The presidential election of 2016 and the values of a public research university

I work at a large, highly selective, highly ranked, and highly productive public research university in the state of Wisconsin, and my job is to serve that university, its students, and its constituents as a researcher, teacher, and administrator.  Put simply, I love my job, even though it is the most difficult one I’ve ever had.  I am thankful every day for the chance to help advance the challenging, imaginative, important, and impactful work of all my faculty, staff, and student colleagues.

At my university, just as in most education settings around the nation, we’ve all been closely engaged in the presidential election over the past year.  Now that the result is known, I’m certain that my colleagues who study politics, social movements, media, and demographics will be working hard to figure out why so many different institutions — from polling agencies to seasoned journalists to prediction markets — were so wrong about the actual outcome.  But I realized this morning that I am filtering my own reactions to the election through a slightly different lens: that of my core scholarship, instruction, and service role as a public research university professor.  I have my own partisan opinions on the election result, of course, just like every voter — but those are not what I am pondering  here.  I find myself more concerned about an issue that I think operates on a level apart from that of party affiliation — an issue that should concern Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Greens, all the same.

I am concerned that the result of yesterday’s presidential election represents a direct challenge to the core values that are necessary to the very existence of a public research university.  Based on the winner’s long record of public statements, professional actions, and private behaviors, it appears that we have elected a president who models a set of values that are wholly incompatible with those of higher education.  After all, this was a candidate who advocated for discrimination on the basis of religion; who impugned the integrity of a public official based on family heritage; who mocked a professional with a disability; who refused to meet the most basic of transparency expectations; who espoused conspiracy theories that run directly counter to broad expert consensus; who repeatedly made assertions that were documented as completely false by multiple, reputable news organizations; who bragged about intimidating protestors and suppressing votes; who stereotyped whole communities of color as dysfunctional and desperate; and who dismissed his own admissions of workplace sexual harassment and assault as just “talk.”

These incidents and others, each widely reported, will not come as any surprise to readers who have been following the election season closely.  (Indeed, many of those who voted for this candidate simultaneously expressed profound concern about such incidents.)  While one could build a list of complaints about any candidate from any party, the examples above concern me so much because they seem to reveal core values that dismiss or demean the importance of things like knowledge expertise, basic civility, democratic norms, and respect for diversity.  

But my own concern resonates even stronger this morning because of the fact that my home state of Wisconsin — whose residents and organizations have supported and benefitted from our wonderful public research university through tumultuous social, economic, cultural, and political changes for more than 150 years — played such a key part in the path to victory for the winning candidate.  I can’t help wondering if this is an implicit endorsement by my state, not only of a particular political party, or a particular presidential candidate, but also of the particular examples above — and the values that seem to underpin them.

As part of my own reckoning with these election results, I would like to try to articulate what some of the core values of a successful and responsible non-profit, public-interest, higher education institution should be — values in direct contradiction to those seemingly demonstrated again and again by the winning presidential candidate over the course of the past year.  Here are the four key values which I believe remain crucial to the success of higher education in Wisconsin and the world — and which I fear might now be under greater challenge as a result of this election:

We value the careful, collective, and evidence-based production, testing, and circulation of knowledge in the public interest.  We value imaginative and responsible research investigation, careful and cooperative peer review, clear and accessible presentation of research findings, challenging and inspiring teaching and mentoring, and open public engagement with the implications and consequences of the knowledge that we create and disseminate.  We do not dismiss a global consensus about peer-reviewed and professionally replicated scientific knowledge as a conspiracy theory merely because we would prefer not to reckon with the implications of that knowledge; similarly, we do not offer up wishful thinking, evidence-free assurances, unexamined assumptions or conspiracy theories as adequate knowledge upon which to base policy and action.  Our arguments depend on evidence, our theories are subject to testing, and our conclusions always remain open to revision if warranted.

We value civility, respect, empathy, and humility in both professional dealings and public debates.  We know that in order to persuade, we must first listen, and that to achieve progress, we must first expect compromise.  We try hard to assume the best of intentions in our opposition, and to find shared understanding and experience from which to begin any negotiation, even in the most polarizing of disputes.  We enthusiastically engage with a diverse information and media infrastructure, made up of both for-profit and non-profit institutions, in order to support a robust marketplace of ideas.  This does not mean that we shy away from controversial issues or critical stances; challenging orthodoxy, whether through art or science, is a crucial part of the knowledge production process.  But  we nurture an environment of both working and learning where faculty, staff, and students alike can feel safe to engage with risky and controversial ideas.

