Cover Story – On Wisconsin For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Mon, 25 Mar 2019 17:14:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Room for Debate Tue, 26 Feb 2019 16:45:58 +0000

In a polarized world, UW–Madison fosters tough conversations.

On a warm autumn afternoon when I needed it badly, I got a shot of hope for the future of conversation. Pulling up a chair at the Memorial Union Terrace and eavesdropping there under the old oak trees, I heard brilliant debate by research scientists about the best way to get a stubborn gene to express. At another table, there was virtuosic smack talk accompanying a game of cribbage. These lovely (loud!) sounds are ear candy after the deafening silence of being among too many people staring at their phones. They confirmed for me that the great collegiate tradition of chewing the fat with friends lives on.

But I still worried about our collective capacity to have deep conversations about tough topics with people who aren’t already our friends or colleagues and who we suspect see the world from a different perspective. Research shows that, for the first time in more than two decades, members of both political parties have strongly unfavorable opinions of their opponents. And our society is highly subdivided in other ways, so that people often end up congregating almost exclusively — in real life and through online communities — with others who share the same racial, religious, and demographic profiles.

Luckily, though, many at UW–Madison are actively seeking, encouraging, and developing the ability to discuss difficult topics fruitfully. Students are seeking out opportunities to talk through some of the biggest matters on their minds, and they (like many faculty members) are eager to argue respectfully and learn more about what they don’t understand. And those of us eager to reclaim conversation — the face-to-face kind — as a means for sifting through the complexity of contemporary life and building bridges can learn a lot from listening to what people on campus are doing.

Fireside chats

Later last fall, I joined the student-run Afternoon Conversation Series, a regular all-comers-welcome meetup held beside the flickering hearth of the Prairie Fire coffee shop inside Union South. I found about a dozen undergrads and graduate students listening intently as the day’s invited guest, Sumudu Atapattu, director of the UW Law School’s Research Centers and a specialist in international environmental law, spoke in soft, serious tones about the impacts climate change is already having on daily life in places vulnerable to rising sea levels, including parts of Alaska.

Though the legal and human rights implications of climate change Atapattu detailed were sobering, the students present seemed undaunted, going on to pepper her with thoughtful questions about how they might help push for change. One young woman wondered if she could combine her interests in law, science, and economics in a career. Absolutely, Atapattu says. If we’re going to meet the challenges of climate change, “all of those disciplines need to learn how to communicate with each other.”

Last year the group also discussed the status of the young immigrants known as DREAMers and international women’s health. After the conversation, one of the group’s organizers told me that the aim of these intimate talks on serious topics is to give students a chance to interact with professors without “the usual intimidating student–teacher power dynamics.”

The art of argument

UW mathematics professor Jordan Ellenberg is a fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and professional-grade curator of talk — one of those classic social network figures who’s as comfortable discussing baseball and James Baldwin as he is breaking down the intricacies of multivariable equations. Over tea at a café near campus last spring, Ellenberg says that, for him, a key benefit of working at “this gigantic, multifarious institution” is having many opportunities to chat and mind-meld with researchers working in far-flung disciplines, who often shed surprising new light on his work, and he on theirs. But he also enjoys the “intellectual exfoliation” he receives as a result of speaking with other faculty members who aren’t afraid to challenge conventional wisdom and “push you to expand and enlarge” how you view an issue.

One such stimulating loofah figure Ellenberg always likes being “a little conversationally scraped by” is Harry Brighouse. The UW philosophy professor has argued on his popular blog and at various campus gatherings on teaching methodologies that the standard, top-down instructional model many American college classrooms follow does students a disservice. Research shows that college students (and adults generally) can pay attention to a single speaker for only about 20 minutes. So Brighouse makes a deliberate point of beginning classes with a short lecture, but then largely ceding the floor to his students.

To keep the conversation on track — or to redirect when one or more students begin to dominate a group discussion — Brighouse continues to dole out questions carefully. And he has his students — most of whom are accustomed to socializing mainly with their dorm and apartment mates — introduce themselves to each other over and over. It’s a strategy inspired by his own experience as an undergraduate at King’s College London, where he not only took all of his classes with the same group of people, but lived and ate meals with them, too, sparring over philosophy and history all the while.

And his chief aim, he explains, is to help students burn through shyness to become friends and strong intellectual debate partners for each other.

“Some of my students come to college reeeeally reluctant to argue. But even they will eventually say, ‘What are we going to argue about next?’ They’re really hungry for this,” Brighouse says.

Describe your path

In his cozy office decorated with vintage school maps and a stellar collection of LEGO Star Wars ships, Greg Downey, associate dean for the social sciences in the College of Letters & Science, keeps a small conference table. Students know they can sit down and discuss their aspirations and future plans, bouncing ideas around until they land on ones that feel, if not perfect, then good enough for now. And it’s here — as well as in the college’s popular Taking Initiative professional planning course, which Downey leads, and its new SuccessWorks career center — where Downey and his colleagues are invested in helping students get hands-on experience and find the right words to describe their evolving skills and interests to prospective employers.

Companies consistently report that they consider strong verbal and written communication skills essential for hiring, and there’s evidence from social psychology showing that creating an overarching narrative (aka storyline) for your life helps people gain healthy perspective and move ahead fruitfully. Downey has each of his students develop a “two-minute career story” and practice delivering it with classmates. Some struggle with the assignment. Maybe they’ve heard that speaking about your accomplishments amounts to bragging, or they’re still not entirely sure what they want to do with their lives, Downey explains. But once they hear other students sharing similar stories and realize that it’s okay to be still exploring options and just say this plainly, they usually get more comfortable.

But there are other reasons why he thinks it’s important for him, and faculty and staff at colleges everywhere, to be available to speak with students about whatever’s weighing on their minds. “UW students are accomplished and goal-oriented,” Downey says. “If you set them a task, they will work through it.” But he and other campus advisers have also realized — partly in light of the fact that the number of college students seeking treatment for anxiety and depression has shot up in recent years — “that we need to be continually active in encouraging our students to talk with us, and talk with each other,” he says.

Beyond managing coursework, many students today face “family pressures, peer pressures, [and] pressures from jobs. Technology pervades their lives, and while sometimes it helps them cope, sometimes it ratchets those pressures up.”

Group dynamics

More and more, students and faculty are seeking out and welcoming conversations where they can feel not only free, but encouraged to unfurl — working through difficult thoughts together with others in an unhurried way, saying things they’ve never said (or thought) before, opening up new doors of understanding to combat distrust.

Last fall, the UW released its Campus Climate Survey, which found that, while most students find the campus to be a safe, welcoming, and respectful place, students of color and from other historically disadvantaged groups consistently rated the climate less favorably overall than students from majority groups did. And since then, the work of various UW discussion programs created to foster greater equality, inclusion, and understanding across differences has taken on new urgency.

One such program, run by the UW School of Education’s Department of Counseling Psychology, is Diversity Dialogues. When it started almost 15 years ago, the big, burning divide that students wanted to discuss was the difference between students from the Midwest and the coasts. But now that issues of racial discrimination, gender nonconformity, and economic disparity have shot to the forefront of national news, students from different racial, ethnic, gender, and class backgrounds are eager to meet and talk about how these dimensions have shaped their experiences and perceptions.

UW professor of counseling psychology Steve Quintana, who directs Diversity Dialogues, says that one of its primary objectives is to help students recognize that all people (not just those who are obviously similar to them) are “living rich, interesting, and complex lives.” The theory behind deepening social understanding is that it makes it easier for people to understand and appreciate (if not always love) why others may act a certain way or hold a certain view.

To help students who typically have never met before they start talking, Quintana and other dialogue facilitators give participants different cues, such as asking them to describe pivotal childhood experiences or their own negative or positive experiences of diversity. A running rule is that no one can interrupt whoever is speaking for at least 90 seconds. Facilitators also work to sustain a respectful balance by reminding participants that every person’s perspective and personal experience are valid.

They also point out that mixed-company conversations on race, in particular, have a tendency to become “one-sided white confessionals,” wherein white students wax on describing their guilt over certain societal privileges they’ve enjoyed, at the expense (in terms of comfort) of black students in the group. But just naming the potential dynamic up front and noting that it can place additional burdens on black students is a surprisingly effective way of keeping it at bay, Quintana says.

After they’ve participated in the program, many students tell him that learning how to trade notes on class, race, sexuality, and other topics in a calm, non-adversarial setting (unlike so many of the combative finger-pointing sessions we see on TV today) made them feel more flexible and open — and eager to keep speaking with people who aren’t obviously like them. Getting new “windows into the depths of people’s experience is rewarding,” Quintana says. Once they’ve realized that everyone has an interesting story to tell, students often say they’re more likely to break the ice with strangers in everyday settings.

Comfortable with uncomfortable

UW professor Christy Clark-Pujara often spends the first few sessions of her classes on African American history and the history of slavery speaking with students about why it’s important for them to be able to discuss race together, even though it’s a subject many of them have been told to avoid. And she explains that “it’s okay to feel uncomfortable in this class, and even a good thing, because that’s where you learn and grow.” Clark-Pujara knows most of her students have so far been taught only the scantest rendition of black American history: “First there was slavery. That was bad, but some people were nice. Then there was Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, and now everything’s fine.” But then she begins fleshing out that time line with stories that fly in the face of certain well-oiled myths, including the myth that slaves did little to resist their circumstances.

“When you look at the primary documents, the history of slavery becomes a history of great resistance — not only physical, but moral, emotional, and cultural resistance,” Clark-Pujara says. She also disproves the folkloric belief that Wisconsin was always free of slavery. French-Canadian trappers brought slaves with them when they settled here in the early 1700s. When Southerners — including Henry Dodge, two-time governor of the Territory of Wisconsin — arrived in the early 1800s to mine for lead in the southwestern part of what later became the state, they had slaves with them, too.

At some point during the semester, students of different races overflow with “indignation” over never having been given an inkling of this richer, more complicated history. Clark-Pujara is there for all of it, ready to help them talk through and process “the terribly uncomfortable” fact that the “economic ascent of the United States rests on the backs of enslaved black people.” Empathy is a major theme in the class, she adds.

As we neared the end of our own conversation, Clark-Pujara pulled out two thank-you notes she had just received from students who’d taken her Introduction to African American History course. Each described a different way in which the class and Clark-Pujara’s teaching had changed not only their minds but their lives. The notes were beautiful. And they reminded me why talk, at the UW and everywhere, is so vital to staying alive and engaged: our world is never going to be perfect, and individuals and systems will inevitably let us down. But we should by no means withdraw and give up.

By debating and grappling with new ideas together with others, in real time — riding tides of confrontation without getting too rattled, watching one another’s faces light up and fall and light up again — we get to take another look at what we think, and make it better.

But we can’t get there through silence.

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Hard Truth Fri, 02 Nov 2018 18:44:07 +0000 Over the summer, Chris Borland ’13 attended the largest athletics fundraiser in Lawrence University’s history. He was an odd fit. There among players, coaches, and boosters was the “most dangerous man in football,” a nickname the former Badger star earned from ESPN after his unprecedented decision to leave the NFL over the long-term risk of brain trauma.

Borland made the trip to Appleton, Wisconsin, to support his new friend Ann McKee ’75, the night’s keynote speaker, whose brother was a star quarterback at Lawrence in the ’60s. To a stunned and largely unsuspecting audience, the foremost researcher on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football and other contact sports laid out her decade-long body of research on the degenerative brain disease that’s linked to minor, repetitive hits to the head.

Audible gasps interrupted the room’s silence when McKee projected side-by-side scans of healthy brains and brains riddled with damage. One had belonged to a 17-year-old high school football player who died by suicide and showed signs of CTE. “I’m not sure I’m giving the right speech for this crowd,” McKee confessed beforehand. By the time she was done, the night felt less like a celebration of sport and more like a cautioning of it.

As Borland was leaving, an attendee approached him. She wanted a picture to text to her partner — a huge football fan. “It’s ironic to me,” Borland says later. “Everyone tells me, ‘I loved watching you play at Wisconsin.’ And then they will say, ‘I really commend your decision [to leave football].’ ”


When you meet Borland, the unassuming history major sticks out more than the football player, with the wisdom and receding hairline of a man well beyond his years. His smile is welcoming; his tone is soft, reserved, and polite. He speaks with equal parts curiosity and conviction. Each word is carefully considered. He’s read hundreds of books since he left football. His word choice — from “disequilibrium” to “abyss” in a seamless sentence — bears it out.

Borland was born in Kettering, Ohio, a midsized suburb of Dayton. He was the sixth of seven active kids, with the oldest, a daughter, followed by six sons. They excelled in many sports growing up, except one: football. “I begged my dad to play every fall,” says Borland, who watched Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and the Green Bay Packers religiously.

Jeff Borland, who owns an investment advisory firm, played college football briefly at Miami University of Ohio. He was adamant that none of the boys would play organized football until high school. “I can’t say my concern was concussions — that would be too easy,” Jeff says. “It was more [broadly] head and neck injury based on the lack of form and technique.”

Borland fell in love with the game within five minutes of his first freshman practice. He took quickly to running back and receiver. On defense, his coaches designed a play for him — called “Badger” — to roam the field and target any player he saw fit. Once, he jumped and somersaulted over the offensive line, piledriving the running back into the ground in a single motion. It was violent — and it went viral.


The college recruiting process was brief. Borland’s dream school was always the UW. His grandfather, Henry Borland ’52, was an alumnus, and his father grew up in Madison. Most colleges projected him as a linebacker, even though he had never played the position formally.

Borland outperformed modest expectations and higher-rated recruits at his first two summer camps. His only preparation had been 20 minutes in a gym with his father, who relayed what he could remember from playing the position decades prior. By the end of a three-day camp at the UW — “When I showed up, they didn’t know who I was,” he says — head coach Bret Bielema saw enough potential to offer a scholarship. Borland jumped for joy — literally. He did a backflip in the Camp Randall parking lot and accepted the offer within an hour.

