Skip Navigation

WAA: An Advocate Through the Years

Since 1861, the Wisconsin Alumni Association has taken a lead in advocating at the State Capitol on behalf of the university and its graduates. Explore how and why WAA has rallied alumni and elected officials to support through two World Wars, state budget cuts and the creation of the UW System.

Andrew Carpenter '06
May 06, 2010

The Need for an Advocate

Why should the alumni association be concerned with political advocacy on behalf of the university?

When Wisconsin Alumni Magazine debuted in 1899, the first article featured university president Charles K. Adams. Adams outlined the need for a branch of the alumni association that would dedicate itself to spreading the message about the work of the university. From that article:

"Every state university is especially dependent upon public opinion. Governor [Wilbur] Peek once very felicitously said that the University of Wisconsin is endowed with two millions of people. The usefulness of such an endowment depends quite as much upon knowledge as upon disposition. We have had abundant evidence of a generous and appreciative spirit; but we have also often had lamentable indications of inadequate knowledge of what the University is really doing. We are accustomed to surprises. It often happens that a legislator comes to Madison with a vigorous determination to lessen the appropriations to the University. He rightly thinks the sums expended very large, and he has a praiseworthy ambition to do what he can in the interests of economy. He is sometimes imprudent enough to proclaim his purposes in advance; but he is almost always wise enough to visit the University before the time comes for definite action. The consequence can always be predicted. As the vastness of the work opens before him, he begins to hesitate, and he soon follows hesitation with conversion. If he 'comes to scoff,' he yet 'remains to pray.' In educational matters, at least, knowledge is the surest possible cure for skepticism and hostility. As I understand the purpose of the alumni in founding this magazine, it is to furnish a medium for conveying information as to what the University really is, and what it really does."

Adam's words form the basis for one of WAA's mottos: informed support is the best support. Throughout the years, educational campaigns have been successful at informing public opinion, growing positive sentiment, and thereby securing Legislative support in favor of the UW.

The Strength, and the Dangers, of a Public University

Informing the public about the university's activities and contributions to the state has helped to secure public funding for the UW through the years. For 100 years, however, university leaders have worried that public funding comes with certain risks to the university. In his 1910 commencement address, UW President Charles R. Van Hise outlined the second portion of WAA's advocacy mission by explaining the precarious relationship between the university and the state. From that address:

"These relations between the university and the state bind them closely together. The growth of the university is dependent upon the state. The state owns the university; and every citizen feels himself to be a stock holder in that ownership. But associated with these close relations, which are the strength of the state university, are also its most serious dangers. These are that the university may be politically controlled, and that it may be hampered in its work."

The second function of WAA's advocacy has been to assist the university in achieving the Wisconsin Idea, that the boundaries of the campus extend to the borders of the state, while advocating for academic independence from political influence. Meeting this complicated challenge requires an ongoing dialogue connecting Wisconsinites and alumni with the university as well as the Legislature.

This mandate, along with Charles Wakeley's original goal of securing funding for the university, led to WAA's century and a half involvement in state politics. As alumni are perennially interested in the wellbeing of their alma mater, so to must the alumni association be perennially interested in the Legislatures funding and level of involvement in UW-Madison.

An Advancing University for an Advancing State

UW-Madison was experiencing tremendous growth as it approached its 50th birthday in 1905. Enrollment was surging but faculty salaries and campus building projects could not meet the demand. Before 1899, Madison had enjoyed a property tax, referred to as a mill tax, which provided the regents with a regular stipend of funds that increased as the state grew.

In his address to the graduating class of 1904, Van Hise explained why a mill tax, which would allow university funding to grow along with the state, was particularly appropriate.

"If the graduates of the university do their part in the world, the state will ever continue to enlarge its support to the university. In advancing the state and nation to the best of your ability you best advance your alma mater."

But in 1899, the Legislature had repealed the mill tax, causing a serious crisis of funding. Rather than providing a regular stream of support, the Legislature voted every other year on how much funding to provide to the university. This system prevented the regents from planning ahead on university projects and increased legislative oversight of how funds were used.

In his 1904 inaugural address, UW President Charles Van Hise praised previous state mill taxes as a method for university funding. To provide regular state funding for the continued growth and prosperity of the university, he launched a campaign for the return of the mill tax.

During 1904 and 1905, while Van Hise, the regents and university deans made the case for regular and dependable income, the Wisconsin Alumni Association utilized its unique connections with alumni to share information about university needs with its members.

