UW-Madison is Elite, But it Doesn’t Have to be Elitist

May 9, 2011 | Blog


Several critics of the New Badger Partnership contend that the policy will accelerate the development of UW-Madison as an elitist institution. In response, proponents of the policy ask “what’s wrong with being elite? Madison is elite.”

Both are right. The words “elite” and “elitist” mean different things.

Many people are clearly confused about the difference. In a discussing a column by a UW-Madison alum concerned about his alma mater’s latest moves,”badgertom” writes “You call UW-Madison elitist. But clearly they are the very best.”‘

As recent events have starkly highlighted, Madison is both elite and elitist. The first is a good thing–it means that Madison is a objectively a top performer, excellent in many ways. The second is not-so-good, since it means that Madison is exclusionary, focusing on preserving its own privileges at the expense of others.

I think evidence of both abounds, but unfortunately much of the rhetoric coming from Madison’s leaders these days emphasizes the elitist approach the flagship is taking to deliver an elite education.

To wit:

(1) Multiple administrators have claimed that the flagship is hindered by its relations to other universities, even “shackled,” and instead must be “freed.” More importantly, while some claim that no harm will be done to other universities, others claim “Not our fault if they are hurt.” They seem to have no capacity to imagine ways to remain strong and excellent without outcompeting others (see the graphic…)

(2) Chancellor Martin has claimed that those who oppose the plan have not done their homework (“You need to get your data and you need to get it right”); else they would get on board. She has also dismissed students’ concerns that the debate has engaged some and not others, disenfranchising the less powerful members of Madison’s community. Other proponents of the NBP do the same, putting down critics as “not so able.” Making people look or feel silly for highlighting power dynamics is a common tactic of elitists.

(3) In their most honest moments, some NBP proponents have admitted that if access and quality must be traded off, they will pick a “higher quality” institution that is less accessible — supposedly necessitating the exclusion of some. The third option– improving productivity, thus making high quality opportunities affordable–is ignored.

(4) Administrators have insisted on using elitist language–specifically, short repetitive words and phrases like “tools” and “flexibilities” and simple syntax– as a form of controlling the terms of debate. This is not language that encourages an inclusive policy debate but rather one that serves to protect the powerful. Don’t believe me? A recent email from Bascom told some members of the UW community: “When I spoke briefly with all of you… on April 27, I asked that one of your key talking points moving forward should be a consistent mention of momentum. With each passing day, support for NBP is growing stronger on and off campus, and we need to make sure we make note of that.” And lo and behold, Chancellor Martin’s most recent missive to her constituents says, “Lawmakers are just beginning to focus on the higher-education portion of the budget and as we continue to make our case at the Capitol and in the community, we are gaining momentum.”

To sum: those that are claiming Madison is acting elitist are not claiming it should not be an elite institution (contrary to what “mikeylikesit” says). But sadly, those pushing the NBP have employed a highly elitist process and elitist rhetoric in an effort to keep UW-Madison elite.

2 Comments

  1. Reply

    Daniel

    May 9, 2011

    I really didn't think the comments and feedback I got on the op-ed would do such a good job of reinforcing my point. If it was me, and someone I disagreed with argued I was hurting my case with an elitist tone that dismissed criticism as ignorant and misinformed, my first response wouldn't be to talk about how elite I am and how ignorant and misinformed they are.

    As far as my attempt to inject some history into this debate goes, I regret that the op-ed format doesn't allow for much in way of detail. Volumes 2 and 3 of Ed Cronon's UW history are about the best source there is on the conflict between the old UW and WSU, the ineffective compromise that tried to maintain UW's independence under a broader umbrella, and the shotgun wedding that created UW System.

  2. Reply

    only reader

    May 10, 2011

    Daniel- there was a lot of content in those comments, even if you couldn't look past the less polite parts.


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