Within hours, amid a storm of criticism and outrage, Walker backtracked on the edits. In a statement on Thursday, Walker blamed the changes on a last-minute "drafting error." The intention, he said, was simply to reform the university’s budget priorities and governance structure, a directive Walker’s staffers misinterpreted:
We encourage a vigorous debate over the idea of an authority to govern the University of Wisconsin system or the status quo, as well as a debate about what is the real amount of savings that can be generated by an authority, which we believe is worth $150 million a year. However, there is no debate over the principles contained within the Wisconsin Idea …
Unfortunately, when my office told the budget staff to keep it simple, they took that to mean that we only wanted workforce readiness language in the mission when we really wanted the language added to the existing mission statement. They also responded to UW staff that this change was not open for discussion because they were told to keep it simple and only add in workforce readiness language.
Clearly, changing the Wisconsin Idea serves no purpose. That is why I made it clear on Wednesday that we would not change it in the budget. It is not a change of heart. It was a simple miscommunication between the natural back and forth of this process.
Whether Walker’s justification holds water isn’t clear. Skeptics in the news media and the higher-education world appear unconvinced that the change was merely a typo rather than an about-face in response to the immediate backlash. After all, internal memos leaked on Thursday to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wisconsin State Journal show that Walker’s administration explicitly instructed the budget plan’s drafters to delete clauses such as this one: "Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth."
Whatever Walker’s intent, the situation has caused a good deal of hullabaloo, making national headlines and raising, or at least renewing, questions about the state of higher education in the country and the role of public universities in promoting state economies and American society’s general well-being.
"Basically it’s clear that, regardless of how it got into the language, there was an intent to reexamine or to look at redefining the core values of what our university is about," said Mark D. Schwartz, a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee who serves on the school’s Faculty Senate.
Carol Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, an organization that represents about 1,450 institutions and advocates for a "liberal education"—one that is broad and "public-spirited," matched to the spirit of a free, democratic society. Liberal education, she said, builds the kinds of capacities that are useful in any kind of job: critical thinking, problem-based reasoning, understanding the science of how society operates. This notion of a "liberal education" is what made America’s university system "the envy of the world." But in recent years, she said, policymakers have attempted to rebrand that system.