We value broad-based democratic engagement, participation, and transparency in decision-making.  A research university is a collective enterprise built on shared governance.  We subject our faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions to peer review and faculty vote as well as to administrative oversight.  We collaboratively determine the arrangement of our disciplines, we peer-monitor our research conduct, and we jointly shape our teaching curricula through regular faculty and staff discussion, debate, and vote.  We seek out the input and engagement of the many diverse communities that our students and stakeholders call home, across Wisconsin and the world.  And where administrative leadership is necessary for clear and accountable decisions on budget priorities and resource allocation, we value both transparency and broad consultation in that decision process.

We value the participation and cooperation of people from diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and identities in service of better understanding, increased creativity, and more effective problem-solving.  We know that the university gains its power from the juxtaposition and interaction of different ways of knowing — from the arts and humanities to the physical, natural and social sciences — and from the combined and coordinated effort of people whose personal histories, individual identities, unique talents, philosophical beliefs, and professional goals span the range of human experience.  We know that it is not enough to merely attract and retain a diverse constituency of faculty, staff, and students, but that we must work hard, every day, to nurture and maintain the norms of open-mindedness and empathy, imagination and curiosity, civility and respect that enable effective engagement and cooperation between the most disparate of partners.  And we know that we still have much work to do to ensure that our diversity of persons and perspectives here at the university fully encompasses that of our state, our nation, and our world.

There is a saying that “Elections have consequences.”  As a citizen fortunate enough to live within one of the world’s greatest democratic experiments in history, I absolutely accept those consequences, and I am prepared to personally respond to this election through my own private choices and partisan activism.  But education has consequences as well, and in my professional and public role as a steward of our higher education legacy here in Wisconsin, I feel a responsibility at this historic moment to articulate and defend the values that I believe are essential to the survival of that educational legacy.  I  hope that regardless of partisan affiliation or political preference, our stakeholders across Wisconsin and the world will work to help us uphold our values of evidence-based and open-minded knowledge production, civil and critical discourse, democratic governance and engagement, and excellence through multifaceted diversity.  To me, such values define the Wisconsin Idea — and they are worth working for every day, regardless of any momentary political victory or setback.

For more on the core values of my university, see the following resources: 


Defending media research in the public interest

For those of you who have watched me cancel meetings and defer obligations this week, citing an unspecified “media crisis” having to do with my role as Director of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, wonder no longer.  I was involved in defending the work of my colleague and friend, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor Lewis Friedland, in trying to uncover the critical information needs of underserved localities and social groups.  Today Lew published a superb analysis of the situation in the Washington Post:

Sometimes research takes on a life of its own and becomes more like a Rorschach test for a national policy controversy. That’s what’s happened to a review of the literature on the critical information needs of American communities that I and colleagues from around the country conducted for the Federal Communications Commission in July 2012. The recommendations of the review informed a proposed pilot study in Columbia, S.C., of what, if any, critical information needs citizens have and whether they are being met in our rapidly changing media environment.

To conservative media from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh, this was an attempt to reintroduce the now-lapsed Fairness Doctrine and for President Obama to take control of America’s newsrooms. Other former journalists and media critics apparently agreed. Still others took a more nuanced view – that this may not have been a government plot, but that it would be a waste of money, because either we already know what these needs are, or, there aren’t any, or if there are, we can’t know what they are.

In the end, the underlying theme was: we already know the answers. Americans either have no needs or none that the market is not meeting or can’t meet. Don’t do research. Don’t ask these questions.

Click over to our department weblog Mediated Communication to read the rest of Lew’s important essay.  It’s well worth your time.

Media Technologies book now available from MIT Press

Just out from MIT PressMedia Technologies — Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society.  A fantastic group of scholars came together to produce this volume in a truly collaborative way.  Includes a chapter by me on “Making Media Work: Time, Space, Identity, and Labor in the Analysis of Information and Communication Infrastructures.”  (I think I won the award for longest chapter title.)  Available on and wherever interesting scholarly books are sold.

Media Technologies
Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society

Edited by Tarleton GillespiePablo J. Boczkowski and Kirsten A. Foot

In recent years, scholarship around media technologies has finally shed the assumption that these technologies are separate from and powerfully determining of social life, looking at them instead as produced by and embedded in distinct social, cultural, and political practices. Communication and media scholars have increasingly taken theoretical perspectives originating in science and technology studies (STS), while some STS scholars interested in information technologies have linked their research to media studies inquiries into the symbolic dimensions of these tools. In this volume, scholars from both fields come together to advance this view of media technologies as complex sociomaterial phenomena.