In January of 1905, the Wisconsin Alumni Magazine published reports from the deans and the and the Board of Regents with the belief that, once informed of the university's needs and contributions to the state, alumni would support their alma mater in the legislature. Alumni bombarded WAA with requests for a jubilee publication celebrating the university's 50th anniversary. Included in that volume, which the alumni association provided free to all members, were speeches that complemented letters sent to alumni about university needs.

The information campaign let to popular support for UW-Madison, and eventually passage of a favorable funding bill. Included in that bill was a mill tax as well as an additional $200,000 annually for the construction needs of a growing university.

The idea that the university should be funded in proportion to its value to the state would become a central tenet in future WAA advocacy campaigns. By informing alumni and Wisconsin citizens about the university, WAA would create a network of grassroots advocates across the state.

Growing Pains

"This year the university is asking from the state a larger appropriation than ever before. Its needs are larger, its growth is larger and its usefulness to the state is greater than ever before."

Those are the words of George Buckstaff 1886', chairman of the 1911 Alumni Legislative Committee. Following favorable funding bills in 1905, the Legislature continued to meet the University of Wisconsin's needs through the early part of the 20th century. But by 1911, the needs of the campus as well as the needs of the state had changed.

The March 1911 edition of Wisconsin alumni magazine was devoted entirely to the urgent requests of numerous campus departments. In just two years, enrollment had jumped 23 percent and demands from the state for expert assistance had grown considerably. Unlike previous university predicaments, in which unfriendly Legislatures had cut funding or altered how funds could be used, the university had simply grown faster than citizens realized.

WAA responded to this lag in information by cementing its role as an information conduit, providing information about the university to alumni from campus experts, giving readers a picture of how the university was growing, from demand within departments, to campus outreach touching all corners of the state for those who could not come to Madison, yet wanted to reap the benefits of the world-class university.

In mailings to alumni, WAA combined information about university needs and contributions with reports from President Van Hise and the Regents. This led many alumni to reach the same conclusion as WAA, Van Hise, and state representatives, as articulated by Regent President William D. Hoard: Investments by Wisconsin's citizens in the university would be "returned many fold to the state even if the material point of view alone be considered."

Taking the position that increased legislative investment to meet the growing needs of the university would be a wise investment for Wisconsin, WAA encouraged its members to take action on the information they had received as never before:

"Don't be afraid of being called a lobbyist. To lobby for the University of Wisconsin is much more to one's credit than to profit all one's life by the education given by the state and then to sit supinely by and see the present generation suffer for lack of educational facilities and dormitory lodging which your effort might help get."

The result was an increased appreciation for the growth and impact of the University of Wisconsin. Funding for university building projects, the mill tax, the statewide university extension and a traveling school of agriculture were all increased in the 1911 budget. The foundation for a thriving university, one that could survive the approaching wars, had been laid.

Campaign to Lobby the Legislature: 1925

During World War I, the University of Wisconsin had been proud to sacrifice along with the nation. But as the economy roared back to life and Wisconsin budgets expanded, Madison once again found itself in trouble. Following the war, enrollment rose steadily until, in 1925, 8,000 students were using campus facilities originally designed in 1915 for 5,000.

A decade of growth without any money for new buildings was a significant challenge. While the Legislature prepared its budget for the 1925-1927 biennium, a report from the Board of Public Welfare turned that challenge into a desperate crisis. Rather than recommending an increase in state funding to match the rapid economic growth of the 1920s, the board suggested massive cuts to the university budget.

The Board of Regents turned to the Wisconsin Alumni Association for help. Theodore Kronshage, president of the Board of Regents, wrote, "In this emergency, the like of which has not confronted the University since the far-off days of the Civil War, the University addresses its alumni, its former students, and its hosts of friends."

WAA was ready to meet the call with its Alumni Bureau of Information, established in 1912. Formed in response to the 1911 campaign to meet the needs of the university, this permanent division of the WAA was prepared to apply the lessons of the past to the current crisis.

World War I: Sacrificing with the Nation

During the 1911 campaign to meet the growing needs of the university, George Buckstaff, a 1886 graduate, argued: "The university should get its appropriations because it needs them and because the state can afford to make them." This arrangement, which had served the university so well in the past, would be reversed during World War I.

Rather than proudly proclaiming increases in the student body, in 1917, the Wisconsin Alumni Association gladly produced figures showing a dramatic decrease in enrollment.

