Commencement speaker exhorts students to advocate more public spending

iStock_000013044089XSmallWhat makes a university great? Is it being part of a state-wide network of public universities? Is it an astounding enrollment of 181,000 students? Is it being able to boast a 5.5 billion dollar budget? How about being an institution with 33,000 employees? Is it a place with 36,000 graduates state-wide? Could it be about being the top university for receiving merit-based grants?

If you were at the commencement ceremony at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this past weekend then you probably found the speeches about the university’s greatness about as enthralling as a recitation of the state budget numbers.

At the ceremony, Mark Bradley, a member of the University’s Board of Regents, who was appointed in 2003 with a term that expires in 2017, delivered an address to the graduates. He spent the first full minute and a half flattering the chancellor who had spoken just before him. Bradley proceeded to enumerate the aforementioned statistical information.

Then, in his five minute speech, he used the word “system” 5 times, “public” 7 times, “state” 4 times, and “federal” 2 times. Here is an excerpt:

There is today, a great debate about the future of higher education and I urge each of you to engage in that debate. When you understand the issues, I am confident that you will understand the need to advocate for greater investment of state and federal funds because without increased investment of state and federal funds, the cruel reality is that, this great public university will not be affordable to all members of our public. We will not be able to retain the wonderful faculty that has enabled you to receive such a high quality education and we will no longer be the leader in research dollars. The problem is one of priorities, and our challenge, and this includes everyone here today, is to convince the decision-makers that public higher education is not an unnecessary expense, but rather, it is part of the solution to our economic and our social challenges, and to that end, we need your vigilance and your loyalty. [Applause and cheers] So thank you, thank you for your commitment to public higher education.

A commencement ceremony is an opportunity for members of the university community to celebrate graduates who should be able to think for themselves. But in this speech, we have an example of a board member arguably abusing the privilege of speaking at the ceremony by telling students what to think and how to act.

Rather than making an ideological plea, Bradley should have inspired students to reflect on the end (pun intended) of the university. Why are they worthy of any funding at all?

Thank you to my friend Jingcai Ying, Spring 2013 Graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for referring me to this speech.