An Old Idea: Wisconsin and its University

· Posted by Joshua in History

Birds Eye View of the University of Wisconsin campus at Madison, 1907
View of the University of Wisconsin campus at Madison in 1907 by H. D. Nichols. WHi 3882.

This September marks the beginning of fall term for more than 180,000 students across the twenty-six campuses of the University of Wisconsin System. The return to school is an opportunity for reunion and renewal, for the discovery of new possibilities and the re-evaluation of old ideas — including the idea of public higher education itself. If this idea is to remain relevant in the years to come, then we must value public universities as something more than a monetary cost to taxpayers and a dollar discount to tuition payers. At the foundation of any real public state university there is a deeper value: service and accountability to the people who make up the state. One need not look farther than the development of the University of Wisconsin itself for an illustration of what this ideal means.

The University of Wisconsin and the State of Wisconsin were created in the same stroke. Article 10, Section 6 of the Wisconsin Constitution of 1848 declared:

“Provision shall be made by law for the establishment of a state university, at or near the seat of government, and for connecting with the same, from time to time, such colleges in different parts of the state, as the interests of education may require.”

Wisconsin’s founders called for a public university in the state constitution, and established the seat of learning as one with the seat of law, because they had an ideal of cultivating productive citizens, and educated citizens, and cultured citizens, but above all else, citizens — participants in a democracy and shapers of law, not mere subjects either of crown or wealth. John Lathrop, the first UW Chancellor, expressed this concept eloquently at his inaugural address on January 16, 1850:

“The American mind has grasped the idea, and will not let it go, that the whole property of the state, whether in common or in severalty, is holden subject to the sacred trust of providing for the education of every child of the state. Without the adoption of this system, as the most potent compensation of the aristocratic tendencies of hereditary wealth, the boasted political equality of which we dream is but a pleasing illusion. Knowledge is the great leveler. It is the true democracy. It levels up—it does not level down.”1

As it grew, the University of Wisconsin only strengthened in its commitment to knowledge as true democracy. In 1894, when economics professor Richard T. Ely was attacked by in the national press as an anarchist and socialist radical for his research interest in the growing labor movement, the UW Board of Regents convened hearings to investigate, and concluded them by issuing a famous defense of the professor and the freedom to pursue knowledge:

“We cannot for a moment believe that knowledge has reached its final goal, or that the present condition of society is perfect. We must therefore welcome from our teachers such discussions as shall suggest the means and prepare the way by which knowledge may be extended, present evils be removed and others prevented. We feel that we would be unworthy of the position we hold if we did not believe in progress in all departments of knowledge. In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”2

Some twenty years after the regents made this proclamation, their “sifting and winnowing” statement was affixed in bronze to University Hall (since renamed for UW President John Bascom), becoming an enduring reminder of the commitment to truth.

In the meantime, the University of Wisconsin had begun to redefine the ways in which knowledge could be disseminated and truth be put to the service of democracy. Under the leadership of Charles Richard Van Hise, UW President from 1903 to 1918, the university advocated what became known around the United States as the Wisconsin Idea: a notion often summarized in the slogan “the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state,” meaning that the role of the public university should be public service to all the people of the state and their government — not only the researchers and students on campus. Theodore Roosevelt remarked on this ideal that:

“In no other State in the Union has any university done the same work for the community that has been done in Wisconsin by the University of Wisconsin. … I found the President and the teaching body of the University accepting as a matter of course the view that their duties were imperfectly performed unless they were performed with an eye to the direct benefit of the people of the State; and I found the leaders of political life, so far from adopting the cheap and foolish cynicism of attitude taken by too many politicians toward men of academic training, turning, equally as a matter of course, toward the faculty of the University for the most practical and efficient aid in helping them realize their schemes for social and civic betterment.”3

The “work for the community” that Roosevelt observed one hundred years ago had a wide scope. Sure, the University of Wisconsin at the dawn of the 20th century offered tuition-free admission to Wisconsin residents, paid for by state taxpayers and federal grants — but this was only typical for a public university of the period. What set Wisconsin apart were the university’s efforts to reach beyond traditional student instruction to improve life across the state.

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Laura Sherry and the Wisconsin Players: Little Theatre in the Badger State

· Posted by Joshua in Arts, History

[Note: This article was originally published at Acceity.org on 12 May 2011 and was revised and expanded with new sources on 18 June 2012].

