[Published today in the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin.]
Tubas gleam in the brilliant October sun, and the Camp Randall crowd roars as the marching band struts onto the field. A few hundred feet away, in a university laboratory, a graduate student from Stevens Point and a middle-aged professor peer at their experimental system. Finally the professor nods in satisfaction. “We got it. Let’s write it up. This is exactly what the guys at the Defense department were hoping for.”
Saying that the university’s mission should be to serve Wisconsin’s workforce seems shortsighted. To survive, Wisconsin manufacturers have to compete successfully in the global economy. Powdered butter for cake mixes and better treatments for childless couples—techniques that came from dairy science and animal husbandry at the UW—serve Wisconsin’s workforce, but they also serve the whole world.
Wisconsin’s workforce has to be able to compete globally. Anything less means crippling Wisconsin’s economy.
The professor and student working in a lab instead of watching the Badgers’ game are supporting Wisconsin industry by doing exactly what it takes to stay at the very top of international competition.
Manufacturers know that high-tech research and development are expensive. But Wisconsin taxpayers are not paying the tab for that at the UW. That money comes in grants from industry and from government sources such as the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health.
The competition for such research grants is vicious. But UW professors compete successfully against the world’s top scientists and bring in millions of dollars that get spent inside Wisconsin on expenses such as staff and construction.
I know what I’m talking about. The middle-aged professor in the example above was my former husband, Professor Franco Cerrina, who died in 2010. Some say that professors live cushy, luxurious lives. What I know is that Franco worked seven days a week, often worked overnight in his laboratory and almost never took vacations.
One night at 2 am, one of his graduate students pounded on our front door in Madison. The week before, Bell Labs had sent them fantastically expensive experimental computer chips to study in experiments, and one had broken during a midnight experiment. Franco figured out how to save the research. The crisis passed and the experiments were successful.
No one can call this a cushy life. A successful professor works grueling hours and faces white-knuckle stress as he or she competes against the researchers in Asia, South America, Europe and the Middle East.
Who are these “elite” professors? Franco moved to Wisconsin from Italy because he knew that, if he worked hard, he could succeed in Wisconsin in ways that were impossible in Europe. His grandparents had been uneducated farm workers. After his father’s bakery failed, his mother had to take charity from the nuns to get food. He said that in Europe, even in 1981, class prejudice still meant that he would be turned down for jobs because of his humble background. How he grinned on the day he became an American citizen!
But aren’t there some professors who don’t deserve their salaries? Yes, but there are CEOs and doctors who don’t deserve their salaries either. Every small businessman knows that in the brutal world of competition, nobody floats to the top by goofing off. Many of Wisconsin’s professors regularly beat out worldwide competitors, and that speaks for itself.
The German and Swiss farmers who wanted a Wisconsin university in 1848 hoped that their own children could go to a college as good as the old universities they remembered in Europe. Wisconsin has that now. Wisconsin college students compete successfully against top students in every country. Surely this is something to be proud of, not something to tear down.
Beyond science and medicine, aren’t there useless subjects taught at the UW? Does Wisconsin industry need students who can speak of Tagalog? Yes, if our businesses want to do business in the Philippines. Do we need Buddhist studies? Yes, because traditional Buddhist meditation is now being studied as a way to change brain structure.
Madison’s culture can seem pretty strange. I remember, as a freshman in 1968, riding an elevator in Van Hise Hall. A Buddhist monk with a shaved head and cranberry-colored robes got on, and I stared at him. To me he looked weird. But seeing the monk didn’t hurt me at all. That monk’s presence in Madison meant that Madison scientists could study how the brain changes during Buddhist meditation. Today they’re applying this knowledge to preventing classroom violence and helping Alzheimer’s patients.
Odd or complex research is exactly what encourages the brilliant leaps of imagination that will help us all heal and prosper. And common sense says that since UW professors are competing successfully against the smartest minds of Europe and Asia, they’re doing it by working hard. At the same time, they are teaching our brightest Wisconsin students how to succeed in the global economy.
The UW keeps Wisconsin industry competitive, teaches Wisconsin students how to succeed in today’s competitive market and brings in millions that boost Wisconsin’s economy. Wisconsin residents can be proud that the university is serving the Wisconsin’s workforce—and the rest of the world—now.
–by Jean Gendreau