Borland went on to become one of the UW’s most dependable tacklers of all time. His aggressive, hard-nosed style on the field — combined with a school record for volunteer hours off of it — endeared him to fans. “You will be hard pressed to find a more genuine, empathetic human being,” said Kayla Gross ’15, community relations coordinator for UW athletics, in 2013.

Borland helped lead the UW to three conference championships, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009 and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. His 420 career tackles rank sixth in school history.

During the 2014 NFL Draft, Borland’s reputation reigned. “He’s too short. He’s too slow. I don’t care — he can play,” proclaimed NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock, describing Borland (endearingly, if later ironically) as a “thundering hardhead.” The San Francisco 49ers agreed, selecting him in the third round and signing him to a $2.9 million contract.

Coach Jim Harbaugh spoke glowingly of his middle linebacker throughout the year, telling reporters, “He’s so physical. You can see when he takes on the lead blocker that there is some rattling of fillings.” By season’s end, Borland led the 49ers’ top-five defense in tackles, was named to the All-Rookie Team, and was selected as an alternate for the Pro Bowl. He was just 24.

And then he walked away from it all.


Borland began looking into CTE during training camp of his rookie season. He had never given head injury serious thought until he ran head first into a nearly 300-pound fullback in practice. He almost certainly suffered a concussion, but he didn’t report it to the team, fearing that missing time could jeopardize his place on the roster.

Borland felt increasingly isolated in the 49ers’ locker room as he read A League of Denial. The book revealed the NFL’s resistance to acknowledging the link between football and CTE. When teammates and coaches were around, he hid it within another book’s cover.

Borland learned to compartmentalize. “I was living a very binary life, out of necessity,” he says. During practices, games, and training, his focus was remarkably singular. But in the back of his mind, he was thinking of his long-term brain health. And he was learning that with each collision he was compromising it.

Borland wrote a letter to his parents and handed it to them after a preseason game. It outlined his concerns and suggested that he might not be long for football. (Earlier in the summer, he had jotted down his career goals, including playing for at least 10 years.) They were surprised — and then relieved. Jeff Borland thought back to the UW days. His cousin, cheering emphatically, once remarked that the parents’ section at Camp Randall felt oddly quiet and dull. “What you’ve got to understand,” Jeff told her, “is we want them to do real, real well — and we want the team to win. But mostly we want them to be able to walk off the field at the end.”  

Borland started with simple Google searches, then research papers, then books. He learned of the tragedy of “Iron Mike” Webster x’74, a star center for the Badgers who retired in 1990 after a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. Legendary for his durability and toughness on the field, Webster later experienced chronic pain, dementia, depression, and homelessness. He died in 2002, becoming the first former NFL player diagnosed with CTE.

Borland went straight to the source: researchers. That’s how he met McKee, who leads the world’s largest brain bank at Boston University. She’s analyzed several hundred brains of former football players — far more than anyone else. She told him the hard truth.

By the end of his rookie season, Borland had seen, read, and heard enough. He was leaving football to preserve his long-term health. He informed the 49ers in March 2015, to the shock of teammates and NFL fans alike.

“It’s essentially heresy to walk away from football in America,” Borland acknowledges. Extreme fans called him, in the nicest of terms, soft and weak. Wrote one on Twitter: “All due respect to Chris Borland, and head injuries are no joke, but what a p – – – – .”

But to others, like David Meggyesy, Borland’s decision was a courageous act. Meggyesy would know: 50 years ago, he also walked away from the NFL in his prime. An outspoken civil rights advocate and Vietnam War critic, he was benched for silently protesting during the national anthem. He retired and released Out of Their League, a scathing account of racism, sexism, and abuses of power he witnessed in the NFL. After hearing Meggyesy speak at the UW in 2013, Borland picked up a copy of his book and consulted with him during his rookie season.

“When Chris retired, he had a lot of influence because he had such integrity and perspective about what he was saying,” says Meggyesy, who later worked for the NFL Players Association. “It was believable for a lot of people. He really loved to play the game. He was a hell of a player.”


If Borland had any lingering doubt, it disappeared in July 2017. McKee and her team at Boston University’s CTE Center had finished analyzing the brains of 111 former NFL players, ranging from ages 23 to 89. All but one showed signs of CTE.

The condition’s degenerative (and currently untreatable) nature means that the damage doesn’t cease even when the collisions do. CTE isn’t diagnosable in the living, but the symptoms often arise later in life, sometimes decades after the exposure to contact. The most common symptoms are memory loss, dementia, and behavioral changes such as aggression — similar to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, but with different lesions and indicators in the brain.

Ann McKee holding cross-section of human brain

TIME named Ann McKee as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2018. McKee’s work was central to Borland’s decision to retire, and “she may have saved my life,” he wrote in the magazine. Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The research points to a numbers game. The more blows to the head, the more likely the disease. Notably, these include minor — or subconcussive — impacts. Because players rarely feel or show pain at the time of small, indirect hits, the damage is easy to ignore. But they add up to much more than the occasional big hit. Twenty percent of those with CTE never suffer a diagnosable concussion, according to McKee.

Critics are eager to point out the limitations of McKee’s research. Her work relies on donated brains. Families are more likely to donate their loved one’s brain if they had noticed signs of cognitive decline, and McKee readily acknowledges this selective sample.

But she returns to the numbers game. Some 1,300 former NFL players died over the eight-year span of her study. She has proof that 110 had CTE. Even in the unlikeliest event that not a single one of the other 1,190 former players developed CTE, the prevalence of the disease would still be close to 10 percent of all players. “That’s a public health problem,” she says.

When discussing her research, McKee oscillates between a rigorous scientist consumed with the hard data and a concerned citizen visibly affected by the human toll of CTE. To avoid preconceived notions, she analyzes each brain without knowledge of whom it belonged to. Afterward, for statistical comparison, she sets out to learn as much as she can. For hours on end, she listens as family members’ memories and stories turn to grief and anger. When McKee presents her research, she feels compelled to show more than the subjects’ shocking brain scans — she shows their smiling faces, too. McKee, like Borland, no longer watches football. A lifelong Packers fan, her breaking point was Donnovan Hill in 2016. At age 13, he broke his neck and was paralyzed from a head-first collision while playing youth football. At age 18, he died from complications stemming from his injury. “That hit didn’t just cause paralysis,” McKee says. “He had tremendous brain damage.”

The current strategies to make football safer — better helmets, lower tackling, improved concussion protocols — might reduce some harm. But these ideas are rooted in a misguided focus, perpetuated at the very top of athletics, McKee says.

“The NFL has decided that this is a concussion issue, which it is not,” she continues. “It’s about the subconcussive, repetitive hits that happen with every collision.” Framing the issue around concussions, which can be managed and treated without fundamentally altering the sport, is a strategic choice.

According to McKee, the way to reduce the risk of CTE is to reduce collisions. In football, that’s no easy task. Collision is intrinsic; linemen surge together and crash helmets nearly every play. Fewer collisions translates to fewer practices, fewer plays, fewer games.

Ultimately, when Borland and McKee are asked how to make football safer, their answer is simple: football — at least the sport as we know it today — cannot be safe.  

Borland insists that he’s not anti-football. He’s pro-information. He wants players — many of whom remain “willfully ignorant,” he says — to learn the risks and to make informed decisions.

“I don’t [subscribe] to the notion that football is inherently evil or that there’s this impending doom and the game needs to go away,” Borland says. His primary concern is youth football, which often has the least regulated contact rules of all levels.

Earlier this year, he testified in support of the Dave Duerson Act, a proposal to ban tackle football for children under the age of 12 in Illinois. Those who started playing contact football before age 12 began to show signs of CTE an average of 13 years earlier compared to those who started playing later in life, according to McKee’s research.

Borland also volunteers for nonprofits dedicated to brain injuries in sports, including the Concussion Legacy Foundation and the After the Impact Fund. He travels and speaks frequently at conferences, and occasionally chats with players (including former UW receiver Jared Abbrederis ’13, who retired from the NFL in January) about his decision to leave football. Only a handful of NFL players have followed in Borland’s footsteps. That likely won’t change until CTE is more visible and can be traced in the living — which could be as soon as five years from now, McKee estimates.

The advocacy does not come naturally for Borland, who notes that the sport has afforded him lifelong memories and friendships. “I think the advocate struggles with [the question], ‘How much do I owe?’ ” Jeff Borland says. “As a parent, I would say I’m not sure he owes any more than he’s already done.”

While occasionally tempted, Chris Borland believes scaling back now would be a betrayal. “I’ve had wives of players tell me, ‘I wish he was dead, because he’s not the man I married, and I’ve just become a full-time caregiver for the last two decades.’ I can’t imagine saying no to someone who asks for something from that world,” he says.


In addition to the truth, Borland is searching for peace. The conversation surrounding safety in football provides anything but that. “The irony that I quit not to deal with this and [now], at least intellectually, deal with it every day isn’t lost on me,” says Borland. “And it’s tiring.”

Perhaps unintentionally, his favorite activities since leaving football share a common thread of escape: both physical, with traveling, surfing, hiking; and mental, with yoga and meditation.

Borland’s foray into mindfulness and meditative practice began when his brother-in-law gave him a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which prompted him to meditate “pretty clumsily.” Soon after, a mutual friend connected him with Richard Davidson, founder of the UW’s Center for Healthy Minds and a leading researcher on how meditative practices can affect emotional health and the brain.

Borland was immediately struck by Davidson’s candor and scientific rigor (something he particularly appreciated after being approached for endorsements of “concussion-curing” pills and other pseudo-therapies). For years, Borland had learned to train his physical body to prepare for the next play, but never his mind to prepare for what’s next in life.

The difficulty of transitioning from the intensity of professional sports to the slog of everyday life is well documented. Similar to military veterans, retired athletes can struggle with the sudden loss of structure, camaraderie, serviceable skills, and even a sense of identity. Daily meditation has helped him to work through personal anxiety and depression, and more simply, to relax and clear his mind. He thought it could help others, too.

Last spring, Borland and Chad McGehee, an instructor for the Center for Healthy Minds, collaborated on a first-of-its-kind meditative program for former NFL players. Seventeen participants met in Madison over a span of two months. McGehee taught them a new meditative practice each week and assigned a training plan for home. Although some of the former players were initially skeptical — particularly when they were handed a recruiting brochure titled “Love and Compassion Cultivation,” Borland says, laughing — many of them later reported that the practices helped them to sleep better and to manage stress and physical pain.

“One guy talked about how he trained as a football player at 1,000 miles an hour, maximum effort, all the time,” McGehee says. “But that same tenacity at all times didn’t serve him well [after] football. The way he put it is that [mindfulness] felt like a way of deprogramming some of those [tendencies], to become aware that they were there.”

Encouraged by the success of the pilot, Borland continues to collaborate with the UW’s center and also works with the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which teaches a mindfulness curriculum originally developed at Google. He’s facilitated meditative programs for teams at the UW, Michigan, and West Point, aiming to help active athletes cope with pressures on and off the playing field.

“The mindfulness [work] has been such a release valve for me,” says Borland, who now lives in Los Angeles. “It’s such a pivot to positivity and to optimism.”

When he meets former players, Borland pays special attention to how they introduce themselves. Some who have been retired from the NFL for as long as four decades will start with their name immediately followed by their past team or position.

“There’s a cliché that athletes live two lives: athlete and former athlete,” he says. “I don’t think it has to ring true. But it takes work to create a new identity.”

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Hidden Ws Mon, 25 May 2015 23:54:38 +0000 Can you identify where these Ws appear? To see if you guessed correctly, click the question mark on each image. If you nail all twelve, consider yourself a tried-and-true Badger. When you’re done, read more about where the W roams on and off campus.


Marching Band member’s hat


Agricultural Hall


Camp Randall Sports Center


Der Rathskeller, Memorial Union


Bicycle rack, Red Gym


Field House


Glass door, Kohl Center


Agricultural Hall


University Club


Wisconsin Historical Society


Roundabout at Observatory Drive and Walnut Street


Main Lounge, Memorial Union.

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Old School Fri, 27 Feb 2015 15:03:50 +0000

All images courtesy of UW-Madison Archives, S144632

These places — some long gone — made an indelible mark on the university’s history.

UW–Madison’s original campus plan called for just five buildings.

The university built three of them in the 1850s — Bascom Hall, North Hall, and South Hall — and it’s been forming and re-forming its bricks-and-mortar identity ever since.

As a student in the 1960s, Jim Feldman x’72 confesses that he “completely overlooked the astonishing beauty and diversity of the University as a physical object.” He rectified that in 1997 when he published an important reference for this story, The Buildings of the University of Wisconsin, the first comprehensive account of the structures — many still standing — on the Madison campus. Before writing his compilation, Feldman received an electrical engineering degree at Cal State-Fullerton and, in time, went on to earn a certificate in technical communications from the UW College of Engineering.

Alumni and visitors to campus marvel at what seems like a perpetual state of construction and reconstruction, but a look back at our history confirms that universal flux is part of the DNA of the UW. Buildings constitute the foundation of our university’s story of change, growth, and innovation. We’re featuring here just some of the places that are no longer part of the campus landscape.

Badgers can take heart, though: while some buildings may not last, the experiences we had in them — and the memories they evoke — stay with us long after they are gone.



Old Administration Building

Built: 1855
Demolished: 1965

The UW bought this private home, known as the Porter House, for $20,000 in 1905. The university built an addition to the house and used it for student registration, fees, payroll, and financial aid until the A.W. Peterson building opened in 1962. The university tore down the old administration building to make room for construction of the George L. Mosse Humanities Building.