The Wisconsin Dramatic Society published two volumes of 'Wisconsin Plays,' shown here. The first volume was dedicated to Laura Case Sherry.

The announcement in the New York Times on October 9, 1917, was straightforward and short: “WISCONSIN PLAYERS COMING.” The amateur acting company from Milwaukee, which had been at the vanguard of the American Little Theatre Movement for the better part of a decade, was about to make its East Coast debut.

In bringing the Wisconsin Players to New York, producer Laura Sherry was doing her small part to turn the world of theatre inside out. Before 1910, New York had practically controlled the American stage. A handful of businessmen had held the nation’s theatres in the grasp of their Theatrical Syndicate, which pushed safely profitable productions from New York across the country while locking out competitors.1 Laura Sherry and the Wisconsin Players represented something different: the Little Theatre, an emerging national movement of non-commercial and non-professional drama. It was now time for the actors and writers of the Midwest to bring their ideas to Manhattan.

Laura Case Sherry, whom the New York Times called “the guiding spirit” of the Wisconsin Players,2 had experienced the theatre from both sides — big and little, commercial and amateur. Born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1876, Laura Case’s parents were Emily Avery and Lawrence Case, owner of the small town’s leading general store. Her parents’ position afforded Laura an education at the University of Wisconsin and the school of speech at Northwestern University. From there she went to study theatre in Chicago and at last New York, where in 1897 she joined the Richard Mansfield Company as an actress and toured the country as a cast member in several plays, including Mansfield’s famous production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.3 Mansfield, then an opponent of the Theatrical Syndicate, spoke frequently against its stranglehold on the stage, even assailing syndicate bosses inside their own theatres.4 Though Mansfield’s own self-interest later led him to soften his resistance, his early opposition to the centralized commercial theatre must have made an impression on young Laura Case.

At the start of the twentieth century, Case settled back into Wisconsin life. She married Edward P. Sherry, a lumber and paper tycoon from Neenah, and the couple made a home in Milwaukee. There, Mrs. Sherry set to work gathering a club of like-minded theatre devotees and performers.5 The group held meetings and rehearsals in the homes of members, and on April 21, 1909, the amateur troupe staged the one-act Irish drama Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge at the Davidson Theater in Milwaukee.6 The Irish play was fitting, for the Little Theatre movement in America would draw much of its inspiration from a tour of the United States by the Irish Players in 1911 — but Sherry’s troupe performed Riders to the Sea years before the Irish Players’ visit, demonstrating their foundational role among the nation’s community theaters.7

The nascent Milwaukee association soon gained the support of University of Wisconsin English professor Thomas Dickinson. Unable to produce plays at the university in a time when theatre was not deemed a proper academic subject, Dickinson founded the Wisconsin Dramatic Society in Madison in 1910 and organized a company of players by 1911.8 Dickinson and the Madison group worked closely with Sherry and her Milwaukee compatriots from the start, so that the two associations quickly became branches unified in a statewide society.9 The Wisconsin Players had now been born in earnest.

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The Mississippi Flood: Awash In History

· Posted by Joshua in History, Nature

Note: This article documents flooding that occurred in April 2011. As of May, Prairie du Chien is once more dry and green, and all the parks and historic sites mentioned below are now open for visitors.

The Mississippi River surrounds a log house on St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien during the Flood of 2011. The Villa Louis mansion is visible perched on a mound in the far background.

The Father of the Waters is reenacting a familiar natural drama at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Swollen by spring rain and melted Minnesota snow, the Mississippi River will carry over 1.5 million gallons of water past town each second during the peak of the Flood of 2011. While the power of the river is awe inspiring, the latest flood is nothing new. At Prairie du Chien, the Mississippi is immersed in history.

An inch or so of water pools in the grass around the foundations of old Fort Crawford
Floodwater began to seep around the foundations of Fort Crawford on Monday, April 11, 2011.
The two-story blockhouse is a replica constructed in the 1930s. The fence surrounds an excavated stone “prison pit” from the fort that has filled with water.

On April 11, 2011, floodwater began to creep across the foundations of Fort Crawford, one of Prairie du Chien’s most significant archaeological sites. Built in 1816, Fort Crawford was a federal military installation intended to secure control of the Upper Mississippi River for the United States. It was also situated on an island in the middle of a floodplain.

