MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker said Thursday he never intended to dramatically rewrite the University of Wisconsin System’s mission statement, even as a December email showed his administration clearly ordered that it drop a guiding principle known as the “Wisconsin Idea.”
Walker, a likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate, called it a “mistake someone made” to assume that his desire to add career readiness to the mission statement meant to also drop references to public service and seeking a broader truth. Walker said no one would be disciplined, calling it a “matter of confusion.”
The prospect of dropping the Wisconsin Idea, a cherished part of the university’s history, sparked an immediate and intense backlash when it was noticed Wednesday in Walker’s budget. UW System President Ray Cross said the Wisconsin Idea is “embedded in our DNA.”
Walker seemed to defend the new language during an appearance Wednesday, saying it would better focus the UW System. Later that day he changed course, promising that the Wisconsin Idea would remain unchanged. His spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, blamed the mission statement revisions on what she called “a drafting error.”
But Walker changed his explanation on Thursday, saying it wasn’t a drafting error but rather a mistake made by someone in his administration who misunderstood his direction to add career readiness to the mission statement.
“To me, in the end, it was a confusion out there, a mistake someone made,” Walker said. “What we wanted was to keep it simple and not make changes other than to add this item about workforce and career development.”
Walker’s comments came after The Associated Press reviewed the administration’s drafting instructions to the nonpartisan agency that writes the budget on its behalf. A Dec. 30 email from Department of Administration budget analyst Nathan Schwanz to Legislative Reference Bureau drafter Mark Kunkel directed specific changes to the mission statement.
Those changes included stating that the system’s goal is to meet the state’s workforce needs and eliminating existing language laying out the mission as extending knowledge, searching for truth and improving the human condition. The Legislative Reference Bureau followed the instructions exactly and included the revisions in the final version of the budget.
Patrick said in an email Thursday that the governor’s office directed the Department of Administration to add “an additional tie to workforce readiness” in the mission statement and the office didn’t see or approve the actual changes.
Walker told reporters Thursday he never directed the language to be deleted and didn’t learn it had been until Wednesday night. He said he never intended to erase the Wisconsin Idea and thought questions about it a day earlier were about adding language on career readiness.
“People want to make a big deal about it. It’s not a big deal,” he said.
After the governor spoke Thursday, Walker issued an unusual 485-word statement reiterating that he wanted to add a nod to workforce development and his budget office mistakenly believed he wanted to the mission statement to say only that.
Cross told the Board of Regents on Thursday he thought the governor’s statement did a good job explaining what happened. He said he also got an apology by phone from state budget director Michael Heifetz.
“How can he run for president when he can’t even get his state budget document right?” asked Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate in a conference call. Tate said Walker is distracted by the likely White House run, citing trips the governor made to Iowa, California and Washington, D.C., in the days before he released his budget.
“Maybe if he spent a little more time reviewing his budget and doing his job, Scott Walker would have caught this so-called drafting error,” Tate said.
Besides the mission statement revision, Walker’s budget calls for a $300 million cut in funding for the UW System while giving it more freedom from state laws and oversight.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Watertown, Wis., contributed to this report.
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