Under threat of dissolution, our WisconsinWatch collaboration earns overwhelming support

As I wrote in this space last week, our innovative research, teaching, and service collaboration with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has come under dire threat.  The crisis began with two sentences in “Motion 999,” added to the pending Wisconsin state budget bill at the last minute by the Joint Finance Committee without warning, discussion, or justification:

Prohibit the Board of Regents from permitting the Center for Investigative Journalism to occupy any facilities owned or leased by the Board of Regents. In addition, prohibit UW employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee.

The “facilities” in question — two small, underused offices here in Vilas Hall, plus a classroom space in the summer — are exchanged, in a formal facilities use agreement, for the guarantee of regular paid investigative reporting internships for our students, as well as the guarantee of ready access to the expertise of the WCIJ staff in our courses, in our public events, and in the daily intellectual life of the School  (see this fact sheet or visit WisconsinWatch.org for more detail).  Our faculty and staff formally voted in favor of this agreement, and it was approved by all necessary levels of UW-Madison administration.  Let me be clear: the WCIJ, a non-profit and non-partisan organization, raises its entire budget on its own, and receives no direct “subsidy” from either state tax dollars or student tuition dollars.

Over the past few years this innovative collaboration between our School and the Center has won national acclaim as a model for public-interest journalism and the much-promoted “teaching hospital” strategy for professional education.  It has turned a liability of underutilized space into an asset of professional expertise.  It has provided nearly two dozen students with paid internships.  And it has helped to bring increased status and visibility in terms of donations, research grants, and foundation attention to our campus (crucially important during a time of shrinking state budget allocations to higher education).  We think it’s been a great deal, for both UW students and Wisconsin taxpayers.

Thus it should come as no surprise that the School of Journalism & Mass Communication vehemently opposes the dissolution of our relationship with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism through Motion 999, not only because it prohibits a successful, productive, and award-winning collaboration in research, teaching, and service having clear and overwhelming benefits for both our students and the residents of the state, but also because it represents a serious threat to shared governance, academic freedom, and the Wisconsin Idea.

In the week since this story broke, it has been picked up across the nation, not only in local media but also at the national level in outlets like the Columbia Journalism Review, The Progressive, Esquire, PBS MediaShiftBoingBoing.netWired Magazine, and the Huffington Post.  I am pleased to report that the response from our stakeholders, colleagues, and friends across the university, the state, the nation, and the world has been overwhelmingly supportive:

  • UW-Madison and UW-System administrationGary Sandefur, Dean of the UW-Madison College of Letters & Science called Motion 999 “legislative micromanagement and overreach at its worst.”  Kevin Reilly, UW System President, said  “Legislators shouldn’t be telling faculty who you can and can’t partner with.”
  • Our UW-Madison faculty and staff governance bodies, the University Committee and the Academic Staff Executive Committee, wrote “These restrictions are a direct challenge to academic freedom. They hamper intellectual discovery, reduce opportunities for students to get hands-on experience putting what they’ve learned into practice, and run counter to the Wisconsin Idea by curtailing the university’s ability to serve the public good.”
  • The editorial boards of major local Wisconsin newspapers like the Capital Times, the Wisconsin State Journal, the Beloit Daily News, the Racine Journal Times, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel all advocated for preserving our collaboration with WisconsinWatch.
  • Local opinion columnists from across the political spectrum have spoken up on our side, including Capital Times columnist John Nichols, Wisconsin State Journal columnist Chris Rickert, WISC-TV editorial director Neil Heinen, WOSH radio personality Jonathan Krause, and WTMJ talk radio host Charlie Sykes (who called Motion 999 “Petty, Vindictive, Dumb”).
  • Professional news associations like the Society for Professional Journalists of Madison, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the Investigative News Network, the Investigative Reporting Workshop, Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Local Independent Online News Publishers all praise and support our relationship with WisconsinWatch.org.
  • Prominent faculty from other journalism programs have weighed in on our side, including Professors Leonard Downie, Jr. (Walter Cronkite School, Arizona State University), Bill Grueskin (Columbia Journalism School), Nicholas Lemann (Columbia Journalism School) and Michael Schudson (Columbia Journalism School), who wrote “Finding ways to support fact-based, hard-hitting journalism remains a problem. The Wisconsin legislature should reject the proposal to weaken journalism and to harm an institution that has made significant contributions to University of Wisconsin students seeking serious education in journalism that holds powerful institutions to account. We think that’s what the First Amendment is about and we hope that a large majority of Wisconsin’s legislators agree.”
  • In only 48 hours, over 500 concerned individuals across the world declared their support for the School and the Center through an online petition.
  • Even several high-profile state Senators have questioned Motion 999.  Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) said, “It is the height of arrogance, and everybody who voted for that should be embarrassed. It smacks of the kind of tactics you would expect from Vladmir Putin or Hugo Chavez — not in Wisconsin”  And Sen. Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) noted “I don’t know why we would go after any element of a free press, even if we don’t like them.”
  • Finally, it was our former students — and former WCIJ interns — who said it best: “Both the involvement of UW faculty and the presence of the Center on campus are critical to providing students with the opportunity to learn the ethics,values and logistics of reporting for the public good.  We urge the members of the Assembly and Senate to vote to remove Provision 999 from the 2013-2015 Budget.”

We think that our collaboration with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is worth fighting for — and we think it is a fight we can win.  If you agree, I invite you to help out.  Write your legislators, write the Governor, write a news outlet that has benefited from free WisconsinWatch reporting, or sign a petition started by a former student and current WCIJ board member.  Keep up to date on the latest developments on our action page, our Facebook page, and our Twitter feed.  And last but not least, if you are able, make a donation to our Annual Fund to help us continue our research, teaching, and service in support of the Wisconsin Idea.  Thank you.