One year after Fort Crawford had been built, Major Stephen H. Long made an inspection of the post. “In regard to the eligibility of the site upon which Fort Crawford is erected,” wrote Long, “very little can be said in favor but much against it. … The site has been repeatedly subject to inundation, which is always to be apprehended when excessive floods prevail in the river.”

Major Long’s apprehensions proved well-founded. In 1823 he returned to Fort Crawford along with William Keating, who noted:

The river bank is here so low and flat, that by a swell which took place in the Mississippi the summer before we visited it, the water rose upon the prairie, and entered the parade, which it covered to the depth of three or four feet; it penetrated into all the officers’ and soldiers’ quarters, so as to render it necessary for the garrison to remove from the fort and encamp upon the neighboring heights, where they spent about a month. The waters having subsided, at the end of that time, they returned to their quarters; the old men about the village say that such an inundation may be expected every seven years.

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Wisconsin Census Data Released

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines

The United States Census Bureau today released its first official 2010 population figures for Wisconsin counties, cities, villages, and towns. These are exciting numbers, and not only for comparing rival cities and hometown trends. The census data will be used, among other things, to tweak the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts to ensure equal representation — a process that will no doubt be mired down in gerrymandering and political intrigue. I’ll set that aside for this post, however, and focus on the numbers.

Wisconsin’s population grew from 5.36 million to 5.68 million between 2000 and 2010. That’s an increase of about 6% — slower growth than in most states, so Wisconsin’s rank has slipped from 18 to 20 over the last ten years. That slide in proportion is small enough that Wisconsin will still keep eight congressional representatives and ten electoral votes for the next decade. While overall growth was sluggish, it’s notable that the state’s Hispanic population increased by over 72% in the last ten years. Hispanic residents now make up nearly 6% of the state’s total population.

The map below shows the relative change in the total population of Wisconsin’s counties:

The map shows that Wisconsin’s population growth was spread fairly consistently across the state and carried over into many rural counties, with the exception of the north woods. Fifty-two counties gained population, and twenty had a loss. This is a stark contrast to what happened in Iowa, where 2/3 of the counties saw a population decrease.

Wisconsin’s largest cities remained fairly steady over the last ten years. Milwaukee continued to lose population but at a decreasing rate, and it remains by far the state’s largest city. Near Milwaukee, Racine and West Allis also lost population, while Waukesha grew by 9%. Madison saw its population rise by 25,155 people, a jump of 12%. The only change in ranking was that Janesville overtook West Allis as the state’s 10th largest city.

Wisconsin’s 10 Largest Cities in 2010 and 2000
City 2010 2010 Rank 2000 2000 Rank Pop. Change % Change
Milwaukee 594,833 1 596,947 1 -2,114 -0.35%
Madison 233,209 2 208,054 2 25,155 12.09%
Green Bay 104,057 3 102,313 3 1,744 1.70%
Kenosha 99,218 4 90,352 4 8,866 9.81%
Racine 78,860 5 81,855 5 -2,995 -3.66%
Appleton 72,623 6 70,087 6 2,536 3.62%
Waukesha 70,718 7 64,825 7 5,893 9.09%
Oshkosh 66,083 8 62,916 8 3,167 5.03%
Eau Claire 65,883 9 61,704 9 4,179 6.77%
Janesville 63,575 10 59,498 11 4,077 6.85%
West Allis 60,411 11 61,254 10 -843 -1.38%

Here in Southwest Wisconsin, every county except Crawford gained population. A number of factors likely contributed to Crawford County’s loss, but the major back-to-back floods on the Kickapoo River in 2007 and 2008 no doubt played a role: Gays Mills in Crawford County lost over a fifth of its residents; Soldiers Grove lost nearly one in ten. The county seat at Prairie du Chien also experienced a slight decline.

In Grant County, Cassville fell below 1,000 people, and the county seat Lancaster experienced a slight decline, but Platteville’s population jumped from 9,989 to 11,224. Fennimore’s population skipped ahead of both Mineral Point and Darlington.

La Crosse, the largest city in the region, remains almost unchanged in size with only a slight decline, but it’s largest suburb Onalaska grew by nearly 20%.

The table below includes figures for several cities and villages in Southwest Wisconsin. Click on a column header to sort the table by that column.