Solar Observatory

Built: 1878
Demolished: 1949 (fire)

Washburn Observatory director James Watson built this smaller observatory by hand in an effort to locate a planet (dubbed Vulcan) that he believed was located between Mercury and the sun. Watson died from pneumonia before work was completed, and the search for the planet was abandoned after his successor determined that the observatory was not well suited for detecting planets. The building, located on Observatory Hill near the Washburn Observatory, was later used as housing for observatory assistants and storage.



Old Chadbourne Hall

Built: 1878
Demolished: 1957

Originally called Ladies Hall, the dormitory was later named for former UW President Paul Chadbourne, who opposed coeducation for women. Chadbourne won funding for the building with the goal of setting up a separate women’s college, a plan that never came to fruition before he left office in 1870. The hall’s name officially changed to Chadbourne in 1901. Edward A. Birge, then acting UW president, later wrote that it was only fair that Chadbourne’s stubbornness on the issue “should be punished by attaching his name to a building which turned out [to be] one of the main supports of coeducation.” The current Chadbourne Hall, built on the same site with entrances trimmed with stone from the old building, went coed in 1995.



Old Science Hall

Built: 1875
Demolished: 1884 (fire)

With laboratories crowded into the basement of Bascom Hall — and their pungent smells wafting to the floors above — the university needed more room. The original Science Hall was just the second instructional building on campus. It housed the departments of chemistry, engineering, geology, and physics, and it included laboratories, lecture halls, offices, and museum space. In 1884, a fire gutted the building, and the current Science Hall was built in its place in 1887.



Old Law Building

Built: 1891
Demolished: 1963

The first UW Law School class — all twelve students — was enrolled in 1868. Before the construction of the Victorian brownstone law building, law students spent two decades meeting in various places, including the unfinished state capitol and space above a saloon. In 1939, the university began construction on a series of additions to the law building, the first to make room for the rapidly growing law library. The ongoing expansion efforts that followed ended with tearing down the old building. In 1996, the school completed a construction and renovation project, enclosing an outside courtyard between two older parts of the Law School building. The building’s four-story glass atrium is now home to a gargoyle saved from the roof of the original law school.



Chemical Engineering

Built: 1885
Demolished: 1968

This sandstone-and-brick building on the shore of Lake Mendota was the first on campus dedicated solely to chemistry. Some members of the board of regents thought it would not be at capacity for decades, but Chamberlin Hall opened in 1905 to accommodate the overflowing department. After that, the building housed the chemical engineering department and parts of the medical school until it was torn down to make room for construction of Helen C. White Hall.



Toboggan Run

Built: 1880s
Removed: 1938



Ski Jump

Built: 1919
Removed: 1956

In the 1880s, students first built a toboggan run that hurled riders down Observatory Hill and onto frozen Lake Mendota (and across the Lakeshore Path) at sixty miles per hour. A concrete run replaced it in the mid-1930s, and it remained until Elizabeth Waters Hall was built directly in its path. In the slide’s early days, Hoofers helped maintain it — and rented toboggans. Nearby at Muir Knoll, students built a ski jump with financial help from the UW athletic department. It also extended down onto the lake. The deteriorated wooden jump was removed for safety in 1931, but Hoofers successfully campaigned to replace it with a steel jump that opened in 1933. Meets that the organization hosted raised enough money to support events throughout the rest of the year. The city bought the jump in 1956 and moved it to Hoyt Park on Madison’s west side.



Old Boat House

Built: 1892
Demolished: Between 1963 and 1968

A small group of students with competitive rowing experience was the driving force behind establishing a boat club on campus. The club sold memberships to students to help fund construction of the boat house on university land north of Memorial Union. The building had space for storing small boats and racing shells, and social gatherings were held on the second floor. The university took over the property in 1908, after the lease expired, and remodeled it in 1916. As the athletic department used the building more over time, students and the public had less access. It was eventually torn down to clear space for construction of the Alumni House, home to the current Wisconsin Alumni Association.




Built: 1905
Demolished: 1956

The YMCA stood on the site of the current Memorial Union parking lot, which is now the future home of Alumni Park. The building had a cafeteria and space for student activities, and it served as the de facto student union until Memorial Union opened in 1928. The Y also had living quarters on its upper floors, housing as many as 135 men during the 1940s. After a new YMCA was built near campus in 1953, the UW Foundation bought the building and gave it to the university with one condition: nothing that blocked the view of Lake Mendota could be built on that spot.



Athletic Annex

Built: 1911
Demolished: 1956

The UW’s supervising architect, Arthur Peabody, didn’t have many kind words about this building, which he said was designed to be “sufficiently mediocre to harmonize with [the Red Gym].” While it may not have been an architectural wonder, the annex on the east side of the Red Gym provided much-needed space for track, baseball, and other events. The building was demolished after the Camp Randall Memorial Sports Center, known as the Shell, opened in 1954. The lakefront site is now home to the Pyle Center, a distance-education and conference center.



Wisconsin High School

Built: 1913
Demolished: 1993

The UW opened this practice school for teachers in 1914, serving students from grades seven to twelve. Tuition was $8 per quarter when the school opened at the corner of University Avenue and Henry Mall, and there were 250 students enrolled in 1915. The school closed in 1962 and the building became home to the School of Journalism and the Library School. Ten years later, the School of Social Work and parts of the Women’s Physical Education Department moved into the building. It was later demolished to make room for the Genetics-Biotechnology Center Building.



Old Library School

Built: 1922
Demolished: 1971

The old Library School started out as the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, which was built in 1922 adjacent to the University Club. The fraternity ran into trouble with recruiting, finances, and discipline — at one point, its members’ cumulative grade point average dropped below the required 1.0 on the three-point system. The organization continued to decline, and it moved out of the house; the university purchased it in 1938. The Library School occupied the building until 1965, when it became office space until it was demolished to clear the way for construction of the George L. Mosse Humanities Building.



Home Management House

Built: 1940
Demolished: 2010

For decades, women who studied home economics at the UW were required to spend two weeks living in this “practice cottage” to test their skills running a household. The UW purchased the first home used for that purpose in 1911, located on the site of the future Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene. The program moved into the new two-story brick colonial home in 1940, built on the site of the old solar observatory. In the mid-1960s, the department changed its name from Home Economics to Family Resources and Consumer Science, and the house was converted into office and research space. In 2009, the School of Human Ecology put the house up for sale. The asking price: one dollar for anyone willing to move it off campus. No one took the deal, but pieces of the dismantled house live on in the new Nancy Nicholas Hall as conference tables, coat hooks, and other design features.



Quonset Huts

Built: 1946
Demolished: 2004

Thanks to the wave of veterans returning from World War II, the UW’s enrollment nearly doubled from 1945 to 1946, which meant the campus suddenly did not have enough classrooms or office space. One of the solutions was construction of fifteen Quonset huts, most of them on Library Mall. The huts housed classrooms and labs and provided space for reserve books and reading rooms. The downside: they were cold, poorly lit, and ugly. The university sold the huts in 1953, save one, which survived behind the School of Education on Bascom Hill before being demolished in 2004.



Temporary Buildings

Built: 1947
Demolished: 2011

The Quonset huts weren’t enough to accommodate the UW’s growing student body, so the university moved twenty-six temporary buildings to campus in 1947. The structures were surplus from Fort McCoy and other military bases, where they were used during World War II. It was a good deal: the buildings were free. “Ugly, cheap, and unloved, they helped the university survive a great crisis,” according to The Buildings of the University of Wisconsin. The university installed most of the temporary buildings near the engineering and agriculture campuses, replacing them with permanent structures in the 1950s. The last of them, located on the College of Engineering campus, was not demolished until 2011.



University Health Services

Built: 1952
Demolished: 2011

The building, located on Old University Avenue, started out as the state psychiatric hospital, but as patients dwindled to zero, the medical school began informally using parts of the facility. The Student Health Center and services for pediatric patients were officially permitted to operate there in 1967, and the building was turned over to the UW in 1970. University Health Services was based there until 2011, when it moved to its new space on the East Campus Mall. The building was then demolished to make way for the Wisconsin Energy Institute.



Old Ogg Hall

Built: 1965
Demolished: 2007

The 1960s brought construction of a new set of residence halls on the southeast end of campus: Sellery in 1963, Witte in 1964, and Ogg in 1965. Ogg was a two-tower, thirteen-story residence hall on West Dayton Street that at first housed only male students, but eventually became coed. It was named for Frederic Ogg, a beloved author, teacher, and researcher who served on the UW political science faculty for thirty-four years. The building was demolished to clear the way for more green space along the East Campus Mall, but the new Ogg Hall built less than one block away carries on the tribute to the late professor.



A.W. Peterson Building

Built: 1962
Demolished: 2007

When the Peterson Building’s doors opened, administrative offices that were once spread across campus — the bursar, registrar, and financial aid — were finally under one roof. A.W. Peterson was a longtime campus administrator who oversaw a host of functions on campus, including residence halls, buildings and grounds, and campus police. After World War II, Peterson led the university’s effort to establish Badger Village, a housing community for married student veterans and their families located at the site of a former army ammunition plant in Baraboo. But the Peterson Building was not part of the university’s long-term vision for an arts district on the east side of campus, anchored by an expansion to the Chazen Museum of Art that now stands on the Peterson site. The Office of the Registrar, Bursar’s Office, and the Office of Student Financial Aid moved to the redeveloped University Square, along with a new Student Activities Center and University Health Services.



Old Gordon Commons

Built: 1965
Demolished: 2013

Gordon Commons, which served as the main dining hall for the southeast residence halls, was named for the late Edgar “Pop” Gordon, a professor of music who taught songs to children over the radio via his WHA program, Journeys in Music Land. An elevated pedestrian bridge over Lake Street connected Witte Hall to the building, which operated as a traditional, single-line cafeteria serving three meals a day. The new Gordon Dining & Event Center, which opened in 2013, includes event space, multiple dining options, and a convenience store. Where the home of Pop’s Club once stood, there is now outdoor dining space and a lush green lawn.




Old Union South

Built: 1968
Demolished: 2009

Of all the buildings now gone from the UW campus, it appears there is not much love for the old Union South. The UW built the satellite union to meet the needs of a booming student population, especially on the south and west ends of campus. When the new Union South opened in 2011, the Wisconsin State Journal called it a “south campus sensation” and described the old concrete structure as “the younger sibling who could never live up to an older one; the old south campus union lived in the shadow of the beloved, historic Memorial Union along Lake Mendota.” A recent Yelp review of the new Union South was more blunt, calling the old place “a dump.”

On Wisconsin’s senior writer Jenny Price ’96 fondly remembers seeing the movie Pulp Fiction at the old Union South. Stephanie Awe x’15 contributed to this story.

Watch a video of the top five original UW buildings that are still standing on campus.

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The Price Is Right Wed, 05 Nov 2014 08:49:42 +0000 collegePricetag_1k

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Who decides how much college tuition will be each year? Why does it keep going up (and up)? Is it worth the price? Studies — and graduates — say yes.

Once upon a time, students could make enough money to cover the entire cost of going to college by working during their summer and winter breaks.

These days, that sounds like a fairy tale.

Consider this recent headline from the Onion, which didn’t quite feel like satire: “New Parents Wisely Start College Fund That Will Pay for 12 Weeks of Education.”

The price tag for attending college has increased dramatically over the last two decades, with tuition more than tripling at public universities between 1988 and 2008, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That trend includes the UW, where tuition went up 140.6 percent between the 2002–03 and 2012–13 academic years.

About one-fourth of that increase was directly due to the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates (MIU), a program students approved to address access to classes, improve advising, and offer more financial aid.

The intense focus over ever-increasing tuition bills even prompted New York Senator Charles Schumer to suggest penalizing schools that don’t keep tuition costs within the rate of inflation. Yet frustrated students and parents continue to find ways to pay because they believe that a four-year degree is worth the expense — and there is plenty of evidence that they are right.

Millennials (those born in the 1980s and 1990s) with college degrees made $17,500 more in 2012 than peers with a high school diploma, and nine out of ten millennials with college degrees said college has paid off for them or it will in the future, according to the Pew Research Center.

How did we get here? Where do those tuition numbers come from, anyway? And, when all is said and done, is college a worthy investment?

Tuition through the Decades

Wisconsin resident and nonresident tuition and fees for an academic year for undergraduates at the start of each decade.
Academic year Wisconsin resident Nonresident
1940–41 $65 $265
1950–51 $120 $420
1960–61 $220 $600
1970–71 $508 $1,798
1980–81 $976 $3,461
1990–91 $2,108 $6,832
2000–01 $3,791 $15,629
2010–11 $8,987 $24,237

Source: Office of Student Financial Aid

How much has tuition gone up? Why?

Between 1992 and 2012, UW–Madison tuition for full-time, in-state undergraduates increased at three times the rate of inflation.

This year, these students will pay $10,410 for tuition and fees to attend UW–Madison. (This compares with other familiar Wisconsin schools, such as Marquette University, which charges $35,930 for tuition and fees, and Beloit College, which charges $42,500.) Their peers from Minnesota will pay $13,197 — thanks to an ongoing reciprocity agreement between the two neighbors — and undergraduate students from other states will pay $26,660.

In Wisconsin, the state has allowed the university to raise tuition to cover increases in utility bills, the cost of fringe benefits (including rising health care costs), and salary increases provided under the state’s pay plan for university employees. In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a bill that ended collective bargaining for state and university employees and required them to pay a larger share of their health insurance. The law cut costs, but the UW System (and UW–Madison) did not get to keep their share of those savings. Rather, the money went back into the state’s general budget fund.