Wisconsin Alumni Magazine discussed the importance of this drop and the change it signaled for alumni. From that article:

"We should have a good deal more cause for real worry had our enrollment shown normal increase this year. The war has taken from our faculty and from our student body. The University of Wisconsin is proud in having been able to furnish so large a quota of trained patriots for service. It now becomes both the privilege and duty of every alumnus to use his and her influence to persuade young men and women to come to our University so that these students may in turn be better prepared to serve in home, in city, in state, in nation either in the pursuits of war or in the pursuits of peace as the demands may be."

Fortunately, decreases in faculty and student enrollment due to The Great War, which greatly reduced the financial needs of the university, coincided with Wisconsin's inability to provide funding. Debates over budgets and advocating for increased funding ceased as the state, university and WAA turned their focus to supporting the war effort.

With the need to protect academic freedom and secure funding for the university taking a back seat to war, WAA worked in a variety of capacities to support the university and nation. Direct efforts of the alumni association included buying war bonds on behalf of alumni, recording information about alumni soldiers to be honored at Memorial Union, and raising funds for the support of 'An American University in Europe,' where Wisconsin soldiers could find comfort and connection to far away Madison.

Over the course of the war, the university's commitment to the war effort was called into question on more than one occasion. WAA took these opportunities to advocate on behalf of the university by publicizing UW's numerous sacrifices and contributions: Badger-made 'ears' for detecting German submarines, the Medical School-trained battlefield medics and the Agricultural School's silo campaign to conserve Wisconsin's corn crop for the soldiers were part of the long list. Continued publication of the names and number of alumni, students and faculty putting their lives at risk in Europe helped WAA to secure the university's reputation as a leading contributor to the war effort.

While the rapid expansion of the student population and accompanying expansion of facilities halted during World War I, university contributions to the state did not. Through direct action and communicating the efforts of students and alumni, WAA demonstrated that the University of Wisconsin's first priority was not its own security, but rather the security of the state and nation.

Advocating on Two Fronts

In 1945, the 84-year-old Wisconsin Alumni Association was engaged in a two front mission of advocacy and information. The first challenge was to support Badgers who were fighting their way across Europe and the Pacific. The second involved spreading the message about a university building campaign on the home front.

In 1942, WAA formed a War Services Committee to coordinate its many efforts in support of the war. The Wisconsin Alumnus (formerly Wisconsin Alumni Magazine) was devoting half its content to information about the war. One of those articles explained the many ways the alumni association was contributing. From that article:

"The existing war activities program of the Association includes a war records clerk to keep as complete a record as possible of all Wisconsin alumni in military service, the sending of all Association publications to men in the service, free, and complete co-operation with the government and university war programs."

Of those services, sending publications to Badgers overseas had the most personal impact on soldiers. Hungry for news from home, soldiers received Wisconsin Alumnus, the Badger Quarterly, head coach Stuhldreher's Football Letters, the Cardinal Communique and special newsletters. Philip H. Falk, president of WAA during World War II, wrote about the difficulties and invaluable response from soldiers in a farewell article to alumni:

"These new publications sent our postage bill skyward, but a constant stream of letters like this one from Lt. J. J. Werner in Saipan prove that this policy is sound: 'News from home is the shot of "adrenalin" that we need out here.'"

While the War Services Committee was coming up with creative solutions to fund and ship thousands of mailings despite rationing, the Alumni Bureau of Information was launching a campaign to ensure returning GIs would have the facilities they needed after the war.

As WAA increased its advocacy efforts on behalf of the university, the number of methods for informing alumni and state citizens about the contributions and needs of the university skyrocketed. Philip K. Falk listed the following ways the alumni association reached out about the need for buildings on campus:

  • Articles and editorials in all issues of Wisconsin Alumnus and the Badger Quarterly
  • Reprints of articles and editorials in Wisconsin newspapers
  • Alumni club meetings featuring well-qualified speakers to explain the need for new university buildings
  • Building conferences in various sections of the state
  • Work of a statewide alumni legislative committee, with a district chairman in each senatorial district
  • Wide distribution of articles, booklets and bulletins on university building needs
  • Publication and distribution of "Is Our University Slipping?", the Founders' Day address of Walter Hodgkins, president of the Board of Regents

This large list reflected the great need of the university. Governor Walter S. Goodland, a firm supporter of the university building campaign, laid out the case for a healthy building appropriation at the opening session of the 1945 Legislature:

"For many years our university grew apace with the state, but for the last two decades it has remained almost at a standstill with respect to growth of facilities. Except for the Medical School buildings, and the mechanical engineering building, there have been no major additions in the academic facilities of the campus for nearly 30 years."

