Thursday 28 November 2019
Again this year my latitude for gratitude is 42.7° N here in North Adams MA. Much is afoot now in the fall of 2019, in these few weeks before we begin 2020, the year of ideal visual acuity.
But before the future, first a little background from the past.
In 2000-2001 I served as a Congressional Science Fellow on the staff of the House Committee on Agriculture. The rules of being a staffer are a little different than those of being an academic. Foremost of the rules for staffers was to never say anything your boss didn’t want you to say. Fair enough. Ambiguous enough. As a staffer your job is to give your best professional analysis to your boss; it’s up to them to share it or to keep it under their hat. But when I returned to campus I came to believe that the freedom of academics to continuously and fearlessly speak their professional minds in the pursuit of truth was not just a freedom, but also a duty. These days there are scant few publicly-funded scientists who have the freedom to speak to the public; for those of us who do to remain silent seems to affirm what the movie version of Thomas Moore claimed: silence is assent. And as the Wikipedia page on this issue asserts: if you disagree, the onus is on you to say so.
I am grateful that as academics in service to the public at a public university, it is part of our job, it is at the heart of our job, to speak up and speak out.
I am grateful to work in the public service/extension mission of this public land-grant research & extension university. The University of Wisconsin is proud to trace this mission at least back to the 1880’s. Other universities trace this mission back even further. Earlier this year I stumbled on a video entitled “The World’s First University?” from Gresham College in London. The video pointed out that Aristotle’s Lyceum incorporated three missions: teaching students, doing research, and providing education for the public through public lectures. It’s apt that it was a Gresham video that introduced me to the saga: Gresham has been providing university lectures for free to the public since 1597. Whether we trace the public engagement mission back to Elizabethan London, to ancient Athens, or to cities and centuries far before the 4th Century BC, I’m pleased to know that those of us in Extension and outreach continue and advance an ancient and honorable tradition.
I am therefore especially grateful that I have lived to see the coming back together this year of Cooperative Extension and UW-Madison. The two institutions were cleaved apart by Fred Harvey Harrington in 1964-65 when he set up UW-Extension distinct from UW-Madison. Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, and the 72 county offices of Cooperative Extension—all so key to the identity of the original University of Wisconsin in Madison—all went to UW-Extension. In my opinion, this cleaving left UW-Madison a rump of its former self: if the UW system had created a UW-Extension, it had also pruned the Madison campus to a kind of UW-Research bereft of eyes to see, ears to hear, and boots on the ground to work with communities all across Wisconsin. Now in 2019, and under the new name of the Division of Extension, I look forward to new synergies that will strengthen the connections between people of Wisconsin and their land-grant university.
This year—just this month, back on November 4th—came another change of name: Wisconsin Public Television became PBS Wisconsin as part of a national rebranding for state & regional PBS members. Regardless of name, I’m grateful that the University Place program of WPT/PBS Wisconsin records most episodes of Wednesday Nite @ The Lab and then makes those episodes available online at wpt.org/universityplace and also broadcasts them on the Wisconsin Channel. WPT/PBS Wisconsin has been recording WN@TL since October 2007. That’s about 500 WN@TL talks, 500 scientists sharing their stories. Even in the metric system, that’s a lot.
The newly-renamed Division of Extension also recently completed a major re-organization, and as part of that re-org I shifted my affiliation from the Family Living Program, which I had been a part of since I started here in 1991, to the Wisconsin 4H Program. I’m grateful to be part of a statewide youth-serving organization, and especially the only youth-serving organization that is also part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. To add some perspective, here on campus we have about 42,000 students. Across Wisconsin there are about 33,000 4H members and 9,000 adult volunteers. I appreciate having the opportunity over the coming years to help make the life science programming available to 4H participants in communities on a par with the depth & breadth of life science research at the UW-Madison campus.
Part of that work will continue to be, in the words of Ken Smith, Making the Whole Campus a Destination for Exploration. I’m grateful to my colleagues at the Campus and Visitor Relations office who help orchestrate hundreds of field trips by Wisconsin school students to UW-Madison every year. It’s also splendid to work with the scores of science outreachers who welcome visitors to the several dozen places & programs in science outreach on campus. Furthermore, earlier this year the latest edition of the Visitor Guide & Map to campus came out. Originally published 10 years ago, this manual lets visitors chart out their trek to campus. Please take a look at it. You’ll notice the Guide is not just for prospective students; it’s geared to welcome everyone to the destinations in science, art, nature and entertainment here at this splendid public university.
That expression of welcome to all is essential; after all, hospitality is reciprocal. If my colleagues and I here at UW-Madison hope to be welcomed into communities around Wisconsin, then we in turn need to welcome people from communities around Wisconsin to our place, which of course is also their place. And when we get invited to visit communities, I’m grateful to have the help of the newly-reorganized Badger Talks speakers bureau and Bucky’s Classroom school visit program to help with the arrangements and connections.
In addition to these many new or newly-renamed angles, I’m grateful for many long-running programs that I get to play a part in. This include, among others:
*the 50 presenters to Wednesday Nite @ The Lab every year, and the live audience which averages 61 people, and the folks who watch online live or in archive;
*the 20 presenters to PLATO Frontiers in Life Sciences every year, and to Kay Kriewald of UW Space Place for hosting us at her place, and to Paul Brandl for co-organizing;
*the score of colleagues in the UW Science Alliance who are now organizing the 18th Annual UW Science Expeditions campus wide science open house coming up on April 3-5, 2020;
*the several hundred colleagues who volunteer their time and talents to every year to provide Exploration Stations and to host Destinations for Explorations at Science Expeditions;
*the organizers of UW Engineering Expo, which long predates UW Science Expeditions, and who graciously agreed again this year to co-host Engineering Expo & Science Expeditions on April 4;
*the folks at UW Foundation who provide the core funding for UW Science Expeditions;
*Amy Horton, Janice Bartholow, Molly Anderson and their third-grade scholars at Mendota Elementary School who welcome me as Scientest Tom to their place at least twice a month;
*my colleagues Ana Garic and Laura Hogan at the School of Medicine & Public Health who are providing the students at Mendota School even greater opportunities to see themselves as explorers and inventors and healers;
*Jim Feldman, who literally wrote the book on The Buildings of the University of Wisconsin in 1995, and who I hope will inspire another co-author or author to update his vital & vibrant work, given the vast ranges of new buildings that have gone up in the last quarter century;
*Richard Kunert and Dave Hageseth for maintaining the splendid live web stream from the Biotech Center auditorium at biotech.wisc.edu/webcams;
*my other colleagues at the Biotech Center who make the place such a welcoming space for the ~200 school groups who visit us every year;
*Liz Jesse, Nikita Menon, Bea Mumm and Paul Pierick at the BioTrek Outreach Program who help Wisconsinites experience science as exploring the unknown here at their public land-grant research & extension University.
As I mentioned above, I’m writing this from North Adams, MA. The place I’m staying at is right next door to Williamstown, MA. It’s about a mile from here to the gravesites of John Bascom and of his daughter Florence Bascom (who lie about 20 yards from the grave of Paul Chadbourne of UW’s Chadbourne Hall fame) on the campus of Williams College.
I’ve long been intrigued by the 19th Century interplays between Williams and Wisconsin. Many good things seem to cluster about the 43° N latitude.
In this case, I’m grateful to get to work at the one with a mission in public service & cooperative extension.