Tuition represents 16 percent of the UW’s budget; the rest is covered by a mix of federal money, private funds, grants, and support from the state. The amount of money the UW has received from state taxpayers increased between 2004 and 2014, but the share of the university’s budget from tax dollars has dwindled, much as it has at public universities around the country. During the 1973–74 academic year, 44 percent of UW–Madison’s budget came from the state. This year, it’s 16.7 percent. During the last decade, most tuition increases for UW students and their families were offset by state budget cuts, says Darrell Bazzell ’84, UW–Madison’s vice chancellor for finance and administration. “We’ve had significant increases without actually increasing our capacity and enhancing the quality of the educational experience,” he says.

When Bazzell talks about tuition, he also reflects on his father, who came from Milwaukee to attend the UW on the GI Bill and “received a fine education,” graduating with a degree in sociology in 1953. “I think you really have to look at this in a broader context and not simply around what the tuition increase was this year or the most recent year,” Bazzell says. “The social compact has changed over the years. … The commitment on the part of government to really keep college affordable — it isn’t there in the way it once was.”

Who sets tuition?

UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and her counterparts at other UW System campuses cannot raise tuition. That authority belongs to the eighteen-member UW System Board of Regents.

Wisconsin’s governor appoints fourteen of the board’s members to staggered, seven-year terms. They include attorneys, corporate executives, business owners, community and nonprofit leaders, a former legislator, and a former state auditor. The governor also appoints two UW System students to serve two-year terms. The remaining members are the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction and the president or a representative of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board.

In 2012–13, nonresident undergrads paid 184 percent of their instructional costs while resident undergrads paid 66.7 percent (with freshmen and sophomores paying a higher share).

But while the power to set tuition rests with the regents, they don’t act in a vacuum. Tuition is on the table when the legislature debates a state budget every two years. If the budget provides less than the UW System requested, legislators know that future tuition rates could increase.

Some budgets have included provisions that directly affect tuition. In 1999, lawmakers provided the UW System with $28 million to offset a one-year freeze in resident undergraduate tuition. Two years later, lawmakers required the regents to raise tuition for nonresident undergraduates by 5 percent. In 2003, the budget limited tuition increases at UW–Madison to no more than $700. The UW is currently in the second year of a freeze dictated by state law.

What does tuition pay for? What doesn’t it pay for?

Former UW–Madison Chancellor John Wiley MS’65, PhD’68 once joked that cranes are the state bird of Wisconsin, referring to the wave of building projects on campus that began during his tenure and are continuing long after he left the office in 2008. The cranes still reach into the sky over campus, with construction in progress on a number of building projects, but none are funded with tuition dollars. The same goes for Badger athletics, which means tuition doesn’t pay for stadiums, uniforms, or salaries for coaches.

Bazzell says myths about how tuition is spent persist because people perceive that higher education is funded solely by two sources of revenue: tax dollars and tuition.

Tuition doesn’t cover the cost of university research. Federal money or private grants cover the cost of those activities. “We can’t spend those dollars on bricks and mortar, for example, or in other discretionary ways,” Bazzell says.

Here’s what tuition does help pay for: faculty who teach classes; teaching assistants; academic services, including student advising; and the campus library system. Tuition also pays for operating and maintaining campus buildings in which learning — via lectures, labs, and discussion sections — takes place. Yet at UW–Madison, tuition covers only 30.2 percent of instructional costs.

The Cost to Attend UW-Madison

Actual tuition and estimated costs for undergraduates for the 2014–15 academic year.
Wisconsin resident Nonresident
Expense Residence halls Off campus Residence halls Off campus
Tuition and fees $10,410 $10,410 $26,660 $26,660
Books and supplies $1,200 $1,200 $1,200 $1,200
Room and board $8,600 $9,400 $8,600 $9,400
Miscellaneous $3,214 $2,414 $3,214 $2,414
Travel $1,042 $1,042 $1,692 $1,692
Total $24,466 $24,466 $41,366 $41,366

Undergraduate business tuition is an additional $1,000, and undergraduate engineering tuition is an additional $1,400. There is an additional New Student fee of $200 for freshmen and $125 for transfer students.

Source: Office of Student Financial Aid

What does it actually cost to attend college?

Although tuition makes the headlines when reporting on the cost of college, it’s only part of the bottom line. For resident undergraduates at UW–Madison, tuition accounts for only 43 percent of the total bill. Students also need places to live, food to eat, textbooks and other sup-plies, and miscellaneous stuff. (Think cell phones, clothes, laundry, and entertainment.)

The average cost to live in a University Housing residence hall per year, including food, is $8,600, though it ranges from $8,546 to $9,696, depending on the specific hall. Learning communities aimed at students focused on the arts, the environment, or entrepreneurship, among other interests, come with additional fees.

Students living in non-university housing face highly variable costs in addition to tuition, says Susan Fischer ’73, ’79, director of the UW–Madison Office of Student Financial Aid. Rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the campus area averages $1,200 a month. “It’s crazy,” she says. “[But] that’s where students have an opportunity to economize. … You don’t have a chance to bargain tuition, but you do have a chance to live tight in other areas.”

The share of Americans who think a college education is important:

1978 – 35 percent

1985 – 65 percent

2014 – 70 percent

Source: Pew Research Center

During her own college days at the UW, Fischer recalls, she bought clothes at the Army-Navy surplus store because “looking like crap and living cheap was the hot thing to do.” Many of her former classmates from Madison West High School lived at home with their parents for the first two years to save money, and she never lived with fewer than four people. “There was an acceptance of living tight,” she says.

Nationally, about one-third of college students and their families pay the full sticker price for a college education without any financial assistance. The “net price” of attending the UW varies based on family income. In-state students from wealthier families paid almost the entire cost of attendance — including room and board, and other expenses — for the 2012–13 academic year. Those from Wisconsin families with incomes between $30,000 and $48,000 paid less than half of the cost, while those with family incomes of less than $30,000 a year paid a little over one-third of the costs.

A little more than half of UW undergraduate students complete applications for financial aid. There is $45 million a year in unmet need — the amount it would take to meet the full need of every student who applies — financial aid officials say. The state’s share of funding for need-based grants awarded at UW–Madison is lower today than it was a decade ago.

“We have parents who come in and just assume their full need will be met, but the fact that you have demonstrated financial need does not mean that there’s resources,” Fischer says.

Students who graduated in 2013 will need an average of 10 years to recoup the cost of their education, compared to 23 years for those who graduated in 1980.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Every student who applies for aid is considered for FASTrack, short for Financial Aid Security Track, which helps economically disadvantaged undergraduate students from Wisconsin pay for college through a combination of grants, work, and small loans. Students selected for the program are guaranteed that their demonstrated financial needs will be met for four years. FASTrack receives funding from the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, which in 2009 began using $40 million a year in tuition funds to improve curriculum, create more opportunities to participate in research on campus, and make it easier to get into the courses needed to graduate in four years. Half of that money is committed to need-based aid, helping thousands of undergrads each year.

“For Wisconsin residents, I think it’s a myth that they can’t afford to be here,” Fischer says. “And I’m concerned that our lowest-income students self-select out before they even give us a chance to invite them into the FASTrack program.”

Tuition at Big Ten Public Universities

Tuition and required fees for undergraduates for the 2013–14 academic year.
University Resident Nonresident
Pennsylvania State University $16,992 $29,566
University of Illinois $15,258 $29,640
University of Minnesota $13,555 $19,805
University of Michigan $13,142 $40,392
Michigan State University $12,863 $33,750
UW-Madison $10,403 $26,653
Indiana University $10,209 $32,350
Ohio State University $10,037 $25,757
Purdue University $9,992 $28,794
University of Iowa $8,061 $26,931
University of Nebraska $7,975 $21,302

All public Big Ten universities assess additional fees for undergraduates enrolled in specific academic programs, such as engineering or business.

Source: Office of the Provost

Might tuition go up again?

In 2012–13, UW–Madison tuition and fees went up 7.4 percent compared to the previous year. It was the highest percentage increase among Big Ten schools, but about one-third of it was due to MIU. Now the UW’s tuition is at the midpoint of that peer group, after many years of being at or near the bottom.

Tuition has stayed the same since then — though fees have gone up — but a tuition freeze is not the simple solution it might appear to be.

  • A “truth in tuition” policy for Illinois public universities, which took effect in 2004, locks in a rate for four years, but does nothing to control costs. Every four years, the entering freshman class must shoulder any tuition increases resulting from budget cuts, rather than sharing the pain with the rest of the student body.
  • In Maryland, tuition went up only 47 percent between 2002–03 and 2012–13, thanks to a four-year freeze that began in 2007. After that, tuition increases were capped at 3 percent a year. The state has increased funding for higher education by 34 percent over the last eight years.
  • More recently, the University of Minnesota struck a deal with its state legislature and governor to freeze tuition for two years — but it was paired with $42 million in increased state funding for the school.

The UW’s freeze covers tuition for all students, even though the board of regents could have charged nonresident undergrads — as well as graduate and professional (such as medical) students — more. Undergraduate resident tuition is governed by state statute, but the regents don’t need permission from the legislature to raise tuition for the other categories.

When the regents discussed the tuition freeze in June, regent Margaret Farrow shared her fear that an extension of the tuition freeze unnecessarily limits the UW System’s resources. “I think we should be raising nonresident tuition,” Farrow, a former state legislator, said at the time. “I think we are a bargain for nonresidents, and I wish they were paying more.”

Bazzell, the university’s top financial officer, says politics dictated that the freeze be imposed across the board for all categories of tuition, but adds, “There’s no question that the tuition pricing at Madison for professional schools — and, in many cases, for nonresident undergraduates — is low as compared to peers. And so the question is, is there an appetite at all to adjust tuition in some of these other categories?”

Chancellor Blank has been more blunt on the topic. “I see no reason why we should sell our education to out-of-state students cheaper than schools that quite honestly aren’t as good as we are,” she said during her State of the University speech last fall.

If the freeze on undergraduate resident tuition continues without additional state money to cover the cost of educating students, paying salaries and health care costs, and heating and cooling the campus, it seems inevitable that tuition for out-of-state students and those attending law school, medical school, and other graduate programs would go up to help fill the gap.

Bazzell says that if the regents and lawmakers consider tuition increases, it’s “imperative” for them to ask and answer a question: “Are we still accessible and affordable to a broad range of students? The economic circumstance an individual comes from shouldn’t be a limiting factor. Anytime we think about tuition increases, that proposition has to be central in our minds.

“It’s really a function of what the institution’s able to do to buy down the cost of education, so that low-income families can still afford the tuition pricing,” he adds. “And I think that’s still a challenge at Wisconsin.”

Going beyond freezing tuition, some who study higher-education access have proposed making college free.

At the UW, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall, both professors of educational policy studies, have drafted a plan that would have the federal government cover tuition, fees, books, and supplies for the first two years of college. Students would receive a stipend and guaranteed employment at a living wage to cover their living expenses. “Financial aid does not necessarily lower the cost of attending college to the point that families can successfully manage those costs,” the professors wrote in a paper outlining their plan.

Earlier this year, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam unveiled his plan to make the first two years of community or technical college free for high school graduates. His goal: increase the state’s percentage of college graduates from around 33 percent to 55 percent by 2025.

57 percent of Americans say higher education is not a good value, while 86 percent of college graduates say it was a good investment.

Source: Pew Research Center

Is college worth the cost?

College is expensive, but there is also a steep price to be paid for not earning a college degree — and that trend has increased over time. In the early 1980s, Americans with four-year college degrees made 64 percent more per hour on average than those without them. Today, that number has increased to 98 percent, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

And despite the national conversation about the increasing cost of higher education, polls show that the majority of Americans — some 70 percent — still say that going to college is important.

Perhaps the work of MIT economist David Autor, published in Science, provides the most striking argument: the cost of a college degree is -$500,000 (that’s right, a negative number) because of the lifelong financial benefits it offers.

Bazzell notes that the 1950s, when his father earned his degree at the UW, was an era in which people could make a middle-class living with a high school education or less by working in a factory. “It was hard work, but you could enjoy a good lifestyle. Those jobs aren’t there anymore, and you really need some sort of postsecondary education to have an opportunity in today’s economy,” he says. “And so I find it concerning that we find ourselves at a time of great need in terms of the need to educate more of our citizens, but the opportunities are a lot more challenging these days.”

Jenny Price ’96 is senior writer for On Wisconsin.

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Can This Democracy Be Saved? Fri, 29 Aug 2014 04:07:59 +0000 Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial

Let’s agree that we disagree.
We’re a nation divided — by complex issues, by political parties, by seemingly irreparable differences.

And yet:
Citizens are still going to the polls, despite a somewhat broken voting system. Teachers are finding ways to civilly discuss civics in the classroom.
The phenomenon of social media is getting young people involved in politics — and getting out the vote.

In this special section,
On Wisconsin turned to UW experts to examine the state of our democracy and tell us if there’s reason to hope.

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Thinking Inside the Box Thu, 05 Jun 2014 13:25:17 +0000

“I feel like I’m inside my book,” says Jordan Ellenberg, here surrounded by the types of drawings he uses to explain math and its connection to daily life. Photo: Jeff Miller.

What Kinds of Mathematics Will Appear in This Book?

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg. © 2014 by Jordan Ellenberg.


If your acquaintance with mathematics comes entirely from school, you have been told a story that is very limited, and in some important ways false. School mathematics is largely made up of a sequence of facts and rules, facts which are certain, rules which come from a higher authority and cannot be questioned. It treats mathematical matters as completely settled.

Mathematics is not settled. Even concerning the basic objects of study, like numbers and geometric figures, our ignorance is much greater than our knowledge. And the things we do know were arrived at only after massive effort, contention, and confusion. All this sweat and tumult is carefully screened off in your textbook.

There are facts and there are facts, of course. There has never been much controversy about whether 1 + 2 = 3. The question of how and whether we can truly prove that 1 + 2 = 3, which wobbles uneasily between mathematics and philosophy, is another story — we return to that at the end of the book. But that the computation is correct is a plain truth. The tumult lies elsewhere. We’ll come within sight of it several times.