The lack of campus building had created a glaring, and often dangerous, need for funding. The university had no library, out-of-state students would soon be barred from attending the university due to a lack of dormitories, Bascom Hall and the Chemistry Building were serious fire hazards, and various buildings had gravely exceeded capacity.

Heeding WAA's extensive advocacy campaign, the legislature responded with $8 million for campus buildings; far short of the more than $12 million requested by the regents. The money was quickly earmarked for the construction of Memorial Library, two new dormitories, the fire-proofing of Bascom Hall, extensions to the home economics and chemistry buildings, and construction of dairy, engineering and bacteriology buildings.

WAA president Phillip Falk would call the bill "a good start," suggesting "now is the time for alumni to begin work for an appropriation in 1947 adequate to complete the job." His words would prove prophetic: just months later, 4,200 veterans enrolled at the University of Wisconsin under the GI Bill of Rights, making the enrollment for 1946 the largest in school history by 40 percent.

Due in large part to advocacy efforts of WAA, which anticipated the GI Bill and the increased demands it would put on campus facilities, the university would be well-positioned to meet the postwar needs of Wisconsin. In the coming years, the university occupied itself with its building program, centennial celebrations, and adjusting to thousands of veterans joining the campus. But in the 1950s, the very existence of the University of Wisconsin would be called into question.

To meet these challenges, WAA would have to make campaigns to increase informed support even more proactive, continually looking to the future for the next opportunity to advocate for the university.

Did you know?...

During World War II, WAA reached out to chapters, calling on them to join the war effort. In the November 1942 Wisconsin alumnus, WAA urged clubs to "make a careful analysis of their activities to ensure they are closely correlated with the war work of the University," along with a list of ways alumni could further the committee's efforts to support service men and women:

  1. The Association might request the Daily Cardinal to make available to the Association for mailing to alumni in service a condensed monthly summary of news.
  2. If a supply of picture postcards of University buildings or grounds could be made available to the Association, they could be mailed periodically to service men and women who are Wisconsin alumni.
  3. Articles should be published in the November WISCONSIN ALUMNUS informing all Wisconsin men and women about the U.S. Army Institute Special Service Branch of the war department, which now operates for the express purpose of army personnel education by correspondence; and also on the War Counseling service now being carried on by members of the University faculty, both at the University for the student body and throughout the state to counsel high school boys about their war preparation.
  4. Locate Wisconsin men and women who might be stationed nearby and develop a war activities program which includes them.
  5. Hold special meetings to which service men and women located nearby could be invited.
  6. Writing letters to men in the service, including local boys whose home ties might not bring them many letters.
  7. Inviting soldiers and sailors to visit in their homes.
  8. Planning social affairs for soldiers and sailors stationed nearby or on leave in the locality.
  9. Contributing suitable books, magazines, games, musical instruments, athletic equipment, cards, furniture, and good pictures to nearby camps or service centers.
  10. Stimulating churches, lodges, and clubs to which alumni belong to open their doors to all service men.
  11. Inviting soldiers or sailors to ride in their cars whenever reasonably convenient.
  12. Inviting commissioned or non-commissioned officers to homes, clubs, social affairs, etc., to make them and their families feel at home in the community.

The End of the University of Wisconsin?

Attempts to simplify higher education in Wisconsin are older than the state itself. The first proposal, defeated in the territorial legislature in 1841, would have created a single board of education. Integration of the state's various schools into a single system, with one board of regents to oversee all academic institutions, was attempted in 1897, 1909, 1913, 1915 and again in 1948, with little success.

During the 1950s, the discussion of how to achieve better coordination between Wisconsin's schools took on new urgency. The GI Bill, which had caused a dramatic increase in demand for higher education, was winding down only to be replaced by a new wave of applications. The baby-boomer generation would be coming to college in the next decade, increasing enrollment by as much as 75 percent. (See right.)

The dialogue centered on the best method for meeting the increasing demand while cutting costs. To then-Governor Walter Kohler in 1953, the system created costly and inefficient redundancies as well as competition between the various state systems for students and funds. There was one board of regents for the University of Wisconsin and its 16 campuses, a second board of regents for the 13 Wisconsin State Colleges, and two schools, the Stout Institute in Menomonie and the Wisconsin Institute of Technology in Platteville, that were outside of both systems.