Cities and Villages in Southwest Wisconsin
City or Village 2010 Population 2000 Population Change % Change
Black River Falls 3,622 3,618 4 0.11%
Boscobel 3,231 3,047 184 6.04%
Cashton 1,102 1,005 97 9.65%
Cassville 947 1,085 -138 -12.72%
Darlington 2,451 2,418 33 1.36%
Dodgeville 4,693 4,220 473 11.21%
Fennimore 2,497 2,387 110 4.61%
Gays Mills 491 625 -134 -21.44%
La Crosse 51,320 51,818 -498 -0.96%
Lancaster 3,868 4,070 -202 -4.96%
Mineral Point 2,487 2,617 -130 -4.97%
Onalaska 17,736 14,839 2,897 19.52%
Platteville 11,224 9,989 1,235 12.36%
Prairie du Chien 5,911 6,018 -107 -1.78%
Reedsville 1,206 1,187 19 1.60%
Richland Center 5,184 5,114 70 1.37%
Soldiers Grove 592 653 -61 -9.34%
Sparta 9,522 8,648 874 10.11%
Spring Green 1,628 1,444 184 12.74%
Tomah 9,093 8,419 674 8.01%
Trempealeau 1,529 1,319 210 15.92%
Viroqua 4,362 4,335 27 0.62%
Westby 2,200 2,045 155 7.58%

You can dig for even more census data at the Census Bureau’s American Factfinder website. What do you make of the new figures? As always, feel welcome to comment below.

Wisconsin Assembly Vote on Budget Repair: District by District

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines, Maps

By now just about everyone has heard about the contentious Wisconsin Assembly vote early Friday morning that approved Governor Scott Walker’s contentious “budget repair” bill in mere seconds — without even allowing time for the entire assembly to vote! Since I couldn’t find a map of the vote anywhere else, I decided to make one myself. Now it is easy to see whose representatives have been listening, whose have not, and whose weren’t given a chance to represent their constituents at all.

A Map of Wisconsin Assembly Districts shaded by vote on Gov. Walker's proposed budget repair

You are welcome to copy and share this map. If you want more information, you can access the full vote roll from the Wisconsin State Legislature website. They also offer detailed and numbered maps of the state assembly districts.

Edit: The map has been corrected to show that Janet Bewley (D) of District 74 (Ashland) did not get in a vote. I apologize for any confusion caused earlier.

To Be Fair, We Must Level Up

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines, History

Citizens surround the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison to protest Governor Scott Walker's budget proposals.
Protesters in Wisconsin on February 19, 2011.
Photo © 2011 Mark Danielson. Obtained under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

The protests this month in Madison have incorporated much discussion of fairness — something that people on all sides claim to be seeking. The debate reminds me of a quote by Dr. Samuel Johnson, a British scholar best known for compiling A Dictionary of the English Language in the 1750s. Dr. Johnson was a staunch conservative in an era when conservatism meant defending aristocratic privilege, and he once disparaged an egalitarian movement in England by remarking, “Sir, your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves.”

These words struck me as a very legitimate criticism. Why is it that those who stand up for fairness so often fixate on cutting down those who are better off, rather than lifting up all of society?

Make no mistake: Dr. Johnson was on the wrong side of political history. At the cusp of the American Revolution, for example, he wrote that “there can be no limited government” and that “since the Americans have made it necessary to subdue them, may they be subdued … When they are reduced to obedience, may that obedience be secured by stricter laws and stronger obligations!” This does not mean that all of Dr. Johnson’s observations lack merit. His comment about levellers seems enduringly and unfortunately relevant. It is, however, something we can change. When we work towards fairness, we should strive to level up, not to level down.

I grant that there are limits. We cannot all rise to be aristocrats, for there would then be no one left to serve our feasts or plow our fields. That dependence on servitude is where the truth becomes manifest: real unfairness comes not so much when some people have more than others, but rather when some people have more than others through coercion — when one class lives high by exploiting the labor of others.

People who legitimately seek fairness and equality will work, not to bring people down, but to raise people up by leveling the distribution of power, eliminating the privileges that give one class, race, or gender the power to exploit or to hold down the rest. That is the way to level up.

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The Fallacy of Efficiency

· Posted by Joshua in Miscellany

This post is long overdue. For years now, I’ve cringed at the constant appeals for “increased efficiency” made by managers, executives, politicians, researchers, journalists, teachers, engineers, activists, bosses, columnists, liberals, designers, coaches, conservatives, accountants, and radio talk show hosts. I think it is safe to say that we all agree: all of us want to make our businesses, our jobs, our governments, our schools, and our refrigerators more efficient. Efficiency is a good thing.

