Man, I hate being interviewed. But I talked with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Rob Ferrett about my UW System stories. You can listen to the interview here.
Archive for the ‘Education’ category
Sometimes one story leads to another. My Isthmus piece on the critical role of the UW System in rebuilding the Wisconsin economy got me thinking about the importance of urban universities in anchoring prosperous metropolitan regions.
I make the case in this Journal Sentinel opinion column that a bigger state investment in UW-Milwaukee would be a key ingredient in revitalizing Milwaukee.
A strong Milwaukee is good for us all — Madison, the Milwaukee suburbs and the state as a whole. “You can’t move the state forward economically unless Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin are leading the pack,” as former commerce secretary Bill McCoshen puts it.
Indeed, most prosperous metro regions — the Austins and Seattles of the nation — are usually enriched by strong central cities, research shows. The weakest — the Clevelands and Milwaukees — are hobbled by weak central cities.
Look no farther than Minnesota, which has soared ahead of the Badger state. Our median income of $52,622 a year is almost $9,000 less than our sister state’s. The contrasting impact of Minnapolis-St.Paul’s muscular economy to Milwaukee’s lingering Rust Belt decline is the key reason for the prosperity gap.
To read more on the history and important role of urban universities, please go here.
Last fall I had lunch with a friend who covered Wisconsin’s Capitol when Tommy Thompson ran the state for 14 years. By the end, he said, Thompson had tired of the constant grind. Only when Thompson talked about his plans for the UW System did the old fire return
That stuck with me. A few years earlier I wrote a Capitol piece for Milwaukee Magazine that discussed the politically surprising partnership between the Republican governor and liberal-minded UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala in launching a huge and transformative building program for the university.
Times have changed. Today the Capitol and the university see one another as an unreliable partner. I write:
The disharmony stems in part from the tensions of a generally liberal-minded university working with a decidedly conservative state government. Further exacerbating the relationship is the obliqueness of UW System bookkeeping and the Republican belief it hid a huge slush fund. (This became a key factor in the GOP-enforced tuition freeze and UW budget cut.) Add in the troubling geographic complaints that the UW System is Madison-centric and shorts the rest of the state and Milwaukee in particular.
UW advocates, in turn, are reeling from the $250 million UW budget cut, the four-year tuition freeze, the stripping of tenure protection from state statutes and Gov. Scott Walker’s surprise attempt in an earlier budget to bowdlerize the “Wisconsin Idea” that guides the UW’s mission to the citizenry.
All this makes for an unpleasant stew of missed signals, aggravation, suspicion and wheel spinning. Not to mention a nagging sense that the state as a whole is grievously hurt by the failure of the pols and profs to make nice.
Once upon a time it was different. Governors, Democrat and Republican alike, would tap top UW talent to serve and help run their administrations. Over the past 40-plus years this included Govs. Patrick Lucey, Lee Dreyfus, Tony Earl and Tommy Thompson deploying such UW luminaries as David Adamany, Walter Dickey, Ralph Andreano, Charles Cicchetti, Steve Born, Kenneth Lindner and Donald Percy in government service.
But under Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and now Scott Walker, a Republican, a new dynamic has emerged — governors ignoring the UW’s best and brightest to rely almost exclusively on their loyalists and apparatchiks to set policy and run the huge army of state employees.
More than one UW person I talked to spoke approvingly (if not longingly) of the Tommy Thompson era. That’s when an activist Republican governor with Hamiltonian ambitions for a greater Wisconsin found common ground with the university to unleash a major expansion of the UW System, including several billion dollars in campus construction.
How did he do it?
“I realized the university had to be my ally,” Thompson, 74, explains matter-of-factly, as if he were addressing a Poli Sci 101 class. “I had to make the university much more responsive to the needs of Wisconsin. And I said to myself I have to do it in a collegial way, because I don’t have the political power to do it alone. I’ve got to make sure the university understands I’m going to be its best friend. And for that friendship — quid pro quo — they’re going to help me build every part of this state.”
You don’t hear talk like that anymore in Wisconsin. An obvious question calls out: What would Tommy do to improve the sad state of campus-Capitol relations?
To find the answer, please go here.