Mathematical facts can be simple or complicated, and they can be shallow or profound. This divides the mathematical universe into four quadrants:

Basic arithmetic facts, like 1 + 2 = 3, are simple and shallow. So are the basic identities like sin(2x) = 2 sin x cos x or the quadratic formula: they might be slightly harder to convince yourself of than 1 + 2 = 3, but in the end they don’t have much conceptual heft.

Moving over to complicated/shallow, you have the problem of multiplying two ten-digit numbers, or the computation of an intricate definite integral, or, given a couple of years of graduate school, the trace of Frobenius on a modular form of conductor 2377. It’s conceivable you might, for some reason, need to know the answer to such a problem, and it’s undeniable that it would be somewhere between annoying and impossible to work it out by hand; or, as in the case of the modular form, it might take some serious schooling even to understand what’s being asked for. But knowing those answers doesn’t really enrich your knowledge about the world.

The complicated/profound quadrant is where professional mathematicians like me try to spend most of our time. That’s where the celebrity theorems and conjectures live: the Riemann Hypothesis, Fermat’s Last Theorem[1], the Poincaré Conjecture, P vs. NP, Gödel’s Theorem. … Each one of these theorems involves ideas of deep meaning, fundamental importance, mind-blowing beauty, and brutal technicality, and each of them is the protagonist of books of its own.

But not this book. This book is going to hang out in the upper left quadrant: simple and profound. The mathematical ideas we want to address are ones that can be engaged with directly and profitably, whether your mathematical training stops at pre-algebra or extends much further. And they are not “mere facts,” like a simple statement of arithmetic — they are principles, whose application extends far beyond the things you’re used to thinking of as mathematical. They are the go-to tools on the utility belt, and used properly they will help you not be wrong.

Pure mathematics can be a kind of convent, a quiet place safely cut off from the pernicious influences of the world’s messiness and inconsistency. I grew up inside those walls. Other math kids I knew were tempted by applications to physics, or genomics, or the black art of hedge fund management, but I wanted no such rumspringa.[2] As a graduate student, I dedicated myself to number theory, what [Carl Friedrich] Gauss called the queen of mathematics, the purest of the pure subjects, the sealed garden at the center of the convent, where we contemplated the same questions about numbers and equations that troubled the Greeks and have gotten hardly less vexing in the twenty-five hundred years since.

At first I worked on number theory with a classical flavor, proving facts about sums of fourth powers of whole numbers that I could, if pressed, explain to my family at Thanksgiving, even if I couldn’t explain how I proved what I proved. But before long I got enticed into even more abstract realms, investigating problems where the basic actors — “residually modular Galois representations,” “cohomology of moduli schemes,” “dynamical systems on homogenous spaces,” things like that — were impossible to talk about outside the archipelago of seminar halls and faculty lounges that stretches from Oxford to Princeton to Kyoto to Paris to Madison, Wisconsin, where I’m a professor now. When I tell you this stuff is thrilling, and meaningful, and beautiful, and that I’ll never get tired of thinking about it, you may just have to believe me, because it takes a long education just to get to the point where the objects of study rear into view.

But something funny happened. The more abstract and distant from lived experience my research got, the more I started to notice how much math was going on in the world outside the walls. Not Galois representations or cohomology, but ideas that were simpler, older, and just as deep — the northwest quadrant of the conceptual foursquare. …

In this drawing from his book, Ellenberg explains his belief that the mathematical universe can be divided into four quadrants, and, he writes, the simple/profound quandrant offers “the go-to tools on the utility belt.”


This will not be the kind of book where I make grand, vague gestures at great monuments of mathematics, and instruct you in the proper manner of admiring them from a great distance. We are here to get our hands a little dirty. We’ll compute some things. There will be a few formulas and equations, when I need them to make a point. No formal math beyond arithmetic will be required, though lots of math way beyond arithmetic will be explained. I’ll draw some crude graphs and charts. We’ll encounter some topics from school math, outside their usual habitat; we’ll see how trigonometric functions describe the extent to which two variables are related to each other, what calculus has to say about the relationship between linear and nonlinear phenomena, and how the quadratic formula serves as a cognitive model for scientific inquiry. And we’ll also run into some of the mathematics that usually gets put off to college and beyond, like the crisis in set theory, which appears here as a kind of metaphor for Supreme Court jurisprudence and baseball umpiring; recent developments in analytic number theory, which demonstrate the interplay between structure and randomness; and information theory and combinatorial designs, which help explain how a group of MIT undergrads won millions of dollars by understanding the guts of the Massachusetts state lottery.

There will be occasional gossip about mathematicians of note, and a certain amount of philosophical speculation. There will even be a proof or two. But there will be no homework, and there will be no test.

[1] Which, among pros, is now called Wiles’s Theorem, since Andrew Wiles proved it (with a critical assist from Richard Taylor) and [Pierre de] Fermat did not. But the traditional name will probably never be dislodged.

[2]To be honest, I did spend some part of my early twenties thinking I might want to be a Serious Literary Novelist. I even finished a Serious Literary Novel, called The Grasshopper King, and got it published. But in the process I discovered that every day I devoted to Serious Literary Novel-writing was a day half spent moping around wishing I were working on math problems.

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Creative License Thu, 27 Feb 2014 09:33:48 +0000 Renowned cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry, now on the UW’s faculty, teaches her students that using their hands engages their brains — and leads to the creativity within.

An award-winning cartoonist and author, Lynda Barry, left (and as depicted by Barry herself at right), is now an associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity — a position that allows her to share a long-held belief: that art and science need not exist apart, that disciplines can intersect and enrich each other.

I am sitting on a stool in front of a long wooden table in a ’60s-style bunker-turned-art-studio on the sixth floor of the Mosse Humanities Building that might as well be underground. There’s an unused composition notebook in front of me, along with blank notecards, pens, and two baskets overflowing with candy. It’s my first time sitting in on this writing class, and I haven’t a clue what to expect.

Twelve graduate students surround the table — some smoothing fingertips across their prized notebooks, others in light conversation. Some, like me, are unwrapping and inhaling Butterfinger bars and Laffy Taffy at a most impressive rate.

Glancing at our empty candy wrappers, a fifty-something woman dressed in black, with thick-rimmed glasses and flowing ginger braids compressed with a red bandana, approaches the head of the table. “It’s the candy that lures you in,” she says in her best evil scientist voice, hands folded together in conniving delight. “Every time.” A reassuring smile widens behind red lipstick. Her maniacal laugh transforms into a real one, an uncontrolled moment of hilarity, and we catch ourselves joining in.

Indeed, our professor, Lynda Barry, award-winning cartoonist and author, does have an agenda: she wants to convince us that we can write, draw, think, and create in a way that we’ve never done before; she wants to bring the mundane to life through storytelling; and she wants to give us a framework to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our work across disciplines.

“Write what you see,” Barry says. It’s the name of the class I attended every Monday last fall. The course is one of two she offered during her first semester as associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity at the Art Department and the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID), the transdisciplinary research institute where I work.

Barry considers herself a “delivery woman,” packaging her forty-plus years of visual arts experience for students in much the same way that instructors did for her. Some describe her unconventional classes as mashups of stand-up comedy and boot camp. She controls every second of the two hours we’re gathered around the table, with timed sessions to carve out memories and narratives from our personal and professional lives. It’s a carefully planned act.

“It’s unabashed, uninhibited. I think Lynda’s asking us to reconnect with that side of ourselves,” says Alon Andrews MSx’15, an education graduate student who was also enrolled in the class. “I imagine she’s suggesting that, as we get a little older, we experience our environment in kind of a diluted way compared to what kids do.”

After arriving at the university, Barry noticed a sentiment, especially among graduate students during their first year, of feeling lost as they entered the whirlwind of academia. The word transformative comes up when I talk to students about Barry’s classes — a word she also uses to describe her own experience teaching.

“I really hope that it does for the students what it’s done for me — the feeling that life is worth living,” she says. “This feeling of loneliness can illuminate the world or close it off. It’s for any of us who’ve had a big event in our lives, like maybe somebody died or experienced trauma. You’re pushed to see the aliveness in the world.”

The first class was definitely alive. In two hours’ time, I had relived and written about memories archived deeply in my mind. I smelled the burning leaves from the time I used a rope swing to cross a back yard fire when my dad wasn’t looking. I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks when I talked about the time I accidentally flushed my babysitter’s ring down the toilet. I left exhilarated, with a type of mindfulness that, for once, I was eager to fold into my daily existence.

One by one, we shared experiences — some of our stories intensely personal, some funny, others sad, but each gripping and rich beyond what we thought we were capable of telling. Scenes and images came to life, as Barry looped around the table, knelt beside each student, and listened with eyes closed as we read aloud. After hearing each story, she made the same comment: “Good! Good! Good!”

Some students described the writing as therapeutic.

“This isn’t like therapy,” Barry told us between writing exercises. “Therapy’s like this.”

Wisconsin Born

Lynda Barry is no stranger to Wisconsin. Born in Richland Center, she moved to the Seattle, Washington, area as a child with her parents and two brothers. She attended school there and launched her career as a cartoonist in the mid-1970s.

Barry shows a self-portrait made by student Clay Van Mell, a.k.a. Bender (left). She encourages her students to draw self-portraits, use aliases for names — whatever it takes to unleash creativity.

Barry has told me on multiple occasions how education saved her, but it was attending The Evergreen State College in Washington State that cemented her success and dovetailed the beginnings of her nationally syndicated comic strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, which ran in more than seventy alternative newspapers for nearly thirty years. She returned to Wisconsin in 2002 with her husband, Kevin Kawula, to live in Rock County, following decades of success as a visual artist, workshop teacher, and author.

The Lynda Barry canon ranges from accounts of growing up in a poor, racially diverse area in a troubled household, to expository writing and imaginative fiction that teach the process of writing and drawing for “people who want to, but don’t know how,” she says. Her work touches on shifting identities between sophomoric naïveté and growing up with an emotionally abusive mother (her parents split early on), between being white and Filipina, between connecting with and doubting her own creativity and ability to make meaning of the world. She’s authored several books, many earning high praise and awards — one was adapted for an off-Broadway musical.

In recent years, as space for newspaper comics dwindled, Barry started spending more time conducting workshops, refocusing on a fundamental question posed by Evergreen State College instructor and artist Marilyn Frasca, whom Barry cites as a catalytic force in her life.

“When I was in school, I started out with this question: What is an image? And by images, I mean the thing that’s contained by everything we call the arts,” Barry tells me. “I got really interested in this idea that they probably have a biological function — we wouldn’t have dragged them through all our evolutionary stages if they didn’t.”

She wonders what makes us long to be able to sing, draw, write, dance, or play music even after we’ve given up on ever being able to do these things well. To get closer to an answer, Barry needed to engage with people for longer periods of time than a two-day workshop allowed.

As a student in Barry’s Making Comics class, Art Department lecturer Allison Welch creates a drawing of a vintage Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog.

Enter Tom Loeser, chair of the UW’s Art Department, who, with the support of co-sponsors on campus, nominated Barry to be the Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence for spring 2012. Barry brought her wit and creative flavor to campus, teaching a class, sharing techniques, and even inviting longtime friend and classmate Matt Groening, creator of the popular TV show The Simpsons, to lead an informal, under-wraps talk for students.

Responding to a group exercise in the class (above), 16 students created 256 character drawings in 16 minutes.

But it wasn’t just arts circles that picked up on her presence. After meeting Barry, WID Director David Krakauer promptly asked her to be a fellow, which evolved into what is thought to be the only joint faculty position in interdisciplinary creativity in the country.

“I’m particularly interested in how formal ideas are fed by informal and exploratory activities,” Krakauer says. “Many very rigorous scientists, including Feynman, Dirac, Poincare, and Darwin all scribbled and doodled furiously, and found inspiration and freedom literally in the margins of their thoughts. Lynda shines a light on these marginal territories and is discovering treasure islands.”

While I tried to pinpoint Barry’s take on disciplines, it became clear to me that she’s disappointed that the arts and sciences are often being placed on opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum, with interactions between the two labeled as “bridges.” For her, the arts and sciences have encompassed each other all along.

“There’s something to this idea of insight,” she tells me. “I want to wrest it away from the hippie-rainbow-love-aura-artsy-fartsy thing — in the same way I want to wrest science away from the strict, indoctrinated thing it’s perceived to be.”

Surrounded by writing utensils, Barry holds close the notebooks that her students fill with words and drawings while enrolled in her courses. Calling them “my babies,” Barry says she takes great pleasure in reading the notebooks multiple times during each semester.


“These Original Digital Devices”

I am sitting in an audience of about fifty researchers, students, and staff in a glass room on the second floor of the Discovery Building, which houses WID. It’s late fall, and Barry is scrolling through a set of images on a projector. I’ve heard her say that researchers’ sketches, whiteboard proofs, and diagrams resemble art drawings, but I have never seen them compared side-by-side.

She points behind her to a large hand-drawn image of a schoolhouse created by an elementary student. The next slide — an eerily similar drawing, with upward sweeping strokes resembling a roof — was not crafted by a child, she says, but rather by scientists explaining a mathematical model on a whiteboard at WID. She shows the crowd numerous comparisons: art versus algorithm, squiggly lines versus scripts of code. The pictures look as if they were created by — inspired by — each other.

“Something about the hand is going on in this building,” she says. Heads in the audience nod. “I’ll see scientists sitting down, much like how artists sit in front of paintings, and occasionally add to them. You can’t take a step upstairs without seeing these whiteboards.”

Decades of visual arts work have allowed Barry to discover this impossible-to-ignore connection between hand and brain. She describes it as that moment you’re spooning food into your mouth and reading the back of a cereal box without even realizing it. Or those “aha” moments in the shower, where ideas flood in uninvited as you’re shampooing or washing off.

