of science and media and the rapid transformation within each. He recently spoke to Downtown Rotary on how to respond to the United States becoming increasingly anti-science.

At Rotary, he pointed to the bitter debate over climate change, and said that endlessly arguing its existence is pointless. “Climate change, science, I don’t care,” he said. Instead, Scheufele said scientists must “find values that unite us.”

Getting to environmentally friendly “green” energy, he said, is an economic and national security issue. “Do you want to send your children to wars in countries you cannot accurately place on a map?” he asked rhetorically.

Intrigued by that and his other prescriptions, I interviewed him in his campus office. The UW conflict with Walker’s state government was part of the conversation, and Blank would certainly appreciate Scheufele’s message, that having faculty simply blasting away is the wrong approach.

When I countered that Walker and his allies seem uninterested in nuance, he argued for a “value proposition” that might resonate across the political spectrum in Wisconsin.

“An example was when we heard statements about a UW-Madison professor researching the ancient mating habits of whatever,” he said, a reference to comments two years ago by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who used that phrase to criticize what he considers nonessential research.

“The response to that, of course, from many academics was, ‘Well, you don’t understand,’ and ‘Let me explain this to you…’ Don’t start anything with ‘You don’t understand,’ that’s just a bad one.”

He continued, “The value proposition is that it has an unbelievable value for society that is partly intangible, but it’s also partly fiscal.” He listed a series of important economic outcomes nationally from academic research, from the creation of Google to the invention of Velcro.

“Or the flu research that’s being done at Wisconsin that will allow us to effectively defend this country from a biological attack, and so on,” he said.

Let’s say “I’m talking to a voter in Marinette, Wisconsin, who looks at UW very favorably, who likes the athletics, who likes the academics, and who likes having one of the premier research institutions in the world in the state,” he continued.

“Is that person going to respond to the, well, ‘Governor Walker is Hitler,’ or is that person going to respond to ‘Let us tell you why there’s a real value to your investment in this university, not just if you have children who go here, but for you as a citizen?’ ”

He likens it to climate change: “I can tell you, ‘Well, climate change is real and you need to believe me,’ and I promise you I will lose that debate. Or I can tell you, ‘Can we all agree that we do not want to fight wars in the Middle East? Can we all agree that we want to be globally competitive, where we sell American technology to China?’

“Democrats and conservatives can agree on that,” he said. “Do I need to be right and say, ‘See, you Republicans, you were wrong when you took a quarter-billion dollars from the UW System. You were wrong.’

“I don’t have to be right in the end if we can find that middle ground. As we’re moving further and further apart, that middle ground will be crucially important.”

Scheufele cites other research topics of growing importance. “Just think what is happening with stem cell in this state, what happened to tissue engineering and some of the legislation that’s going on, what happened with (nanotechnology). As technology’s become more and more disruptive and more and more important economically, that interface will be increasingly important.”

Part of why this happens, Scheufele argued, is that people increasingly divide into like-minded tribes in their personal interactions and sources of news. At Rotary, he joked that his near west side neighborhood is a university “ghetto” in which academics mostly differentiate themselves by the color of their Priuses.

In that cocoon, virulent anger toward Walker is internally reinforced, just as, elsewhere in Wisconsin, tribal behavior might reinforce a destructive and negative view of Madison and UW.

As we ended our visit, I pondered how difficult it would be to temper my own righteous indignation on UW’s behalf, and I am certainly not affected like so many in the UW administration and faculty.

Unbridled anger may feel justified, especially if you believe Republicans are permanently diminishing the hard-won world-class status of UW-Madison out of what appears to be nothing but the political expediency of anti-intellectual spite and envy.

Still, almost certainly, the professor’s play is the smart one.

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