Sifting and Winnowing in New York City

The first Meeting of the Minds event took place on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010 in New York. Distinguished faculty, key campus officials and University of Wisconsin alumni who are helping to shape today’s most important issues gathered at the Morgan Library to discuss pressing contemporary topics that include media ethics, politics, the economy and the environment.

Doris Weisberg ’58 of New York City, a member of the UW Foundation Board and a trustee of the Wisconsin Union, introduced the program and described what to expect from the evening’s event.

“We will do what all Badgers do best — we’ll sift and winnow, we’ll leave wiser when we arrived, and of course, Badgers like to have fun along the way,” Weisberg said. “This is a special opportunity to get a glimpse of the intellectual vitality and diversity at the UW. I think tonight might make you homesick for your student days of discussion and debate; it might inspire you to follow up on some of these topics for yourself, proving that education is a lifelong process.”

Surprising findings

Chancellor Martin

Chancellor Biddy Martin moderated the evening’s panel discussion.

Chancellor Biddy Martin PhD’85 moderated the discussion, centered on themes shared among the academic work of the four scholars on the panel. She began by asking the faculty to share less intuitive or surprising findings from their work.

“Great, rigorous research and scholarship usually lead people to places they didn’t know they were headed, which is also the purpose of curiosity and academic freedom,” Martin said.

Barry Burden, professor of political science, shared the surprising finding from his research that policies that make it easier to vote don’t increase voter turnout. Instead, he said, “Early voting actually saps energy from Election Day.”

Joel Rogers, professor of law, political science and sociology, said he’s often surprised by the difference between what it takes to improve policy and to improve actual program outcomes. The latter relies on getting things in place and mobilizing people, he said. Rogers also noted that his work highlights the importance of early education and how it affects how people function later in life.

A common approach to environmental pollution is to “divide and conquer,” said Tracey Holloway, associate professor and director of the Center for Sustainability & the Global Environment, following the assumption that it’s much easier to solve one problem at a time. But she said her findings suggest another approach.

“You may be able to solve problems better by putting them together and designing coordinated solutions, especially for climate change and air pollution that has direct, local environmental impacts,” Holloway said.

Journalists are still surprising themselves as the reach and impact of journalism continues to expand, said Stephen Ward, James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. Ward, who has a research interest in objectivity, said it’s important to remember that many journalism values extend to roots in the 17th century, but have evolved through crises and developments through history. Today, he said, journalism ethics are taking on more global perspective.

“Media has global reach and global impact, and probably entails global responsibilities,” Ward said. “Since journalism ethics has been largely a parochial, national affair, that probably means rewriting a lot of the basic concepts of journalism ethics.”

Political dysfunction and divisiveness

Martin asked the scholars to discuss how dysfunction in political decision-making in Washington and elsewhere has affected the ability of citizens to engage in deliberative democracy.

Rogers said that the United States is disinvesting in education and other factors that could affect the nation’s global competitiveness, and that political divisions in Washington — such as the number of votes needed to move legislation in the House and Senate — are keeping important policy from moving forward.

“We’ve reached a point in American politics where it’s so divisive it’s basically impossible to move anything, any intelligent discussion,” Rogers said. “We’re not behaving internationally or at home like a great power or a reflective people.”

Burden said he believes many people think democracy is fulfilled when they have the opportunity to vote, especially when policy measures are on a ballot.

“To me, that’s a Wikipedia kind of solution to democracy. You get to vote yea or nay, but it’s not contributing to the process of moving toward solutions,” Burden said. “The room for deliberation — for people to change their minds, to be exposed to facts about science, to have this deliberative space — has evaporated.”

Ward said such deliberation somewhat relies on news media using their freedom to advance democracy, and providing forums for people to talk to each other. He expressed concern that such spaces exist and how media might create them in the future.

“We need to talk across boundaries of ethnicity, race and political divide, and what I see is just the opposite,” he said.

Holloway noted that dialogue often centers on common values, but with so much information available through media, it can be difficult for people to understand the quality of what’s being discussed.

“There are certain things we all agree are positives,” Holloway said. “Nobody wants dirty air, nobody wants more extreme weather considerations. There’s so much noise out there … how do you separate what are the facts and what are the opinions? All of those need to be contributed to democratic discourse, but clarifying which is which can really be a challenge.”

Blocking the legislative process

Martin asked the group to describe why elected officials might choose to block legislative progress. Burden noted that, for example, the process to filibuster was originally designed to force deliberative discussion, but today, it’s become a way for any senator to anonymously hold up the legislative process.

Ward suggested that media could help get beyond political stalemates by more often

attacking extreme politics and the positions on which they are based. He said he believes that newer, alternative media, such as social media networks and growing non-profit journalism groups, offer hope for more balanced or new kinds of discourse, but they may not have enough “political chutzpah” to impact elections or policy.

Reflecting on these topics in conversations with the panel, Martin said she senses some pessimism among the scholars, but doesn’t see that outlook among graduating students.

“Isn’t it interesting that our students don’t leave us with that sense of pessimism?” she asked. “The sense of curiosity, spiritedness, intelligence, decency — which I think UW students are really known for — really gives me reasons to feel hopeful every day that I interact with them, and I think you all agree.”

New media is empowering to students, Holloway said. She cited the example of a campus contest that is encouraging students to think of themselves as innovators to solving climate change. She said communicating to students through social media has been successful.

“The problems of having all these voices and news media outlets can be framed as a way for students to engage in the policy process and decision-making in a way that they probably couldn’t when there were only three nightly news outlets,” she said.

Burden said the university helps prepare students by teaching what politics are about and helping students to become comfortable with disagreement and discourse. Holloway added that understanding the political process is important when citizens become voters, and this also applies to searching for jobs and navigating careers.

“Careers don’t follow the same straight-line paths that they used to,” she said.

Why UW-Madison?

In response to questions from the audience, panel members noted that they and their colleagues are sometimes consulted by different players in the political process — from elected officials to advocacy groups — and that the work of UW-Madison as a top-tier, public research university is respected and viewed as a credible part of political deliberation.

When asked by Martin to reflect on why they choose to continue their scholarship at UW-Madison, all four faculty noted the opportunity to work as part of an incredible community of faculty, staff and students.

“It’s the people,” Burden said. “It’s my colleagues in my department — they were the No. 1 attraction — the faculty that were in political science already, who were welcoming and interesting and collaborative and supportive. And the students I would be able to work with in the department.”

Holloway said her family has a long history with the city of Madison and the university, and she was excited to join the university when it began an interdisciplinary program focused on energy.

“This has always been my dream place to be,” she said. “My colleagues and the students are just spectacular. I can’t believe what wonderful people I get to work with.”

The question was also posed to Martin, who said her years as a graduate student at UW-Madison were some of the best of her life, and she was encouraged by this experience when given the opportunity to return to lead the university.

“I thought perhaps UW-Madison is as intellectually lively and vibrant a town, and friendly and decent a place, as I thought I was when I was a grad student,” Martin said, “and I think I was right.”