The Legislature proposed a 5 percent budget cut for the UW, in addition to a merger of the three systems. The 5 percent cut, which would have forced cutbacks in research and instruction, would have been particularly devastating to the alumni. The Wisconsin alumnus published chart detailing how the university planned to account for the budget reductions, including eliminating the Graduate Records Office.

The merger, suggested Kohler, would have reduced the University of Wisconsin's mission in areas such as undergraduate education and extension throughout the state, allowing the school to "devote greater attention to specialized instruction, such as engineering, law and medicine, as well the bulk of graduate instruction and research." While these were certainly strengths of the UW, faculty and university leaders believed a merger, and the resulting restriction of UW-Madison's mission, would handicap the national and international role the university had played over the previous 100 years.

The integration would have dissolved the board of regents for both the State Colleges and the University of Wisconsin, replacing them instead with a single chancellor, a governing board, and a president for each university. Kohler suggested schools throughout the state would gain "prestige" through association with the University of Wisconsin in Madison and education would improve as schools, no longer needing to compete with each other, could specialize.

Wisconsin Alumni Association president and Senate Majority Leader Warren P. Knowles led a campaign against both the merger and budget cuts. WAA worked diligently to inform alumni about what both the cuts and merger would mean for alumni and the university's expanding role as a global player. Alumni, university officials and representatives from the state colleges joined Knowles in opposition of a merger that would have effectively dissolved the University of Wisconsin and its leadership role.

While the coalition managed to defeat the merger proposal, the budget cuts were passed by the Legislature. WAA utilized its close ties to the university, and President Edwin Fred in particular, to ask that the Graduate Records Office be spared from the cuts. Recognizing the value of alumni and the need to keep in touch, the university changed its mind and spared the office.

WAA's work on behalf of the alumni records bureau illustrates the organization's role as an advocate not just for the university to the state, but also as an advocate for alumni to the university. The Graduate Records Office may have served an important role for the university, but it was essential to alumni for keeping up-to-date about their alma mater, planning reunions, and organizing club activities. WAA would continue to serve an important role for creating a two-way dialogue between the university and the state as well as between alumni and the university.

The Coordinating Committee For Higher Education

Having had his plan for merger defeated in 1953, Kohler reintroduced the measure in 1955. The bills introduced that year offered a variety of solutions to the lack of coordination between the regents of the State Colleges and the regents of the University of Wisconsin. The regents of both systems could see the value of collaboration and the need to reduce competition. When no compromises could be reached in the Legislature, the two boards met and drafted their own bill.

The bill left both boards of regents intact and maintained the distinction between the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State Colleges. To ensure collaboration between the two systems in meeting the challenges of the baby boom and predicted budget shortfalls, the plan created the Coordinating Committee for Higher Education (CCHE).

Passed by both the Assembly and Senate with all but one vote, the creation of the CCHE would become highly successful. In the coming years, the board, consisting of five members from each board of regents, four citizens and the superintendent of public instruction, would oversee the merger of Milwaukee State College and the UW-Milwaukee extension school, numerous collaborative degrees between the two systems and reduced competition for state funds.

For the time being, the University of Wisconsin in Madison would retain its independence. But in the coming decade, changes in funding, increasing demand and expansions aimed at allowing the UW to compete on a national and international level, would put pressure on the CCHE and its mission of collaboration. By the 1970s, this pressure would lead to the end of the University of Wisconsin as a distinct public entity.

123 Years of the University of Wisconsin Comes to an End

During the 1960s, both the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State Colleges continued to develop under the guidance of the Coordinating Committee for Higher Education (CCHE). In 1964, the Wisconsin State Colleges changed their name to the Wisconsin State Universities (WSU) to reflect their transition from specialized teaching schools to full-fledged universities; some even included doctoral programs.

Meanwhile, the University of Wisconsin was adjusting to a changing landscape in higher education at the national level. Federal grants and national foundations had greatly increased as a portion of UW's funding, with the funds being directed predominantly toward research.

This shift in funding and focus led campus leadership and faculty to see the university as a research institution with a national and even international scope. Attracting all-star faculty and competing for federal funds became increasingly important. UW President Fred Harvey Harrington, along with Gov. Gaylord Nelson, sought to enable the University of Wisconsin to expand and compete without limits. To accomplish this new vision for the UW, Harrington began to develop the role of the university extension centers throughout the state.