The hand-brain connection across disciplines, fields, and age groups has intrigued her for years. The hand knows what it’s doing before the person does, she says, noting that insight happens in the gap between the hand doing its own thing and the mind catching on. It’s the same feeling I had when she challenged me to write articles by hand, even if they need to be typed eventually. There’s a different feeling when you put words on a page and leave them for a while, without the temptation of a backspace button to act on self-doubt.

Barry led the Counterfactual Campus Drawing Board Project for WID, where she asked people of all ages to envision what schools and the university would look like in a century.

“Across the board, people feel that computers and digital stuff — that’s our future. And that little things like desks and handwriting and drawing — all the stuff I care the most about — won’t really be around anymore,” she tells me. “That’s been a little bit hard for me, for someone who thinks thinking, intuition, and all kinds of stuff come from these original digital devices.” She raises her hands in front of her face and wiggles her fingers.

Still, despite future technology, she says, we still overwhelmingly use our hands. This surfaces during a warm-up exercise in Barry’s writing class, when she tells us to relax every fiber of our bodies — almost as if we’re prepping for physical activity — by drawing tightly bound spirals on a page as she recites Rumi’s poem “The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty” by memory. The hand becomes engaged before the mind.

And it’s not just Barry who’s noticing these connections. She lists study after study suggesting that the biological function of the arts is alive and well: one documented stress reduction after participants sang in a choir; another found that people who doodle while listening performed better with memory recall tests; and yet another revealed a correlation between daily drawing and fewer doctor visits for older people.

These are exactly the types of collaborations that Barry is starting to explore as a faculty member. She’s forming connections with UW researchers — in particular, psychology excites her. And these connections lie at the heart of her Image Lab, a flexible workspace on the first floor of the Discovery Building.

“The metaphor for me is like a restaurant that serves food based on what’s in season, what’s fresh and around,” she says. “If I find that there’s an interesting rehearsal going on for a one-man or two-man show, or there’s some creative project going on on campus that I can invite people to do here, I will. People won’t always know what they’re going to see when they come to the lab — like the chefs that just go to the market in the morning and write the menu based on what they’ve found.”

Art graduate student and collaborator Angela Richardson ’93, MFAx’15 tells me she crosses paths with all types of people in the lab, sometimes talking with them for hours about differences between the brain and mind. These interactions clearly reflect Barry’s proclivity for spontaneous interaction.

“Anybody who wants to make a discovery of some sort has to push to the edge of the known — and then beyond — in order to make the mistake to make the discovery. Lynda Barry understands that deeply,” Richardson says. “The juicy stuff is in the unknown. There are a million other voices telling you, ‘No — don’t go over there,’ but Lynda’s on the other side with the megaphone saying, ‘Hey, you guys! Don’t forget — the good stuff’s over here!’ ”

Richardson has also taken part in Barry’s Stealth Sculpture Project, a rotating exhibit that places pieces of art from the master of fine arts program in the hallways of WID’s workspace. (Okay, admittedly, artist Heather McCalla MA’12’s life-sized wooden car wasn’t exactly stealthy.) Barry’s “Drawing Jam” sessions for kids share similar spunk. She reminds my colleagues and me: “All adults must be accompanied by a child!”

The cover of Barry’s new book, Syllabus, suggests that she’s an accidental teacher, yet she readily acknowledges that teachers changed her life. Lynda Barry.

Dissertation Drawing

I am sitting in Barry’s class, drawing a self-portrait on an index card that will be used to take attendance. We include our names, but in some of her other classes, students go the entire semester without knowing each other’s real names.

Barry encourages aliases in the classroom, giving students fictional names from playing cards and parts of the brain, such as Four of Hearts and Cerebral Cortex. For her Making Comics class in 2013, undergraduate and graduate students took on alternate personas from their favorite cartoon characters. Though Barry plays along as Professor Sluggo and Professor Long-Title, the practice has a purpose: allowing students from different backgrounds and walks of life to feel more at ease.

Ebony Flowers MS’12, PhDx’15, known as Inspector Gadget and Frontal Lobe, has drawn inspiration from Barry’s teaching philosophy while pursuing her doctorate in the School of Education. She hopes to share her research visually through a blend of writing and comics. While talking with me in the Image Lab, Flowers points to a binder outlining a technique she developed and is teaching in a workshop to encourage a new approach to academic writing for graduate students.

“It’s an environment where anyone from any discipline can sit down and write together and share their writing — a similar atmosphere that Lynda has created in her classes,” she says. “There isn’t any criticism, but people can still express themselves and read out their work.”

I examine the document in the binder to find a cartoon fish and chicken that serve as readers’ cheeky guides through an unorthodox writing process.

“Why are you cutting up that journal article?” the fish asks the chicken in one panel. “Because I want to cut up the questions I find in it,” the chicken replies.

This breaking apart, rearranging, brainstorming, and discussing of research unveils patterns in students’ work, much like Barry’s accessible writing approach developed in her Unthinkable Mind class. What’s key, Flowers says, is helping people raise questions and juxtapose images in new ways.

Since the workshops began, Flowers has led writing exercises for dissertators and graduate students in a variety of disciplines, including forestry, agricultural sciences, sociology, educational policy, and history of science. Barry and Flowers are beginning to study the effects of this writing style on people across fields.

“It’s a volcano school, and it erupts to get the students out,” was the ready answer to explain the drawing above, made when Barry visited a classroom of Madison second-graders and asked them to envision what school might be like one hundred years from now. And the artwork’s other details? “Every student has this machine that can turn into a desk or a bed or a cafeteria or a pumpkin patch. … And there is an automatic sun that has cables that connect to the school for the power.”

Geography graduate student Heather Rosenfeld MSx’15, a.k.a. Optimus Prime, had no drawing experience before enrolling in Barry’s Making Comics class and participating in Flowers’s workshop. She tells me that Barry’s method gives her a way of sharing multiple stories from multiple perspectives, encouraging them to exist in tension. The approach has provided a framework for a side project through which she’s examining the history of gender relations in her department.

“You can analyze this and theorize about that,” Rosenfeld says, “but telling a story in comic form is really different and an entirely different type of challenge. This is definitely something I’ll take with me beyond my time at UW–Madison.”

A Cheerleader for Education

I am sitting at a restaurant table with Barry as she tells me about her time in college — how teachers changed her life and led her to want to do the same. Her time at Evergreen State — where students were encouraged to completely immerse themselves into one class, one topic per term — laid the foundation for her own teaching style.

Barry invites young and old to attend the “Drawing Jam” sessions held in her campus Image Lab. At left, she delights as one budding artist begins putting ideas to paper at a Saturday Science at Discovery outreach event at her lab.

“If you were going to study something intensely enough, you’ll end up studying all the disciplines,” she says. “It’s the idea that all these things are tied together. That’s the way I teach.”

Dan Chaon considers Barry an unorthodox cheerleader. Chaon, an award-winning author who teaches creative writing at Oberlin College in Ohio, met Barry in the early 2000s. The two have been exchanging regular emails and visits ever since, sharing approaches and musings.

“There’s a shift from the critic, chooser, and giver of grades to being a coach, cheerleader, and observer that opens up a whole possibility of teaching that’s closed for people who are coming to something with a letter grade in mind,” he says. “Lynda’s work isn’t hippy-dippy, but possesses real rigor. These students are producing an entire book’s worth of material in a semester.”

A UW researcher’s sketch on a whiteboard (left) has striking similarities to a youngster’s drawing of a futuristic school, which features a giant steel tent, and an elevator to the playground. Barry shows such examples in her presentations, noting that, no matter the age, people are compelled to use their hands when engaging their brains.


One student in Barry’s The Unthinkable Mind class wrote some forty thousand words in his composition books during the semester. Barry takes her students’ notebooks home for close examination multiple times throughout the duration of each course.

“I get so wrapped up in this work and wrapped up in my students. I have a hard time giving them back their work,” she says. “They won’t love it the way I love it,” she jokes, but behind her glasses, her eyes well up with tears.


Marianne English Spoon MA’11, a writer and communications officer for the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, sketched and doodled her way through this story.

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Milk Matters Mon, 11 Nov 2013 18:11:17 +0000 cow

Preparing for her close-up: a member of the UW’s dairy herd poses in the Stock Pavilion. The UW’s cows are star performers for both research and education. Photo: Bryce Richter. Photo Illustration: Earl Madden.

Dairy science is no longer the field of straw hats and bib overalls. The UW’s future is as thoroughly milk-soaked as its past.

Last March, the UW’s dairy science department held an open house for the grand re-opening of one of its newest facilities — the Dairy Cattle Center.

Don’t feel bad if you missed it. A lot of people did. Although the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences sent out a press release, only local media picked it up — the Daily Cardinal had a brief story, for instance, as did a local TV station.

But then the Dairy Cattle Center isn’t entirely new. It was originally built in 1954, replacing the function of the old Dairy Barn, which had opened in 1898. To refurbish the six-decade-old Linden Drive structure, the UW spent ten months and $3.5 million, which aren’t huge numbers nowadays. More surprising was that the university bothered to refurbish it at all. The UW is the school of stem cells and satellite imaging, the institution that harnessed the computer power to help find the Higgs boson. And yet it still keeps eighty-four cows on campus — which isn’t even its largest herd. The UW has another 550 or so cattle at a farm in Arlington, Wisconsin, and 530 heifers in Marshfield.

The UW is the flagship university for America’s Dairyland, but somehow dairy science seems like a relic of its nineteenth-century heritage. Agriculture is deeply traditional, and milk seldom produces the sexy headlines that medicine and engineering create. Very few of UW-Madison’s students have spent enough time on a farm to learn how to tell a Jersey from a Brown Swiss.

“Today, only a small number of the university’s students have any experience in farming or agriculture,” says Kent Weigel, chair of the dairy science department. By contrast, the majority of students in his department — typically up to eighty-five undergraduates and some forty-five grad students — grew up on farms. “The only opportunity [their classmates may have] to see an operating dairy farm is to visit one on our campus.”

But Wisconsin is still heavily invested in dairy, an industry worth $26 billion a year to the state. And that means that milk matters to the UW, where dairy draws large grants from government and industry and researchers have patented inventions worth millions in revenues. The field is far less traditional and far more scientific than you might think.

“It’s a very information-intensive field,” Weigel says. “We’re using modern technology to monitor diet and activity and rumination and the composition of milk. We’re learning how to do what we do better and more usefully, and that requires more understanding of DNA and management of big data. Using information is the future of dairy farming. It’s not a straw-hats-and-bib-overalls thing anymore.”

The UW’s dairy science department is perhaps the best in the nation — in 2012, the firm Academic Analytics ranked it first among all animal science departments at American universities, based on the number of faculty publications, awards, patents, grants, and outreach efforts.

And that’s just one department. The UW also dips into moo juice in the food science department, which operates the Babcock Hall Dairy Store. Biological systems engineering (ag engineers) covers dairy housing, forage harvesting equipment, and manure management, among other topics. Agronomy focuses heavily on dairy feed and forage crops, and soil science studies how to keep manure out of streams and groundwater. UW-Extension and UW-Madison experts offer dairy short courses and field days on campus and around the state (eighteen next year on dairy foods alone) for Wisconsin farmers and firms. And there are units conducting studies and outreach, such as the Center for Dairy Research and the Center for Dairy Profitability.

“If you’re going to do dairy,” says Lou Armentano, a professor of dairy nutrition who studied at Cornell, North Carolina State, and Iowa State, “this is the place you’d most like to be.”

UW-Madison milks dairy for all it’s worth, and for the university’s past, present, and future, milk is worth a lot. Within the following pages, you’ll see snapshots of some of the many ways that the university is making the most of milk.



There’s no other way to look at it: Laura Hernandez is obsessed with udders.

“I’ve always found mammary glands to be fascinating,” says the assistant professor. “Ever since I was an eight-year-old kid, I was intrigued by this organ. It’s what defines mammals. Physiologically, it’s amazing — that it’s evolved to make milk and devote so much energy to producing food for another creature.”

Hernandez isn’t a traditional faculty member in the UW’s dairy science department. For one thing, she didn’t grow up on a dairy farm. A native of El Paso, Texas, she had little connection with dairying, other than the milk she put on her morning cereal. And while she finds milk scientifically interesting, she’s not fond of it as a food.

But more unusual still, she’s a she. Though the university has offered classes in dairy science for 120 years, it had, until recently, hired almost no women to teach them. The first female dairy professor, Margaret Dentine, joined the faculty in the 1980s and left in the 1990s. The second, Pam Ruegg, joined in 1998. Hernandez is the third. She was hired in 2010, the first of a series of women who now account for nearly a third of the department’s faculty.

“Actually,” says her department chair, Kent Weigel, “more than half of our undergraduates are female now. It’s a good thing to have the faculty look a bit more like the student body.”

Hernandez is a lactation specialist, and her research focuses on the role of the chemical serotonin. Animals need calcium in their blood to make a variety of cellular processes work properly, but this can be a problem for dairy cattle, due to the high volumes of milk they produce. Cows move a lot of calcium into milk — much more than they take in. This leads to a condition called hypocalcemia, or “milk fever.” To overcome milk fever, cows must increase calcium mobilization — that is, free up calcium ions from their bones into their blood. Serotonin seems to help speed this process. Hernandez has filed for two patents for serotonin-based drugs to help dairy farmers prevent milk fever in their herds by shortening the time it takes for a cow to transition from “milking state” to “dry state,” giving the cow’s body time to recover.

If anything, lactation has become only more interesting to Hernandez since she joined the UW’s faculty, and not just because of her research. She’s also the first woman to give birth while on the dairy science faculty, meaning she’s the department’s first professor to experience the phenomenon they all study firsthand.

