The Wisconsin Idea: What does global service learning have to do with it?

Eric Mlyn, Duke University
Amanda Moore McBride, Washington University in St. Louis 

I didn’t really mean that…

It would be funny if it were not so transparently sad and misguided.  Earlier this week, it was announced that Governor Scott Walker was abandoning the “Wisconsin Idea,” which dates back to 1904 and among other things articulates the “public mission” of the University of Wisconsin.  Somewhere in the drafting process for the new budget, this public mission was replaced with the notion that the state University system should be focused on meeting “the state’s workforce needs.”  Later in the week, in the face of significant and well-reasoned outrage at this shift, the Governor who had originally defended this shift backtracked significantly, saying that he had not signed off on these changes and that they instead resulted from confusion rather than a well thought out policy shift.

​We were intrigued by this very public snafu for a variety of reasons, many of which we will expand on in a more extensive piece on how higher education seeks to justify its civic mission.  What struck us most however is how Gov. Walker originally juxtaposed the “public mission” with the more instrumental goal of job training.  We all know that the civic or public mission, though always a part of the very DNA of so many public state universities, is ascendant now across the higher education landscape – from public to private, from two-year to four-year, from elite to other institutions.

In fact, it would probably be fair to say that the broad civic mission usually seems to be generally embraced on a bi-partisan basis – Democrats and Republicans – conservatives and liberals – often support the most common forms of volunteerism that are part of higher education’s civic mission.  The same, of course, cannot be said of broad support for what is sometimes defined as the intrinsic value of the liberal arts.  Here, in general, more conservative forces often fail to recognize the intrinsic value of the liberal arts and opt instead for more instrumental job and workforce related justifications.

​Maybe this is where Gov. Walker got confused, because the “Wisconsin Idea” also embraced common themes in the liberal arts – such as “searching for the truth.”  The point we wish to raise here is that it is simply too simplistic to somehow say that the “public mission” of colleges and universities is completely separate from the instrumental goals that Gov. Walker espoused.

Perhaps you are asking what does this have to do with global service learning? We know, for example, that students who participate in service, working in teams with communities unlike themselves, often develop exactly the kinds of teamwork skills and cross cultural sensibilities that are essential to the 21st Century workforce. The implicitly articulated nature of how we teach students to be productive members of society supposedly held by Gov. Walker is dated and not good for students or any of us.

​And finally, one important caveat to this.  Though we both know and have seen the kinds of instrumental benefits that accrue to students and communities when higher education takes its civic mission seriously, we do not want to go too far down the rabbit hole of instrumental justifications for civic engagement in higher education.  There is something about that that sells out the mission, which is bigger and more important than simply training workers.  It behooves those of us in this movement to figure out why we do this work and how it benefits whom.  If you haven’t already registered for the Global Service Learning conference in March, then please do. Join us to ponder these questions.


Eric Mlyn, Peter Lange Executive Director of DukeEngage, Assistant Vice Provost for Civic Engagement, Duke University

Amanda Moore McBride, Bettie Bofinger Brown Associate Professor and Associate Dean for Social Work, Brown School Director, Gephardt Institute for Public Service Faculty Director, Civic Engagement and Service, Center for Social Development Washington University in St. Louis

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