The contributors first address the relationship between materiality and mediation, considering such topics as the lived realities of network infrastructure. The contributors then highlight media technologies as always in motion, held together through the minute, unobserved work of many, including efforts to keep these technologies alive.

Pablo J. Boczkowski, Geoffrey C. Bowker, Finn Brunton, Gabriella Coleman, Gregory J. Downey, Kirsten A. Foot, Tarleton Gillespie, Steven J. Jackson, Christopher M. Kelty, Leah A. Lievrouw, Sonia Livingstone, Ignacio Siles, Jonathan Sterne, Lucy Suchman, Fred Turner

Not just “Discovery to Product” (D2P), but also “Knowledge to Action” (K2A)

About a month ago, UW-Madison announced a new initiative: “Discovery to Product,” shorthanded as “D2P”.  From the official web site:

The initiative is intended to provide UW–Madison faculty and students with an easy-to-access gateway to a comprehensive suite of resources to help transform ideas and discovery into companies and products to bolster Wisconsin’s economy.

This kind of effort, understood both here and at other universities as falling under the broad concept of “technology transfer,” sets the public research university in a particular relationship with both its sponsoring state government and its private market environment.  The idea is that the innovations that emerge from the public research university — whose people and infrastructure are financed by a $2.8 billion mix of funds from citizen tax dollars (17%), individual tuition payments (16%), competitive grant awards (31%), philanthropic gifts (18%), and revenue-generating enterprises (13%), among other sources — should have both public impacts and private benefits beyond the reach of the campus.  Bringing these innovations to market is supposed to generate three positive results:

  1. For innovations that can be moved to the private sector — as a new startup company delivering a particular service, or as a new bit of intellectual property licensed as a temporary patent, say — the assumption is that the market is the most efficient way for the innovation to have a quick and profound impact on society.  In the case of medical devices or new drug therapies, for example, speeding interventions to vulnerable populations is an important public health goal.  (Incidentally, this is the mission of the non-profit Morgridge Institute for Research, a formal partner with the UW-Madison Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.)
  2. State sponsors of higher education hope that through the participation of private capital, there will be spin-off benefits of economic growth in the form of new firms, new jobs, new development, new revenue to shareholders, and — from the state’s point of view — new sources of tax revenue and community stability.  So as a public research university sponsored by a particular state and situated in a particular city and county, UW-Madison is obliged to do what it can to help nurture the economic environment upon which it depends and from which it benefits.
  3. And finally, it is usually expected that some portion of the resulting private profit will return to the university itself, through licensing arrangements, to fund further research in the future — even providing a “cross-subsidy” to forms of research that aren’t as economically lucrative, such as in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.  (And the sponsoring state may hope that the resulting surplus can reduce its own funding burden even more.)

Here at UW-Madison, this “discovery to product” relationship between the university, the state, and the market has long been mediated by a particular actor, the non-profit Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF.  WARF was founded in the 1920s to bring UW-Madison professor Harry Steenbock’s Vitamin D process to market.  But as UW-Madison professor Rima Apple has shown in her history of WARF’s founding, the motivation for creating this outside organization was not only to capture licensing revenues for future UW research, but also to ensure that Vitamin D was produced responsibly and safely (and in a way that protected the Wisconsin dairy industry).  Along these lines, here at UW-Madison, the “D2P” relationship between the university, the state, and the market has been guided by a particular normative ideal, which we call the Wisconsin Idea, or “the principle that the university should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom.”  So today our D2P efforts are being coordinated through WARF and branded under the Wisconsin Idea.

Such a D2P initiative is exciting and well-intentioned.  But I have a concern about it that comes from my own experience as both a faculty member and a department chair here at UW-Madison — and from recent conversations with campus colleagues in places as diverse as the Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies, the Madison Chapter of the Rhetoric Society of America, and the Center for Nonprofits.  I believe it takes nothing away from the importance and urgency of this new “Discovery to Product” effort to realize that, at the same time, not all discoveries result in products, and not all impacts of the public research university can (or should) flow through the market.  What’s more, the very political-economic environment which makes the D2P route so attractive to university, state, and market actors may at the same time be making it harder for knowledge innovations to get “out in the wild” through a different but equally important channel: the non-profit sector.

I argue that besides “Discovery to Product” in the for-profit sector, UW-Madison and its many stakeholders need to support “Knowledge to Action” in the non-profit sector.