“Dairy has traditionally been a male field,” Hernandez says. “But that’s changing. Overall, animal science students are nearly 90 percent women. Dairy science is something like 65 percent women in undergraduate courses. It’s not just old white men anymore.”


The Road to Babcock Hall

The milk from the UW’s herd doesn’t go directly from the Dairy Cattle Center to Babcock Hall to be made into ice cream and cheese — though some of it (as much as 3,000 pounds a day) does get there eventually. It’s first shipped off to Foremost Farms, a local cooperative. Why? Chiefly because the herd’s production is fairly constant, but the Dairy Store’s demand fluctuates. Here’s how the Dairy Store’s milk use breaks down:

  • 2 million: pounds of milk that Babcock Hall requires a year
  • 10,000 to 15,000: pounds of milk needed every day when the plant is running
  • 60 percent: amount of milk that is bottled for drinking
  • 35,000 to 40,000: pounds of cheese made each year
  • 21: varieties of cheese (six Cheddars alone)
  • 75,000: gallons of ice cream made each year


The Center of the Milky Way

Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is the center of the milk universe. Everyone in the dairy industry knows this, but then everyone, dairy economist Mark Stephenson contends, is wrong.

“We have urban myths, and we have rural myths,” he says. “Eau Claire is a rural myth.”

The myth goes like this: when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets its target price for milk, it does so for milk produced in Eau Claire. Every other dairy in the country then calculates its mileage from Eau Claire, puts that number into an equation, and comes up with the price it should charge, the price rising the farther away the dairy.

“It’s like people think there’s some big obelisk up there, and a tape measure,” Stephenson says. But “you will never find anything in the USDA’s federal [milk] order language that says Eau Claire.”

The myth is probably the result of a couple of factors. First, in the 1920s, agricultural economists did a study on the cost of milk, and discovered that the lowest prices were generally in America’s upper Midwest and higher on the coasts. “They decided to put a pin in the map in the center of the low-price region,” Stephenson says, “and Eau Claire is where they decided to stick that pin.”

Second, in the 1930s, when the federal government created Milk Marketing Orders to regulate the quality and price of milk, it called its basic formula price “the Minnesota-Wisconsin price.” This was a number based on a survey of milk prices at dairies in the two most productive dairy states, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The USDA dropped the Minnesota-Wisconsin price system in 2000.


Feed the Future

Lou Armentano looks the part. With a barrel chest and large, calloused hands that seem genetically designed for the pulling of teats, his appearance says he should have spent his entire life on a dairy farm.

You’d never guess he was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.

“I suppose it has as many dairy cows as anywhere else in New York City,” he says. But that’s only supposition. He didn’t spend much time seeking dairy in his youth. In many ways, Armentano isn’t really a milk guy. “I’m lactose intolerant,” he admits.

But if milk isn’t a big part of his own diet, he’s deeply interested in what makes a good diet for milk producers. Armentano is a dairy nutritionist, and he serves as the principal investigator on one of the UW’s bigger milk research projects, a multi-million-dollar, multi-disciplinary, multi-university, multi-national inquiry into whether a cow’s genetic makeup plays a significant role in what’s called feed efficiency — its ability to turn a significant amount of the food it eats into milk.

“Feed is one of the largest costs a dairy has,” Armentano says. “And as the cost of feed goes up, dairy farmers are increasingly interested in finding ways to make sure that they get the most for their investment.”

Improving dairy output is one of the UW’s oldest concerns. In the early twentieth century, Stephen Babcock — he for whom the dairy store is named — designed the “single-grain experiment” to determine, in part, what diet to feed dairy cattle to produce the best results. (See “The Birth of Vitamin A” in the Fall 2013 issue.) Over five years, researchers took four groups of heifers, three of which received a diet consisting of a single type of feed: corn, wheat, or bran. The fourth ate a mixture. The results proved not only applicable to cattle, but to humans as well, ushering in the modern study of nutrition.

Armantano’s study leaps beyond the record-keeping of Babcock’s time. Using today’s vastly expanded knowledge of bovine genetics — the cow’s genome was sequenced in 2009 — Armentano and his colleagues are looking into whether one or more of a cow’s roughly 22,000 genes governs feed efficiency.

What’s meant by feed efficiency? A cow needs a certain amount of food just to maintain its size and health. Pretty much everything it eats beyond that goes into the production of milk — up to a certain point, after which it’s just processed out as waste. The higher that point is, the more feed-efficient the cow.

But what governs that limit of feed efficiency? Is it genes? Environment? Some quality of the food?

“We know that inheritance accounts for about 50 percent of size in cows,” Armentano says, “and that genes account for about 28 percent of milk production. We don’t know about feed efficiency. We think [genetics] accounts for something, but we really don’t know what.”

Armentano’s group is in the third year of a five-year study, and the answers so far are unclear. But irrespective of the result, the study itself indicates that the future of dairy management lies in an increasing understanding of data and science.

“Kids come in here [to the UW] at eighteen, nineteen years old,” Armentano says. “Their goal is to do as well as the best people in the business right now. And we tell them no — you’ve got to be as good as the best in this business will be in twenty years. This is a very technological industry, and we’ve got to prepare students for that world.”


Milk Money

Mark Stephenson’s breaking point came in the ice cream aisle. He’s a big fan of ice cream (his favorite flavor is peppermint stick). In winter 2012, he was shopping for a half-gallon. He looked at how much the price had risen, and how the size of containers had begun to shrink, and his mind screamed in protest.

“I thought, ‘I’m going off the grid,’ ” he says. And so he went out and bought his own ice cream maker.

Stephenson is more attuned to the price of dairy than the average shopper. He’s the director of the UW’s Center for Dairy Profitability, and he’s perhaps the nation’s leading authority on the wholesale and retail prices for milk and milk products.

The center has been part of campus since the 1987–88 academic year, at a time when the state had 42,000 dairy farms, 325 cheese plants, 36 butter plants, and 40 ice cream manufacturers. Dairy was then a $10 billion industry in the state, and the legislature worried about its future, much as it does today. “Well-managed competition from California, New York, Arizona, and Texas is increasing rapidly,” reads the state budget bill from 1987.

And that’s why the legislature ordered the creation of the center as part of UW-Extension, the arm of the university tasked with using educational and research assets to help citizens — especially farmers — improve their daily lives.

“The thing that I really appreciate and enjoy about Wisconsin,” Stephenson says, “is that you’re completely unconflicted about whether you’re interested in dairy. Biofuels and other [new technologies] may look a lot more interesting than traditional agriculture to the general public, but traditional agriculture is still of great importance.”

Trained as an agricultural economist, Stephenson started getting familiar with the arcane process of forecasting milk prices when he was on the faculty at Cornell. He built a mathematical model to predict the price that milk would fetch at market. It takes into account the number of cows in the country, the production per cow, the costs of feed and fuel, and the demand overseas. Stephenson then fine-tunes his prediction with judgments about the potential impact of drought and guesses about rises and falls in consumer demand.

“Like any good economist, I sat down and I built the best milk-price forecasting model that had ever been created,” he says. “And for the very first month, I was right on the penny. That was probably the last time [the model] was right. There’s about this much science to it,” he says, holding his fingers an inch apart; then he spreads his hands wide, “and this much art.”

Twenty years since creating that model, Stephenson continues to refine it. There’s high demand for his forecasts, which dairy farms and plants consider when they make their business decisions. The center also works with farmers to provide management tools, analysis, and advice to help them navigate what can be a difficult business. Farmers have a hard time making their milk stand out from the competition. The product is bulky and perishable, and farmers can’t easily increase or slow production to match the variations in market demand — cows produce what they produce, irrespective of business plans.

“It’s a very competitive industry,” Stephenson says, “and economics will punish anybody who tries to do what the market doesn’t want.”


Dairy Dollars

How big is milk for Wisconsin? In 2012, dairy accounted for $26.5 billion, about a tenth of the state’s gross domestic product.

Here’s how that breaks down:

  • 11,490 dairy cow farms
  • 1.27 million cows (an average of 111 per farm)
  • 27.2 billion pounds of milk
  • 21,436 pounds of milk per cow
  • 90 percent of the state’s milk is made into cheese
  • 26 percent of America’s cheese comes from Wisconsin
  • And dairy’s favorite vitamin, vitamin D, has been worth approximately $20 million in patent funds for UW-Madison — thanks to the licensing fees from Harry Steenbock’s process for irradiating foods.


Cows or Cattle?

The plural term for cow is a complicated issue. The word cow comes from Old English: cu. The word cattle comes originally from Latin, caput, meaning head. Through a similar process to the word capital, meaning property, cattle came to mean livestock. So the traditional plural of cow is cows, and the traditional singular of cattle doesn’t exist. And yet many elementary school teachers across the land insist that the plural of cow is cattle.

Here are some other bovine terms that are helpful to know:

  • Cow refers to an adult female bovine; bull is male.
  • steer is a castrated bull. If kept as a draft animal, we Americans call it an ox. If not, we call it beef or leather.
  • An intact bull hasn’t been castrated. Its job prospects are much brighter.
  • heifer is a cow that hasn’t yet had a calf, and so doesn’t yet produce milk.
  • And calves are young bovines of either sex that haven’t yet been weaned off of milk.


Warm Milk?

Cows don’t actually belch much carbon dioxide. Rather, the gas they produce includes a lot of methane — which, from a greenhouse perspective, is worse. According to Matt Ruark, methane has about seventy-two times the greenhouse potency of carbon dioxide, meaning that an ounce of methane is worth four and a half pounds of CO2. CO2-equivalent is the scale that scientists use to measure greenhouse gases. Using that standard, a gallon of milk produces about 17.38 pounds of CO2-equivalent. Here’s how that breaks down:

  • 4.42 enteric gases (that’s cows belching and breaking wind)
  • 4.02 manure management
  • 3.33 fuel
  • 3.15 electricity
  • 1.38 feed production
  • 0.67 refrigerant
  • 0.41 packaging


Glasses of Gases

Pardon their rudeness, but cows burp — a lot.

It’s the price of being ruminants. All that cud going up and down the esophagus results in the expulsion of a lot of gas right out of the mouth.

How much is a lot? According to assistant professor Matt Ruark, a dairy cow will belch out the equivalent of 4.42 pounds of carbon dioxide for every gallon of milk it produces.

This is important because the world is getting warmer, and all those burps aren’t helping. Dairy farms contribute about 2 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why Ruark is directing a research project — funded by a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — to investigate how dairies can help mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The five-year study was launched in spring 2013, and it includes contributions from a variety of different disciplines. (Ruark himself is a soil scientist, although he does describe himself as a big milk drinker.) Project participants include seven different universities, as well as several government facilities.

The study’s funding comes from a USDA CAP grant — that’s a Coordinated Agricultural Projects grant — a program that looks at farming as a unified process, rather than as a series of discrete activities.

“We’re looking at the entire milk cycle — cows, manure, land, crops, and back,” Ruark says.

He believes that one of the key reasons why his research project won its CAP grant was because it will actively involve working farmers and has the support of the dairy industry.

“The USDA project not only includes research activities, but also funds education and outreach,” Ruark says. “My Extension appointment puts me in a unique position to integrate all these activities.”

The UW’s relationship with the dairy industry dates at least back to 1886, when it began offering educational outreach programs called farmers’ institutes. The Dairymen’s Association sponsored the bill that created them.

More than a century later, the UW is still working to help the dairy industry deal with the leading problems of the era. These days, that’s climate change. Dairy farms produce the equivalent of 49,000 teragrams — that’s 49 million billion grams — of carbon dioxide every year, and yet dairy production shows no sign of decline.

“Milk is actually one of the few foods that nutritionists say we should consume more of,” says Molly Jahn, the co-director of the climate project and former dean of the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences. But the dairy industry has signed a memorandum of understanding with the USDA, agreeing to reduce emissions 25 percent by 2020. That’s why the industry — through its trade organization, Dairy Management Incorporated, and its scientific arm, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy — is so interested in this study. It needs Ruark, Jahn, and their team to help prepare dairy farmers for a changing world.

“Our main goal is to promote dairy sustainability,” Ruark says, “which has both economic and environmental aspects. We want to work with the industry and provide them with tools to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to future changes in climate.”


A Case for Queso

“It’s you people who are the mutants,” says dairy science professor Lou Armentano, addressing all of the lactose-tolerant people of the world. “You know that, right?”

He’s referring to the fact that most mammals are lactose intolerant. While they can digest milk in infancy, they are unable to as adults. About 10,000 years ago, some human populations developed a mutation (to the MCM6 gene, if you want to get specific) that allowed them to digest lactose throughout their lives.

As a lactose-intolerant person, Armentano knows that he will never comfortably enjoy a white Russian, or cream in his coffee, or genuine ice cream, or the snap, crackle and pop of Rice Krispies. But there’s one dairy treat he eats with gusto and generally without consequence: cheese.

“Lactose is in whey,” Armentano says. “Almost all of it is removed in the cheese-making process. So lactose-intolerant people, in general, can eat cheese, without discomfort to themselves or those around them.”

He notes that this is particularly true for the harder cheeses — the harder the cheese, the less whey remains, and so the less lactose.

“Most lactose-intolerant people think they have to avoid all dairy products, but that’s not true,” he says. “They can eat cheese. That’s something to put in a magazine article.”

John Allen is senior editor of On Wisconsin. He drinks two glasses of milk a day, and his bones are adamantine.

Note: the printed version of this story incorrectly listed Stephen Babcock as the inventor of the vitamin D irradiation process, rather than Harry Steenbock. Careless, careless …

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Scripts and the City Thu, 29 Aug 2013 10:40:59 +0000

Bridget Brennan is illuminated by the Manhattan skyline. For thirty years, she’s been a prosecutor in New York, and she currently leads the city’s efforts to fight narcotics-related crime. Photo: Rob Bennett.

