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: 


On teaching an interdisciplinary career course

Here’s a question for my post-graduate readers: Looking back on the story of your own career, what do you wish that you had known during your college years about yourself, about your education, or about the world of work that awaited you upon graduation?

career-cartoon-smallThat question is precisely what I’ll be trying to explore with over 250 undergraduate students this semester, as the faculty member in charge of the College of Letters and Science’s newest one-credit course: INTER-LS 210, “Taking Initiative.”  Better known as “the L&S second-year career course,” the idea is to introduce students not only to the instrumental skills of the job search (preparing a resume, writing a cover letter, and developing an online persona, for example), but also to the conceptual knowledge background of high-skill labor markets, the critical reflection practices of discovering one’s strengths and goals, the information evaluation processes of researching occupations and majors, and the expert resources available across the UW-Madison campus — all of which are necessary to help students to turn a simple “job hunt” into a comprehensive “academic and career development plan.”

I approach this course knowing well that my own thirty-year academic and career development path since first starting my undergraduate education in 1985 was anything but predictable.  My first college degree, taken at a public research university much like the one where I work now, was in computer science.  Of course, at the time I didn’t know that would be my “first” degree; it took several jobs in both the for-profit and the non-profit sector before I realized that algorithm development and technology consulting were only part of what interested me in the world.  So, sometime in my late twenties, I returned to university, first part-time and then full-time, to earn a doctoral degree in two fields which might seem as far from computer science as possible: history and geography.  Yet the end of this story — so far at least — is that my resulting combination of professional training in technology and liberal arts training in the humanities and social sciences has served me extraordinarily well for the past fifteen years in my second career as a university professor.

It’s these sorts of stories of “planned happenstance” that drive my interest in teaching this new career course.  Throughout the semester we’ll be taking students through a structured process of critical reflection intended to demonstrate to them that the various components of their “Wisconsin Experience” — both inside and outside of the classroom — provide them with a rich menu of high-impact educational options that will prepare them for a wide variety of important and rewarding careers (including many that haven’t even been invented yet).  One of the secrets of turning academic curiosity and excellence into success on the job market, though, is being able to tell the story of your educational accomplishments to a hiring decision-maker — convincing a for-profit, non-profit, or public organization that you can add value, energy, and creativity to their mission.  So storytelling in this class isn’t just a pedagogical tool we choose as the instructors — it’s a learning outcome for the students as well.

I say “we” in terms of instructors because this class, part of the new L&S Career Initiative led by Dean John Karl Scholz and Assistant Dean Rebekah Pryor Paré, represents the most broad-based division of educational labor that I’ve ever had the good fortune to be involved with. Like many large classes of over 250 students, we have the standard team of graduate teaching assistants leading small discussion sections which complement the engagement of students in my large lectures.  But besides the TAs, each discussion section will include a professional UW academic or career adviser, on hand to help students with questions and assignments in realtime.  These UW experts come from L&S Career Services, from the Cross-College Advising Service, and from several major departments.  And still there’s more: each discussion session will be paired with one of nineteen volunteer UW alumni, who will participate in the conversation via remote conferencing three times during the course of the semester.  Many of these fantastic alums are not only taking precious time to engage with our students as mentors, but also underwriting the costs of the course through generous gift donations.  I can’t thank them all enough.

Take a look at the final syllabus for the course, if you’re interested.  And please contact me if you’re a UW-Madison student, faculty colleague, staff colleague, or alum who would like to become more involved in this innovative, interdisciplinary effort.

A brief history of innovation in higher education

Today it was my pleasure to speak at the annual UW-Madison Teaching and Learning Symposium as one of three keynote speakers on the theme of “Transforming Education.”  (I want to thank everyone who stayed to hear my talk, especially since it was at the end of the whole event and lunch was calling!)

As with the earlier talks by Professor Davidson and Professor Ladson-Billings, my presentation, “A brief history of innovation in higher education,” drew on my own research to explore this topic:

The rhetoric of innovation implies something new and revolutionary, but higher education has a long tradition of experimenting with new technologies, new audiences, and new strategies for teaching and learning. In this talk, Professor Downey will draw on his research into technology and society to set the current debates over higher education innovation in historical context.

I won’t repeat the talk in this post — you can check out reaction on Flickr and Twitter (#teachuw) if you like — but let me just post the slides and highlight the conclusion:

  • Technological innovations in education are always complex, often contradictory, and inevitably tied up with questions about work, value, identity, and power.
  • Considering our own syllabi in historical context can help us productively engage with such questions.
  • All of our scholarship — whether on today’s digital-savvy youth, tomorrow’s advances in brain science, or yesterday’s information infrastructures — can and should be rich sources of teaching and learning innovation.

Finally, here are some links to the original research on which the three case studies in the talk were based:

Thanks again to the organizers of this event for inviting me, and to the audience for their thoughtful commentary!


The UW-Madison “Letters & Science Advantage” (with video!)

What does the Letters & Science advantage mean to me?  See how a current student, a recent alum, and a seasoned professor (that would be me) answer that question in a cool little two-and-a-half minute student-produced video, now available on the UW-Madison College of Letters & Science Career Services home page (and also on YouTube, yikes).

(See Professor Downey check his email on his iPad mini!  Marvel at Professor Downey’s wide range of classroom gestures and facial expressions!  Gasp as he misstates the name of the College of Letters and Science as “Letters and Sciences”!)


P.S. — Any faculty interested in participating in the one-credit online internship course that I mention in this video should feel free to email me at!

Interdisciplinarity, Innovation, and the Future of the Research University (Spring 2014 graduate seminar)


STS 903
Special Topics in Science and Technology Studies:
Interdisciplinarity, Innovation, and the Future of the Research University

Spring 2014
Friday mornings 9:00AM – 11:30AM
Sewell Social Sciences Building 6117

A special NSF-funded seminar, team-taught by three UW-Madison professors:
Greg Downey (Journalism & Mass Communication, Library & Information Studies)
Noah Feinstein (Curriculum and Instruction)
Daniel L. Kleinman (Community and Environmental Sociology)

What is “interdisciplinary” research and why does it matter? How should “innovation” in the modern research university be defined? How do interdisciplinary and innovative practices compare across different modes of research, from the natural, physical, and social sciences to the arts and humanities? And how do institutional norms, physical spaces, and political-economic structures of power and opportunity affect both interdisciplinary and innovative research?

This graduate seminar, team-taught by three faculty affiliates of the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies, explores the diverse meanings and practices of both “interdisciplinary” and “innovation” in the modern research university. Drawing on scholarship from history, sociology, public policy, anthropology, education, science studies and communication studies, this seminar itself will serve as an example of an innovative and interdisciplinary practice.

Besides engaging in weekly discussions and written analyses of course readings, students will each produce a final review, policy, or research paper in a way that is appropriate and useful to their own graduate research program. And students will have the opportunity to present their work at an upcoming NSF-funded UW-Madison workshop on the innovative and interdisciplinary issues surrounding the establishment of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.


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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