There are two sidebars with the story. (The whole package is about 5,000 words.) The first reports how Thompson, a life-long UW booster, will be honored at UW-Madison’s spring commencement. The second details how the state’s failing efforts at economic development ignore the recommendations of UW researchers.
Few things are as important for energizing the listless Wisconsin economy than capitalizing on the great research conducted at UW-Madison. I write in this Isthmus cover story:
A game-changer is what UW-Madison sorely needs. Historically one of the nation’s leading research schools, the campus secures more than $1 billion a year in research grants. Yet between 2009 and 2014, Wisconsin ranked 42nd among the states in patents issued, according to federal data. And we were dead last in a survey of entrepreneurial activity taken by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
Reality is that despite Dane County’s tech-led boom, the Wisconsin economy is in parlous condition. The state suffered the largest percentage decline of middle-class households in the nation between 2000 and 2013, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study. Median Wisconsin household income in this period dropped from $60,344 to $51,467 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Obvious questions follow: Why isn’t all this UW research igniting a wave of business and tech startups across the state? Why hasn’t the UW dynamo reversed the state’s economic decline?
UW-Madison, it’s fair to say, is feeling the heat.
The hostility of the ruling Republicans at the Capitol is as plain to see as the UW System’s $250 million budget cut and Gov. Scott Walker’s initial plan to gut the Wisconsin Idea, the university’s once sacrosanct pledge that its “beneficent influence” would extend statewide.
But that notion of “the boundaries of campus are the boundaries of the state” draws a sharp retort from skeptics who think UW-Madison’s reach seems to abruptly end at the Dane County line. Local folks may be proud that Dane County claims 73% of the new jobs created in Wisconsin over the last 10 years, but outstate observers see this as evidence of how UW-Madison beneficence is highly parochial.
Enter UW-Madison’s Discovery To Product program. I write how this bootcamp for campus entrepreneurs has nurtured a potential breakout campus discovery. Researchers Mark Cook and Jordan Sand have come up with a technique that could dramatically reduce the pervasive use of human antibiotics in animal feed. That farm industry practice is blamed for producing deadly drug-resistant superbugs.
To read more about their discovery and the complaints that insiders make about UW-Madison’s hostility towards commercializing research, please go here.
I profiled David Krakauer, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, in January 2013 after periodically talking with him and observing his campus talks in 2012. I wrote then in Isthmus:
Krakauer’s message “is a brash call for UW-Madison to reimagine its place in the world. Above all, it is to climb out of the silos of intellectual pursuit and embrace a more creative mash-up of disciplines — hard scientists working with poets working with social scientists working with entrepreneurs.
“’David’s task of bringing people together across disciplines is an assignment in cultural change,’ affirms Francois Ortalo-Magné, dean of the Wisconsin School of Business.
“But given that great universities are almost medieval in their reverence for tradition, Krakauer faces a hellaciously complicated task. It’s ‘a bit of the immovable object against the unstoppable external forces,’ admits Mike Knetter, president of the UW Foundation.
“The fact that Krakauer is such an unbuttoned figure in the buttoned-down world of university administration may prove exactly the jolt that UW-Madison needs. Anyway, that’s the high-stakes bet UW execs made in selecting him to run a showcase experimental lab as part of the $210 million Discovery complex, which brings together researchers and entrepreneurs.”
My followup story caught Krakauer as he was leaving UW-Madison to lead the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. The story, which appeared in Isthmus, begins:
One of UW-Madison’s change agents, David Krakauer, is departing on June 30, proud of his work as head of the edgy and multi-disciplinary Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, but deeply frustrated by his dealings with the campus bureaucracy.
“They like to use the word ‘innovation’ a lot, but they don’t want to act on it,” he says. “I think this is a culture that is really intolerant of taking risks.”
He adds: “The UW is very large. Things move slowly. It’s very difficult to respond nimbly and build up roots quickly to address a particular problem.” Still, Krakauer is careful to note that the WID “had some dispensations. We had freedoms. We didn’t cleave exactly to the dominant culture. We did a lot of good stuff. It was very unorthodox.
To read more, please go here.
My take on Krakauer’s departure? It’s a huge loss for the university. Next to Jim Graaskamp, the late head of the UW-Madison real estate department, Krakauer is the most compelling and charismatic campus leader I’ve interviewed.