By making the two-year extension centers more autonomous with their own presidents, the University of Wisconsin became less of a single school and more of a system similar to WSU. UW-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside and UW-Green Bay operated as four-year universities while the 12 extension schools offered two-year training and transfer programs. This system allowed the Madison campus to focus on graduate education, research and competing nationally while the rest of the UW schools focused on service to the state and undergraduate instruction.

By 1965, the University of Wisconsin saw the CCHE as restricting Madison's expanding research mission and opportunity for federal funding. While the CCHE had been successful in the late '50s and early '60s at balancing the budgetary needs of Wisconsin's two systems, the council deteriorated as the four WSU regent members clashed with the four UW regent members. Instead of cooperating, the regents voted in block, competing for favorable treatment for their own systems rather than higher education as a whole.

A reduction in the number of regent members of the CCHE in 1965 did little to relieve the bitter competition caused by overlapping educational programs and regional boundaries. Student activism in Madison, culminating in the bombing of Sterling Hall, combined with tightening budgets and increased intersystem competition to create a loss of faith in higher education. In 1971, newly elected Gov. Patrick Lucey proposed a unification of the UW and WSU systems as a solution.

Gov. Lucey believed that the University of Wisconsin's mission of teaching and service to the state were suffering in favor of unnecessary graduate programs and an over-emphasis on research. With the CCHE failing to achieve cooperation and extension schools overlapping with Wisconsin State Universities, a merger seemed to be the best way to improve undergraduate instruction, prevent competition and save money.

Both the UW and WSU regents came out against the merger plan. In response to the massive scope of the proposed legislation, including budget cuts as well as a merger, the Wisconsin Alumni Association began to inform and involve alumni through its largest advocacy effort to date.

WAA worked throughout 1971 to address concerns about the future of the University of Wisconsin. The advocacy campaign used numerous approaches to reach alumni: forms encouraged alumni to become familiar with the budget and to contact the Legislature; programs at the alumni house informed visitors about the proposed changes; reports about the loss of confidence in higher education explained how the situation arose; magazine features laid out both sides of the merger debate; alumni letters shared graduate perspectives; editorials showed the negative impacts the changes would have on UW and updates kept alumni informed about the latest developments in the legislature.

While WAA did share the potential benefits of a merged Wisconsin system, there were a number of concerns that led the alumni association to take a stand against a merger. Paramount was the fear that, rather than improving the system as a whole, a merger would lead to homogenization through a failure to recognize the differences between the two systems. UW Vice President Donald Percy summed up this fear during a hearing of the Joint Finance Committee: "We're not trying to be sanctimonious about being better than some other institutions. We're just trying to say we are different ... If we are given WSU support we can teach WSU level courses."

Percy was arguing that the University of Wisconsin, especially the Madison campus, taught graduate students, specialized courses and engaged in research that made it unique in Wisconsin. The proposed merger included standardizing teacher salaries, course funding and budget appropriations that would have prevented the Madison campus from carrying out its unique role.

Additionally, faculty involvement in university governance, a hallmark at the University of Wisconsin, would have been limited in the proposed merger. Leaders from both WSU and the UW feared a single board of regents, with centralized control over dozens of campuses, would be ill-prepared to administer to the individual missions of each institution.

Despite a mass mailing from WAA urging alumni to contact their legislators, on October 5, 1971, the State Assembly voted to approve a bill merging the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State Universities. The CCHE and both boards of regents were abolished in favor of a single regent board for the new University of Wisconsin System and a commission was created to advise on how to implement the merger over two years.

The legislation brought an end to the University of Wisconsin after 122 years of continuous existence. In its place was the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a single campus within a state system. Despite WAA's best advocacy efforts, the University of Wisconsin had finally lost the century-long fight to maintain its independence. Several key concessions earned through the advocacy of campus leaders and alumni did, however, help to soften the blow.

Once of these was the inclusion of specific mission statements for each university in the system. This would allow UW-Madison to continue its focus on instruction and service in addition to expanding its nationally recognized research program. A second helpful change was to include the University of Wisconsin tradition of faculty involvement in university governance.

