Start all over again

September 8, 1995

I am a chauvinist regarding my academic home, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, United States, and, in spite of the nasty budget cuts we are suffering, the 30th anniversary of its creation by the state legislature provides good reason to celebrate. We have an especially beautiful campus along the bay shore just outside the city (best known for its great Green Bay Packers football team), students are clamouring to be admitted, and the special interdisciplinary and problem-focussed mission of the institution survives, battered yet intact.

UWGB was born of a radical vision. Our contemporary counterparts include UC-Santa Cruz, Washington's Evergreen College and, in Britain, Sussex and East Anglia, but the best historical comparison is to University College London. For, like UCL in its time, we were all established to offer an alternative to the conservatism of older institutions by providing degrees more engaging of the rhythms and problems of modern life. (Indeed, I have even suggested to our retired first chancellor that he emulate Jeremy Bentham's "auto-iconic" presence at UCL and designate that on his own passing his skeleton be covered in a plaster-cast likeness and situated in a glass booth at the main entrance.) We were in the vanguard of the 1960s movement to transform higher education. Our very academic organisation turned the world upside down by making interdisciplinary programmes the primary budgetary and teaching units and subordinating the traditional disciplines to them. Moreover, although dullards, fainthearts and reactionaries have occasionally tried to restore the traditional order, the interdisciplinary departments - like communications and the arts, humanistic studies, urban studies, human development, and human biology - remain at the core. (Naturally, there are some funny stories about the names first given to the newly-conceived departments; one had the bizarre title "Analysis synthesis" and was assigned the official acronym "Anal Syn" which students quickly used to shock their parents.) University-wide, my colleagues are a most impressive bunch. To be honest, when I arrived in 1978, a mere 28-year-old, I found their zealous commitment to the mission and progress of the institution not only inspiring but, on occasion, frightening. And that commitment persists even as the ageing process takes its toll.

Just consider that in my first year here there were 150 faculty for 2,500 students; today, the same number of faculty are responsible for 4,500 students. Furthermore, we are each regularly assessed in the areas of teaching, scholarship, institutional development and community service. The workload is clearly out of control, but there is some consolation in believing that the late progressive politician and state governor, "fightin' Bob" La Follette, would be happy that his "Wisconsin idea" of a democratic and public-service oriented university is alive and well, at least on our campus.

The students, too, are remarkable. At the outset, quite a few were drawn from across the nation by our alternative structure and environmental mission. That has changed. Now, they tend to be overwhelmingly from Wisconsin. What brings them here rather than to another of the campuses of the UW System? I would like to think it was our curricula, but I must admit that when I ask incoming students, their most popular - and truly American - reply is that UWGB is the only campus in the state whose residence-hall rooms have private toilets and baths.

Today's students may seem less involved intellectually (probably a sign of the times more than anything else), but they are no less bright - they might even be smarter - and, in a way that I truly appreciate, they are soundly democratic in their bearing. I should add that most come from lower-middle and working-class backgrounds and are imbued with a solid work ethic; even during the academic year the majority of them work 20-hour-a-week jobs to pay for their education.

Significantly, the student body has always been composed of a relatively high number of students over the age of 25 (sometimes, well over). Referred to as "non-traditionals", they are actually redeeming and giving new meaning to the great American tradition of self-improvement and the equally American practice of "pickin' up and startin' all over again". They are a diverse lot, but each brings ideas and experiences from which we have something to learn. Their presence also demands that faculty have to develop a certain patience and accept that students may well be absent because their children or an elderly parent are sick or, when no babysitters are available, that they will bring their kids to class.

I have always felt a special attachment to the university because, for a start, it is the only place where my job interview was not an interrogation about whether I was really a historian or a sociologist. Here, they actually appreciated the denial of such categories. Thus, I am especially proud of my own department, social change and development. Eight in number, committed to cultivating critical perspectives, and possessed of a rather radical reputation on campus, no finer and more productive group of teachers and scholars exists in the academic world. (Please, check us out on UWGB's Internet Gopher: GBG041.uwgb.edu.) We have all become something rather different and more than we started out. Hopefully, our students feel the same about their experiences with us.

Of course, the real measure of UWGB's success is not whether we and our fellow interdisciplinary institutions have survived as such. We were not to be just experiments. We were to be pioneers and revolutionaries. Mistakenly assuming that we have abandoned our original schemes merely because we have matured and toned down our rhetoric, when deans and dons at other schools do speak of us, it is most often in the past tense, in terms like "Remember what they tried to do at UW-Green Bay?".

Admittedly (in certain instances, unfortunately), some things have been lost along the way. For example, while environmental science, design and policy remain among our strongest offerings, we have given up our original, campus-wide and ahead-of-its-time commitment to the environment - a commitment which had led one national magazine to dub us "Eco U".

Nevertheless, a closer look would reveal not only that many of our initiatives have been flourishing but, also, that the most intriguing academic endeavours presently underway across academe are, like us, interdisciplinary and problem-focussed: cultural and media studies, women and gender studies, historical and area studies, information sciences, environmental sciences and various professional studies. It is even arguable that the traditional disciplines ceased long ago to be of truly critical value.

I am tempted to close with the words of John Ruskin that adorn our first academic building: "Therefore when we build . . . let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for: and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labour and the wrought substance of them, 'See. This our fathers did for us'."

However, in a spirit even more in keeping with our founders' radical aspirations (and with the arrival of a new chancellor and vice chancellor), I think we should celebrate not just by commemorating our accomplishments but, also, by renewing them.

Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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