With a new state budget looming, the UW-Madison looks to re-engage parts of the state that feel left behind

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Ryan Wick via Wikimedia

The Wisconsin state capitol building in Madison is viewed at night.

In his 1978 campaign for governor, Republican candidate Lee S. Dreyfus said, “Madison is 30 square miles surrounded by reality.” Nearly 40 years later, while the city has more than doubled in geographic area, its politics continue to contrast that of the state and the Republican-run government, which has enacted large cuts to the University of Wisconsin System.

In November, Wisconsin voted for Donald Trump, the first time the state supported a Republican presidential candidate since 1984. Democrat Hillary Clinton won Dane County, the same county that the University of Wisconsin-Madison calls home, claiming 70.4 percent of the vote compared to Trump’s 23 percent.

Even on campus, there exists a political divide, particularly between rural and urban students. According to a survey of 1,124 students conducted in April 2014 by senior standing undergraduate journalism students, 45 percent of the student body identified as Democrats, 28 percent as Republicans and 27 percent as independent. However, amongst students who also identified as being from rural areas, 40 percent were Democrats, 40 percent were Republicans, and 20 percent were independents.

This kind polarization has created an image problem for Madison and the university as local politics continue to run counter to run counter to that of many Wisconsinites. To some in rural parts of Wisconsin, Madison and the university are viewed as detached from their reality and their lifestyle.

As the university looks to reach a larger swath of the state, it must deal with the demographic differences between people in rural and urban environments. According to national data from 2011-15 from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, people in rural areas have a higher median age, are less likely to have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and are more likely to live in a home without Internet.

Dan Veroff, a UW-Extension demographic specialist for the Applied Population Laboratory, said another important change happening in rural areas in Wisconsin has been the migration of young people out of such areas, coupled with a “stagnant” older demographic.

“As populations fade, one of the processes that happens is that the rural, agricultural areas often have older age structures to begin with,” said Veroff. “And so over time, they have populations that are aging in place and they’re beyond child bearing years, so they’re not having kids, and the young people who live in rural counties are out migrating. They’re leaving to go to college … (and) different kinds of jobs.”

UW-Madison history professor John Sharpless doesn’t believe there is deep hostility in rural Wisconsin against Madison or the university, but he admits it’s easy to push buttons.

“I think sometimes the rhetoric on this campus, those good ol’ boys sitting on the barstool out there in rural Wisconsin, just roll their eyes and say ‘There they go again, those wacky liberals.’ And then they vote for (Republican Gov. Scott) Walker and a Legislature, which cuts our budget.”

This state’s rising political polarization has created a marketing conundrum for the university as it seeks more funding. The university has to appeal to potential students, as tuition money accounted for 18 percent of total funding in 2015-16. On the other hand, the school receives 15 percent of funding from the state and must be viewed positively by the states’ rural voters — and their representatives in the Legislature — to have leverage come time for a new state budget.

Sharpless is worried that the rise of political correctness on campus has caused a lack of much needed discourse.

“I’m very concerned about that,” said Sharpless. “I’m worried that in perhaps legitimate reaction to a number of incidents that have occurred over the past few years, our university decides to create an environment where students feel can’t say anything. They step back from all discourse, they look the other way, they look at the ground as they pass one another on campus.”

David Canon, chairman of the UW-Madison Political Science Department, says the university and the city of Madison are on a bit of a political island.

“We definitely have an image problem around the state,” said Canon.

Citing a 2016 book written by Kathy Cramer, a political science professor at Madison, called “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker,” Canon said that aside from the football team and the marching band, citizens from rural parts of the state don’t think UW-Madison contributes much to the state.

“I think we do need to do a better job of really sort of marketing ourselves to the state in terms of the benefits we do bring to the state,” said Canon. “I think our chancellor, Becky Blank, and our dean, Karl Scholz, are both doing a great job of trying to do more of that.”

This fall, the university launched Project 72, a campaign highlighting UW-Madison alumni doing work in every county in Wisconsin. Blank noted in her “State of the University” address made on Oct. 27 that the university is working to reach out to all of the people in Wisconsin not just the Legislature.  

“(It’s) really important to talk to the people of the state and not just folks at the other end of State Street about the importance of the university,” said Blank.

Blank also hopes to rally Wisconsin-native faculty or faculty with family in the state to set up speaking opportunities for them in their hometowns.

One of the ways the university has impacted Wisconsin’s rural community has been through its Farm and Industry Short Course. The course, which was the first academic program in the College of Agriculture and has existed for more than 130 years, is now a 15-week on-campus program during the non-growing season designed for students to learn the basics of running a farm or agricultural business.

Jessie Potterton, director of the program, says it’s vital that the university continue to admit students from rural parts of the state.

“There is a lot of discussion about this with regards to the admission rates of students in specific areas, or specific states or specific counties,” said Potterton. However, she noted that as it pertains to the short course, she thinks it’s “extremely critical” to reach as many residents in the state as possible who seek that form of education.

Another way the university has extended itself has been through the Wisconsin Idea Seminar. According to its website, the seminar is a five-day traveling study tour that immerses 40 UW–Madison faculty, academic staff and administrators in the “educational, industrial, social and political realities of Wisconsin.” The program began in 1985 and introduces and promotes the use of university expertise to address problems facing the state.

Veroff believes the Wisconsin Idea Seminar is a good way to reach rural residents.

“There are all sorts of things that people are exposed to with the idea that they should maybe, in the work that they do on this campus, start to think about ‘Well, how could this be useful?’ ” he said.  

Looking forward, Canon thinks the university has a great story to tell to garner more support.

“There’s no doubt that we’re doing really good things for the state of Wisconsin in terms of educating its students and helping produce people who are going to go on to great careers here in the state,” said Canon. “But I think getting that story out is hard and I think we are making some progress and we need to do more of that.”

Dane County 2016 General Election. N.d. Raw data. Dane County, Wisconsin.
“Lee S. Dreyfus: 1926-2008.” Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. USA Today Network, 4 Jan. 2008. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
Measuring America: Our Changing Landscape. Decline in Rural Pop. over Last 100 Years. United States Census Bureau, 8 Dec. 2016. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.
Phone interview with Dan Veroff, 12/8/16
Phone interview with David Canon, 12/2/16
Phone interview with Jessie Potterton, 12/8/16
Phone interview with John Sharpless, 11/28/16
Survey of political ideologies on campus. Apr. 2014. Raw data. UW-Madison, Madison, WI.
UW-Madison Budget in Brief. UW-Madison’s 2015-16 Budget. Madison: U of Wisconsin-Madison, 2015. Print.
“Wisconsin Presidential Election History.” 270ToWin. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

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