Fortunately for WAA, the organization was completely independent of the UW by the time of the merger, setting its own agenda and raising 100 percent of its own funds. WAA's advocacy would continue to be just as important for the University of Wisconsin-Madison as it had been for the University of Wisconsin. Executive Director Arlie Mucks discussed WAA's future role in the December 1971 issue of the Wisconsin Alumnus. From that article:

"The merger raises many questions, and everyone is doing his [sic] very best to merge the great Wisconsin system in a manner that will not diminish the academic excellence of the Madison campus. Your Alumni Association, entering its 111th year of service, will be working doubly hard to involve you, the individual alumnus [sic], in a program that will assist the Madison Campus during a year that may be trying and difficult. The success of the University of Wisconsin system depends on the Madison campus, so we are asking you to join with us to work with the New Board of Regents, the administration, the faculty and the students in providing the all-important ingredient known as attitude to carry us through this year.

"We salute the University of Wisconsin on its 123rd birthday. February 5, 1849, one of Americas greatest academic institutions opened its doors. If we are to keep the doors of opportunity open for quality education, then a renewed interest and vigor must be forthcoming from each and every one of you. Your officers, directors and staff are ready and we hope that you are ready as 1972 presents a most unusual challenge. Lets work together."

Advocacy Today

Many issues facing the UW have been recurring themes in the last 150 years; academic freedoms, cuts in state funding, and discussions about UW-Madison's role in the UW System. WAA's method for generating informed support regarding those issues is as effective today as it was in 1861: creating a dialogue with alumni and Wisconsin citizens about UW-Madison's needs and contributions to the state.

The issues facing the university remain the same, but changing technology and political landscapes have altered the speed and scope of the alumni association's response. In the 1980s, the Alumni Association External Affairs Committee began transforming WAA's advocacy and outreach program into the modern program of legislative outreach that exists today.

The committee was headed by lobbyist and political expert James Wimmer, Jr. '60, who had engineered an unexpected win for Gaylord Nelson's 1958 gubernatorial campaign and chaired the state Democratic Party. The External Affairs committee sought alumni volunteers to create an influential grassroots network throughout the state. That network continued to expand and refine its role, eventually becoming WAA's current advocacy branch, Alumni for Wisconsin.

Until the 2000s, WAA's grassroots advocacy organization was called the Badger Action Network (BAN). With Wimmer's intimate knowledge of Wisconsin's political systems and new statistical analyses of UW's budget and economic impact at their disposal, BAN members began contacting state legislators to discuss the university's position on a regular basis. This network helped legislators understand how a comparatively small investment of taxpayer dollars leads to billions of dollars that UW-Madison contributes to the state economy.

With BAN members spread across the state, working to inform their legislators and communities about UW-Madison, legislative fiscal support in the '90s did not reflect the drastic cuts of previous generations. A focused group of volunteers, rather than a new campaign for each emergency, provided consistent, informed support in the Legislature. Expanding and maintaining this support has become a primary focus for WAA. Over the last 20 years, BAN and Alumni for Wisconsin have applied grassroots support and the lessons of the past to such modern issues as stem cell research, public authority for the UW Hospital and Clinics, and most recently, the New Badger Partnership.

Traditional Issues, Modern Solutions

An advocacy opportunity for BAN, and later Alumni for Wisconsin, grew out of a discovery made by UW researcher Jamie Thomson and his research team, the first scientists to derive a line of human embryonic stem cells. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) patented the new technology, creating a new field of research with a wide range of medical applications. It wasn't long, however,

With a legislative movement threatening to criminalize stem cell research, WAA advocated in support of UW researchers. Together with WARF and the UW-Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, the alumni association sought to carry on a tradition of academic independence with internal university oversight for research activities, rather than external legislative control. Today, with the support of Alumni for Wisconsin, the Stem Cell Research Oversight Committee oversees all campus embryonic research and addresses the ethical issues surrounding stem cells.

Another historical challenge with a modern twist is the recent dialogue over the University of Wisconsin-Madison's appeal for public authority status in a 2010 proposal called the New Badger Partnership.

Before 1971, the campus in Madison, then called the University of Wisconsin, was a separate entity from the Wisconsin State Colleges. In that year, the Legislature voted to merge the two systems despite the objections of WAA, the University of Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin State Colleges.

In 1996, many of the same arguments that were presented in 1971 opposing merger were suggested as reasons for granting UW Hospital and Clinics public authority status. In an article in the Wisconsin State Journal, former UW Chancellor Donna Shalala explained how she worked at the time, to garner legislative approval for the administrative freedoms the hospital needed. From that article:

"We argued passionately that to compete in the fast-changing world of institutional health care, we needed a new business model for the hospital. There were many who didn't want me to succeed with that. Eventually, the Wisconsin Legislature responded, creating a separate public authority for UW Hospital and Clinics ... Today, there is little doubt that UW Hospital and Clinics — a public authority managing itself with a public mission — is among the best in the business."

