Democracy Paradox
Democracy Paradox
Mar 23, 2021
Chad Alan Goldberg on the Wisconsin Idea and the Role of the Public University in a Democracy
Play • 53 min

They had an obligation to take the knowledge that they were developing, to take their expertise and put it in the service of the community as a whole and the service of its elected leaders.

Chad Alan Goldberg

A Fulll Transcript is Available at

At the turn of the twentieth century, Wisconsin was at the forefront of the Progressive Movement. Wisconsin adopted the first modern state income tax. It initiated the first workers’ compensation plan. It enacted the first unemployment insurance program. Wisconsin even spearheaded important constitutional reforms like the direct election of Senators. UW Madison Professor Patrick Brenzel explains, “To say that Wisconsin was known nationally for transparent and egalitarian government is an understatement.”

These reforms were the product of a relationship between the public university, legislators, and other stakeholders. It is known as the Wisconsin Idea. The Wisconsin Idea is a belief the public university has a role to contribute its research to the service of the state. A common motto is “The boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” 

The Wisconsin Idea remains central to the mission of the University of Wisconsin system to this day, but has become the subject of attacks from conservatives in recent years. Among the many efforts by Scott Walker to dismantle the administrative state included an attempt to remove the Wisconsin Idea from the university charter. It failed, but it highlights how there is a genuine debate about the role of public universities. 

Chad Alan Goldberg has been at the forefront of the effort to defend the Wisconsin Idea in recent years. He is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin Madison and the editor of the volume Education for Democracy: Renewing the Wisconsin Idea. This book features chapters from many leading scholars in a variety of disciplines including Kathy Cramer. 

Our conversation discusses some of the history behind the Wisconsin Idea. But it is really about the role of the public university. How is a public university different from a private university? Why does the public support universities? And how does a public university help to shape democracy? These are important questions I never thought to ask, but will mean a lot as we work to renew democracy.

More Information

Democracy Group

Apes of the State created all Music

Politics in Question

Key Links

Education for Democracy: Renewing the Wisconsin Idea

The Wisconsin Idea by Charles McCarthy

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker by Katherine Cramer

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