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Making Media Work within Knowledge Infrastructures

Two summers ago I was flattered and fortunate to be an invited guest to a research workshop on “Knowledge Infrastructures” at the University of Michigan School of Information.  Sponsored by both the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation, I found this event to be a highly interdisciplinary, refreshingly speculative, and entirely energizing exercise.  (Plus, I met a lot of really smart and very kind people.)  Over two dozen of us hailing from a bunch of different disciplines — history and sociology, computer science and information science, technology studies and digital humanities — spent several days together in a state-of-the-art workshop space to discuss and debate how “knowledge infrastructures” might best be understood, studied, and evaluated.

This week I received the formal result of that conference: a freely-downloadable 32-page report entitled Knowledge Infrastructures: Intellectual Frameworks and Research Challenges, written by the eight principal scholars behind the project: Paul N. Edwards, Steven J. Jackson, Melissa K. Chalmers, Geoffrey C. Bowker, Christine L. Borgman, David Ribes, Matt Burton, and Scout Calvert. In the words of the authors (p. iii):

This document reports the outcomes, organized around three central questions: How are knowledge infrastructures changing? How do changes in knowledge infrastructures reinforce or redistribute authority, influence, and power? And how can we best study, know, and imagine knowledge infrastructures moving forward?

(You can see a candid snapshot from the workshop session below … and although I appear to be scowling in the middle of the photo, I was really having a great time!)


Although the conference organizers specifically tried to defer pinning down the definition of “knowledge infrastructures” too tightly, to avoid deterring interesting lines of imaginative contribution from the participants, Edwards usefully defined knowledge infrastructures as (p. 5):

[R]obust networks of people, artifacts, and institutions that generate, share, and maintain specific knowledge about the human and natural worlds.

I like this definition of a knowledge infrastructure because it is flexible enough to encompass phenomena as diverse as the US public school system, the interlocking joint financing, production, and distribution arrangements among major global entertainment media firms, or the hardware, software, data and marketing activities of Google.

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Ten things to consider if you find your research, teaching, or service under political attack

Today I breathed a long sigh of relief. For nearly a month I have been engaged in an all-out defense of a collaboration between my School of Journalism & Mass Communication (where I currently serve as Director) and the nonprofit, nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (which occupies two offices in our building in exchange for regular and close collaboration with their professional reporters in our classrooms, plus guaranteed paid reporting internships for our students). That collaboration came under acute legislative attack in early June, but today we found out that the crisis is finally over; the Wisconsin Governor himself ended the attack (for now) with a line-item veto. In short, we won.

Many of my colleagues have already started to ask me “How did you folks do it?”  To be honest, I’m still processing this whole episode both emotionally and analytically, so I’m not sure I have an easy answer for that yet.  In fact, I’m not sure I ever will; I’m a historian and so I’m trained to understand these sorts of things as contingent events shaped both by long-term patterns of power (a polarized political environment, a difficult economic crisis, and an overt media strategy of attacking public service workers as “takers” rather than “makers”) and by short-term contingencies of possibility (one actor’s political ambitions, another actor’s media saavy, and maybe a third actor’s axe to grind). But I think maybe the best way for me to try to make sense of all this is to write my way through it in a blog post, with the goal of distilling some things for my colleagues to remember if they ever find themselves in a similar situation.  Please be warned, this is a first draft and subject to revision without warning.  But if you’re looking for some details, some speculation, and maybe even some inspiration, read on.

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Defending academic freedom and investigative reporting

(Largely reposted from the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, where I currently serve as Director, but there’s a new bit at the end, which frankly I’ve edited a couple of times now as I try to gather my thoughts together.  In any case, don’t miss the WCIJ response and the official UW-Madison response too. I will collect other press at the SJMC blog Mediated Communication as it emerges. And Emily Eggleston’s Storify on the crisis is a good primer.)

My name is Greg Downey and I am the current Director of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication (SJMC) at UW-Madison. Today I learned that the Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin state legislature adopted the following motion into the proposed state budget last night or this morning:

Center for Investigative Journalism. 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.

Some background: A few years ago, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison entered into an innovative collaboration with our colleagues at Wisconsin Public Broadcasting and a new non-profit and non-partisan professional investigative news organization, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( SJMC houses the WCIJ, and the WCIJ provides paid internships for SJMC students.

wisconsinwatchIn only three short years, this award-winning collaboration has resulted in a dramatic increase in the quality and quantity of both investigative reporting and public-interest data that is available to the people and businesses of Wisconsin. More importantly, this valuable information is made available not only through a central website, but through the free distribution of high-quality investigative news reports to private for-profit and non-profit news outlets across both the state of Wisconsin and the country at large.

The motion passed today by the JFC directly targets this collaboration, and as the current SJMC Director it is my judgment that SJMC, and UW-Madison, must oppose both provisions of the motion.

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