To be sure, there are lots of really bright people on campus, but often they can’t convey their work to an interested layperson in a convincing fashion. They lapse into impenetrable jargon, or they’re painfully shy, or they’re Midwest modest, or they can’t speak English well. Krakauer is very different. He has the rare public intellectual’s ability to explain complex ideas. He can do a 360 review, describing all the facets to a lay audience and in the process convey their importance and his enthusiasm.
Madison will miss him. I describe Krakauer’s ideas for bringing UW-Madison into the new century in this online sidebar.
The tech world’s hard split between information technology and biotechnology is perplexing. Despite their kindred values, these really smart people seem to live in parallel universes. I found myself puzzling over this last year while attending the International Bioethics Forum sponsored by Promega’s educational institute. Despite a stirling assemblage of speakers on the nature of creativity, none of those brainy ITers seemed to be present.
Perhaps this year’s topic at the forum will draw some venturesome folks from the software world. Here’s how Promega founder Bill Linton describes this year’s convocation:
When we recently talked, Linton explained that the annual forum always picked topics — What is the nature of life? What is the nature of death? — in which the answers weren’t settled. “Sometimes people would leave with more questions than they came in with,” he says with a laugh.
This year’s forum — “3.8 Billion Years of Wisdom: Exploring the Genius of Nature” — promises more of the same. Nothing conventional, but an examination of the “many beautiful examples of life forms accessing information that we simply cannot explain, but call ‘instinct,'” as the promo material says. It runs May 1-2 on the Promega campus.
This is the fifth year the forum has burrowed into consciousness. “There are different points of view of consciousness in nature and taking it a step further — not just of consciousness, but also of intelligence. Does the very embodiment of matter, particularly as expressed in life forms, exhibit a form of intelligence that doesn’t quite fit the human definition of IQ?” Linton asks.
“Nature seems to have evolved with the ability to combine intricate, amazing complexity in ways that are astounding and that we don’t understand,” he adds. The great controversy, he continues, is whether evolution is a blind, random process that sometimes produces advantageous mutations. “Or is there something else happening that is not totally blind randomness?”
This question certainly stopped me in my tracks.
Linton points to the statistical unlikelihood of a light-sensitive organ like the eye evolving in nature eight or nine times from completely different origins. “The fact is, it seems like nature wants to enhance its ability to take in sensory information, and then do things with that information. Some people say that the nature of the universe is trying to find a way to ask the questions: Who are we? What’s out there? Why do we exist?
“In a way, when we ask those questions, it’s nature [expressing] itself, because we are a product of this natural process. That’s pretty amazing for nature to have brought in this element of consciousness.”
The forum runs May 1-2 on the Promega campus in Fitchburg. To read more, please go here.
I’m not exactly Mr. Feminist, but I am the father of daughters, and there are times when I’m dumbfounded at how guy-heavy the software world is. This realization first hit me like a hammer last December when I sat in a software entrepreneurism class at UW-Madison. I counted one woman among the 34 students. What gives, as I asked in this Isthmus story?
“There are a thousand reasons,” says Andrea Arpaci-Dusseau, a UW-Madison computer science professor who happens to be married to the co-teacher of the startup class. “It happens very, very, young,” she says of the disconnect between women and computer technology. “They make a decision that this is something they’re not interested in.
“Because there are so few women, it just perpetuates itself,” she says. “If we could get more women in the field, then it would be welcoming and enjoyable for women. But when the numbers are so small, it’s really difficult.”
Those numbers are sobering. The software class, offered both in the spring and fall, drew a total enrollment of about 90 students and just one woman, says Andrea’s spouse, Remzi Arpaci-Dusseau. (They met as computer science graduate students at UC-Berkeley.) “It’s terrible,” he says of the gender disparity. “We talk about it in the department all the time. We seem not to be serving 50% of the population.”
Overall just 11% of UW’s computer science graduates in 2012 were women, according to the registrar’s office. This is typical of women in computing at major American research universities. National data show that women composed just 14% of their computer science undergraduates in 2011.
The problem is found, to varying degrees, in other so-called STEM academic fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Elsewhere in academia, however, young women are striding confidently to the front of the line like never before. In 2009, 57% of all undergraduate degrees in the U.S. were earned by women, according to the National Center for Women and Technology. Fifty years earlier, almost two-thirds were earned by men.
To read more, please go here.