Efficiency, however, is a property of means, it is never an end, and it cannot be an ultimate goal. The thing that matters most is our choice of objects to efficiently accomplish. The business that efficiently returns value to shareholders is not necessarily the business that efficiently rewards good employees or that efficiently turns out efficient refrigerators. It is clear that machine guns and gas chambers are very efficient killing machines, but efficient murder isn’t a good thing at all.

When a merchant or a candidate or an employer tries to sell you on efficiency, it is a meaningless pitch unless you ascertain what sort of efficiency he or she means. Is the most efficient factory the one that makes widgets the most quickly, or the one that makes the strongest widgets? Is the most efficient government the one that does things for the least expense, or the one that does things for the most good? Is the most efficient plan for your boss the most efficient plan for you?

Let’s take a collective step back from this mad drive towards efficiency, and remind ourselves of our values, our goals, and what it is we’re trying so hard to accomplish. Using ends to justify means is bad enough. Don’t make the means into the end.

Rural Iowa is now even more rural.

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines

It’s official: 66 of 99 counties in Iowa lost people between 2000 and 2010, even while the overall state population increased by 4.1% owing to the growth of large cities and especially suburbs — continuing a decades-long trend. These details from Census 2010 were released today by the U.S. Census Bureau:

Iowa is the first state in the region for which detailed Census 2010 data has been released. The Census Bureau plans to release data on a rolling state-by-state basis to be completed by April 1. I’ll be sure to note the release of data for Wisconsin here at Acceity when that arrives. In the meantime, the Iowa returns offer something to think about.

Tale of Two News Feeds

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines, Internet, Media

Protests in Egypt continue to make headlines across the globe today, but not everyone is getting the same story. Take a look at this morning’s (8:00am CDT) top story from the web feeds of two leading news agencies on opposite sides of the Atlantic: the AP in the United States, and the BBC in the United Kingdom.

AP “Top Headlines” Feed (archived | live):

Gangs free militants, foreigners try to flee Egypt
“Gangs of armed men attacked at least four jails across Egypt before dawn Sunday, helping to free hundreds of Muslim militants and thousands of other inmates as police vanished from the streets of Cairo and other cities.” (article)

BBC “Top Stories” Feed (archived | live):

Protesters dominate central Cairo
“Anti-government protesters take over the centre of the Egyptian capital Cairo, as armed citizens’ groups form to counter widespread looting.” (article)

These stories naturally each go on at length, but I’ve only copied the headline and summary broadcast by each organization’s RSS/Atom feed. Often, this is all that subscribers glance at anyway.

Although both reports are rooted in fact, the difference in emphasis is startling. The AP headline, “Gangs free militants, foreigners try to flee Egypt,” stresses chaos, danger, and crime. The less sensational BBC headline, “Protesters dominate central Cairo,” stresses the scope of protest — a human right. You might say that the BBC emphasizes “civil” and the AP emphasizes “disobedience.”

The summaries show even more contrast. The AP raises the familiar American terror of “Muslim militants” freed by “gangs of armed men”, whereas the BBC recognizes “armed citizens’ groups.” These are not instances of using different terms to refer to the same thing; the focus is on different facts altogether. The facts are, however, related: the AP establishes that “police vanished from the streets,” stressing a descent into chaos, while the BBC confirms that “citizens’ groups form to counter widespread looting,” stressing the people’s positive attempts to maintain order.

What I’ve described is only one isolated example of the disparate perspectives that can arise between two supposedly neutral and objective news agencies. The Internet’s deleterious effects on our attention spans might exaggerate these differences, for when news writers compress complicated stories into one-sentence blurbs for syndication, they’re likely to concentrate their biases too. Thankfully, the Internet also provides readers with mechanisms for dealing with bias: we can subscribe to a dozen feeds like this from around the world and gain diverse perspectives on every issue, we can click “read more” for the full story, and we can discuss the news on blogs or social networks. The Internet gives us more tools for making sense of the world than ever before — and more reason to use the tools it gives us.

Breaking Through the Snow

· Posted by Joshua in Miscellany

After the blizzard last night, when winds whipped the snow into great dunes on the ridge, it took a heavy duty end loader to finally dig out the road to the farm.

End loader digs out the road after big snowstorm

Mayor Dave Hemmer, who had earlier tried and failed to clear the road with a plow truck, now followed behind to clear up after the loader.

Snow plow cleans up the road in front of a Wisconsin barn.