The Wisconsin Alumni Association used its expanding advocacy program to support public authority for the UW Hospital and Clinics. By creating a statewide dialogue about the benefits of an independent medical system, WAA and BAN helped to secure the hospital's needed administrative flexibilities. In her column in the Wisconsin State Journal, Shalala went on to explain the need for similar flexibilities at the university level. From that article:

"We are at a similar crossroads in 2011 with regard to UW-Madison and the University of Wisconsin System. It's always uncomfortable to argue that the System's flagship institution deserves special treatment. It's not an argument that says UW-Madison is better; rather, it's an argument that UW-Madison is different."

As state funding has eroded over the years, UW-Madison and the UW System have worked to secure other sources of funding while proposing additional flexibilities in the administration of those funds.

That crossroads was created by a proposed budget cut of $250 million for the UW System, half of which would have been absorbed by UW-Madison. Having already faced major cuts earlier in the decade, Madison leaders began to wonder if public authority status, which had worked so well for UW Hospital and Clinics, could help UW-Madison absorb the decrease in state funding.

Recognizing the importance of these budgetary tools and the long tradition of UW-Madison leaders who have argued that the campus should remain independent, the Wisconsin Alumni Association galvanized its advocates across the state. For its campaign to generate informed support for the New Badger Partnership, WAA and Alumni for Wisconsin made it a goal to contribute current information about UW-Madison's proposed legislative budget to the developing state dialogue. Through websites, emails, mailings, social media and even a 20,000-person telephone town-hall conversation with the chancellor, WAA informed alumni about the needs of their alma mater in its most technological campaign to date.

As the state budget and debate about the future of higher education unfolded, Alumni for Wisconsin engaged thousands of citizens in a discussion that has presented itself numerous times. In 1848, 1897, 1909, 1913, 1915, 1948, 1953, 1971 and again in 2011, Wisconsin has asked itself: What will be UW's role? Will it be a national and international player whose achievements benefit the state by association and proximity? Or will it be a state school, whose smaller scope is more directly beneficial to Wisconsin's citizens and whose national and international scope is limited by administrative restrictions? Future discussions will have to make a philosophical decision about higher education, choosing either to unleash the UW to act as a global leader, or focusing on its historical mission and leadership in Wisconsin.

Advocacy Lessons from the Past and Future Directions

While the Legislature decided against granting UW-Madison public authority status, several flexibilities outlined in the New Badger Partnership were granted to the UW System. The UW System and UW-Madison can now each create and manage their own personnel systems, allowing each campus to compete in a global talent pool for the staff best suited to that institution's unique mission. Each UW school can now purchase equipment and supplies, such as academic journals and particle accelerators, without going through state systems which rarely deal with such items. A study will further investigate higher education in Wisconsin, once again seeking to understand the best way to balance legislative and private funding while promoting collaboration between dozens of unique colleges.

WAA views these successes as a great first step for higher education in Wisconsin. Alumni for Wisconsin will seek to continue the momentum and dialogue that was generated surrounding the state budget and the New Badger Partnership. History has shown that the conversation regarding UW-Madison, the UW System, academic freedom and sources of funding will continue well into the future.

Combining the lessons of the past with the new speed and technology of the present will ensure WAA's role in that conversation. Even the biggest Badger fans lead busy lives focused in a variety of areas, in addition to their affinity for UW-Madison. Alumni for Wisconsin will reach out to individuals across the state, with modern and traditional technology, to keep them informed about higher education in Wisconsin. With the lessons of 150 years of advocacy and an abiding passion for our alma mater, WAA is well positioned to support and advocate for UW-Madison, generating informed support for another 150 years, and beyond.

Lessons From 150 Years of Advocacy

  • Investments in UW-Madison are returned to the state many-fold
  • Funding for UW-Madison should be tied to the growth of the state
  • Informed support is the best support

WAA Will:

  • Be a proactive advocate, anticipating needs and taking an early stand
  • Create a two-way dialogue between the university and alumni
  • Be an advocate for all sources of university support
  • Work to support the university's mission of research, education and service


Related News and Stories

Virtual and in-person events invite everyone to learn about the impact of federal funding and speak with members of Congress.