As New York City’s special narcotics prosecutor, Bridget Brennan has seen the city’s drug habit shift from the needle to the crack pipe to the prescription pad.

Bridget Brennan loves New York.

That’s the essential point here. No matter what other themes enter in — and there are a lot of them: law, politics, medicine, public health — hers is essentially a love story, albeit one between a woman and her adopted hometown.

“The people in the city are phenomenal,” says Brennan ’77, JD’83. “Of course, not everybody — but [New York] doesn’t have a scary heart. It’s got a big heart, with a hugely diverse population. If you approach it with the right attitude, it’s just a wonderful place.”

But the love at the center of Brennan’s story is a codependent kind of love. New York has a drug problem — and it’s had one for decades, since long before she first came to the city in 1983. It’s become Brennan’s job to help the city break that habit, using the various tools that the law offers. She’s the city’s special narcotics prosecutor, a role she’s held since 1998. As with many labors of love, her work is complicated, it’s frustrating, and it often seems quixotic.

The problem that vexes Brennan these days is the script — prescriptions for opioids, in particular, those sold illegally. New York, like the rest of America, has a growing taste for narcotic drugs such as oxycodone (sold as Percoset or OxyContin) and hydrocodone (the main ingredient in Vicodin). In 2007, she notes, New York had about half a million prescriptions for oxycodone variants. By 2010, that number had doubled to 1 million, and in addition, the city had a further million prescriptions for hydrocodone.

“That’s not pills,” she says. “That’s prescriptions: a million prescriptions for a city of 8.5 million people, and many of those people are children.”

If the prescriptions are all justified, it would indicate nearly a quarter of the city’s population suffers from chronic, severe pain. That doesn’t seem likely.

“Clearly,” she says, “there’s a huge surplus [of opioid drugs] out there.”

Since 2011, her office has increased its concentration on the special problems of prescription drug abuse. She’s indicted five doctors whom she believes were running “pill mills” (thinly disguised drug-dealing operations), as well as a dentist and a podiatrist, and pharmacists, office managers, and others.

Still, this is not how Brennan would like to spend her time.

“Truthfully, from where I sit, it would be preferable if the regulatory agencies and the [medical] profession managed this problem,” she says. “It shouldn’t be me. I’m a prosecutor. … As law enforcement, we come in with very crude tools. But we have a big responsibility for public safety. When everybody else fails, that tends to be when law enforcement steps in, with its heavy-handed approach.”

New York’s prosecutorial system is decentralized, with each of the city’s five boroughs having its own elected district attorney (DA). In 1971, the state’s legislature decided that the growing narcotics problem required a unified, citywide approach and so directed the creation of the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor. Functioning as a sort of sixth DA, the office is appointed by and responsible to the five borough DAs, but maintains its own budget ($16 million in 2010) and an independent staff.

The first attorney to lead the office was Frank Rogers, appointed in 1972. In that same year, Brennan enrolled at UW–Madison. A Milwaukee native, she had no intention then of moving to New York or becoming a narcotics expert, or even an attorney. Her goal was to write, like her father, Gale Brennan, author of such children’s books as Gloomy Gus the Hippopotamus and Emil the Eagle. She studied journalism and took on freelance work as a stringer for the Milwaukee Sentinel and the Waukesha Freeman. After graduation, she became a television reporter at WEAU in Eau Claire. Her decision to attend law school had more to do with improving her career as a TV reporter than with fighting crime.

“I was covering a lot of court cases in Eau Claire, and I realized I had no idea what I was talking about,” she says. “I think at one point I said [a defendant was] ‘released on his own reconnaissance,’ rather than recognizance. I really didn’t understand the system well enough to report on it. … And I thought I could control my own destiny if I developed a specialization in law. I could make it into a larger market in a city where I wanted to be.”

At the UW’s Law School, Brennan studied under Frank Tuerkheimer, a former U.S. attorney, and she came to see the power and influence that a prosecutor wields. Whereas judges and defense attorneys have important roles, it’s the prosecutor who controls which people are indicted and how they are charged. “You exercise a tremendous amount of discretion,” she says. “You’re much more of an activist, and that appealed to me.”

Tuerkheimer, a friend of Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau, nominated Brennan for a job as an assistant DA. Her first view of New York was not favorable.

“There was carnage — car carnage — to the left and the right: abandoned, burnt-out cars and tires,” she says. “It all just looked dilapidated, miserable, and frightening.”

She impressed Morgenthau, who offered her a job. She accepted — then “cried all the way home,” she says. But in time, she found that New York was more than concrete and wrecked cars. Strangers and friends showed her where to find trees and where to exercise. And the law offered widely varied challenges.

As a prosecutor in America’s largest city, Brennan has seen successive waves of drug epidemics wash over New York: heroin, crack, and now scripts. “Each new substance gives me a headache,” she says. “And the next problem will come at us from an entirely unexpected source, just as they all have.”

Still, the job also offers Brennan a chance to improve the city she’s adopted.

“When I look at New York City,” she says, “the New York City I see now, compared to the one I came to in 1983, is in a much better place, much better for all of its citizens. And some of that was reining in the drug problems that we suffered through. And I have great confidence in the city and the people who are working on this issue that we’ll rein this one in, too.”

Shutterstock, photo illustration Earl Madden

Talking Smack

To understand Brennan’s concern about the rising illegal trade in prescription narcotics, it helps to understand the history of heroin, one of the first opioid drugs.

A brief vocabulary lesson: though the terms are often used interchangeably, opiate and opioid mean something slightly different. Opiates are the natural alkaloids of the opium poppy. They include morphine, codeine, and thebaine. Opioids are synthetic narcotics that act like opiates — in particular, like morphine. Opioids include heroin (derived from morphine), oxycodone (from thebaine), and hydrocodone (from codeine).

Heroin wasn’t invented to be a highly addictive, highly dangerous illicit substance. Rather, its creator’s goals were quite the opposite. When C.R. Alder Wright, a chemist working in a lab at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, first synthesized the drug, which he called diacetylmorphine, he was looking to create a less addictive alternative to morphine, the dangerous properties of which were already becoming well known. Wright gave up on diacetylmorphine when the drug wasn’t working as hoped. But the German chemical firm Bayer — best-known now as makers of aspirin — rediscovered diacetylmorphine and gave the drug the trademark name Heroin (implying its “heroic” properties) and marketed it as a cough suppressant, pain reliever, and cure for morphine addiction.

Soon, however, it became clear that the improvements made heroin not less potent than morphine, but more so, and consequently more addictive. The federal government estimated in 1914 that there were 200,000 opioid addicts in the United States, better than one in 500 Americans. That year, Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, the first federal anti-drug law, to control the sale and distribution of heroin and other opium- and cocaine-based drugs.

Heroin was also the impetus for the U.S. “War on Drugs” — declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971 — and for the creation of New York City’s Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor. In that year, the city was believed to be the entry port for 90 percent of America’s heroin. It was the only urban area in the world in which heroin overdose was the leading cause of death for people between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five.

Four decades later, pharmaceutical firms are still working to find ways to relieve pain without getting patients hooked. Oxycodone, for instance, was developed in Germany in 1916, after Bayer ceased production of heroin, and hydrocodone was invented in 1920. Still, both can lead to dependence. According to some equinalgesic charts, which compare the strength of different pain relievers, hydrocodone is about 60 percent as potent as oral morphine, and oxycodone equally or even twice as potent.

Through much of the twentieth century, use of these drugs was rare. “Until the 1990s, doctors were loath to prescribe [opiates],” Brennan says, “until they were convinced by the pharmaceutical companies that they could be prescribed for chronic pain.”

Prescriptions for both oxycodone and hydrocodone increased significantly through the 1990s and 2000s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), from about 76 million prescriptions nationwide in 1991, to about 210 million in 2010. At the same time, the rate of deaths due to accidental drug overdose spiked, from around 2 per 100,000 Americans each year, to more than 9 per 100,000. The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy notes that prescription drugs account for nearly a third of all illicit drugs consumed in the United States. Remove marijuana from the equation, and illegal drugs obtained through scripts total more than all other illegal drugs combined.

This rise in opioid use over the last decade caught Brennan’s attention.

“We had regular meetings with the treatment providers to discuss emerging trends,” says Brennan. “And during these discussions, they uniformly talked about prescription drugs, particularly among young people and middle-class people.”

Further, prescription drugs began showing up in large volumes in police seizures of other illegal narcotics.

“There are these call-up delivery services,” Brennan explains. “You can call up and order a bag of marijuana, and I’ll get a gram of coke, and da-da-da. Well, we’d seize prescription narcotic drugs from those delivery services. We were seeing it in all sorts of unlikely places.”

Though the drugs are getting out into the same trafficking circles, these prescription drugs present different public health challenges than other illegal substances. For instance, Brennan believes that addictions to prescription drugs are particularly difficult to overcome, as the drugs are available at pharmacies, and they carry the stamp of approval from doctors.

“Our approach in this country has been a pill for this, a pill for that,” she says. “As long as we have that approach, we’re going to keep having these kinds of problems. I mean, the proposed solution to the opioid problem is yet another pill, suboxone.”

But not all addicts want treatment to wean themselves off of narcotics. The rise in prescription drug abuse appears to be leading to a resurgence of heroin use.

“That’s the other drug we’ve seen a spiking demand in,” Brennan says. “We’ve seen a big increase in heroin seizures in our city. People become addicted to the opioid prescription drugs, and when it becomes too expensive to continue using the pills, they turn to heroin.”


Crack Downer

When Brennan started as an assistant district attorney, the heroin epidemic was near its end, and the city’s rising drug problem was with crack, which brought with it a wave of violence. In 1983, her first year at the Manhattan DA’s office, there were 1,622 homicides in New York, or 22.8 per every 100,000 residents. By 1990, that number had risen to 2,245, or 30.7 per 100,000. Crack addiction took much of the blame.

“For a relatively low investment,” Brennan says, “[street gangs] could buy cocaine and cook it up into crack vials that they sold for $3 or $5 on the street. But in order to make money, they had to sell thousands and thousands of vials. There was a lot of traffic, and a lot of violence between competing street organizations, and it was just horrendous.”

As an assistant DA, Brennan’s initial cases were small-time misdemeanors, but she quickly graduated to prosecuting homicides and sex crimes. She had to deal with what she calls the “back end” of the crack epidemic — the murders and robberies and other crimes committed by those under the influence of the drug.

“As a homicide assistant, you would go out when the police made an arrest to take a statement from the defendant,” she says. “We would wear beepers, and there were nights when I got three beeps a night.”

The cases were so numerous that the police had little time to follow up their investigations, and victims and witnesses had to be cajoled into testifying. Prosecution became nearly impossible in the flood of crime and violence. “You couldn’t get witnesses in [to testify],” she says. “Even if your witnesses were cops, you couldn’t get them in. Everybody just had a finger in the dike.”

But it wasn’t a murder case that had the deepest effect on her; it was a lost child.

“Probably the saddest case I had involved a four-year-old girl who had been found wandering in a housing project by housing police,” Brennan says. “She was turned over to foster care, and when the foster mother was giving her a bath, she noticed bleeding from the vaginal area. A lot of bleeding.”

The girl’s mother had left her with a man while she went to smoke crack. The man, also high on drugs, had sexually abused her. To prosecute that man, Brennan had to present a case to a grand jury within five days, but the mother never showed up to give a formal statement, and neither did any other witness.

“I went to the hospital trying to get the hospital records for the girl,” Brennan says. “Remember, this is before DNA evidence. [The girl] couldn’t testify; she was too young. And I went in to see her at the hospital, and there was nobody there. I mean there was no mother. There was no foster mother. No nothing. And it just brought home to me the destructive nature of that particular drug. One of the strongest human bonds is that maternal instinct, and how that mother could walk away from her child, I’ll never know.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Brennan felt “utterly defeated,” as the effort to clean up the effects of New York’s narcotics problem seemed impossible. But instead of giving in to despair, she decided to move from the back end of narcotics cases to the front, aiming to stop the damage by attacking the problem closer to its source.

“What you always want to do,” she says, “is turn off the spigot at the highest level, turn off the flow. To the extent that there’s a surplus of addictive drugs out there, there are going to be more addicts.”

Brennan switched from the Manhattan DA’s office to the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor in 1993, rising to the office’s second-in-command in ’95 and to the top job in ’98. In fifteen years, she’s expanded the office’s efforts to investigate money laundering and gangs, and she helped create a drug diversion program for non-violent defendants.

As the crack wave subsided through the 1990s, the challenges to her office changed, but the ultimate goals are much the same: to protect people from the consequences of addiction.

“It’s tough to get people to take the pill epidemic seriously,” she says. “All the consequences that were so clear with crack are not as clear with the opioid drugs. Crack users were impoverished, and so the spiral downward was quick. In the prescription-drug arena, the people using have a better social safety net, so the consequences are less apparent and seem less urgent. But the sad stories are just as sad.”

Pill Mills

According to Brennan, the prescription drug problem differs from previous drug epidemics in several ways. The addicts tend to be members of the middle class, for instance, and those selling the drugs often aren’t street dealers but physicians.

Brennan doesn’t want to limit doctors from giving legitimate pain relief to patients in need, but she’s found that it’s not hard to spot offenders. As the attorneys in her office have looked into the rise in prescription drug sales, they’ve found that the drugs are often being sold by doctors whose offices were little more than what she calls “pill mills” — drug-selling operations disguised as clinics.

“There was one case we looked at because there were community complaints about lines of addicts outside the door of the clinic,” she says. “And we looked at that doctor’s practice, how much he’s prescribing, and [we] also went to the medical examiner’s offices and obtained the names of people who had overdosed, and compared them against this doctor’s patient list. We saw that sixteen of his patients had overdosed and died during the two-year period we were looking at. We talked to medical experts who told us that even one patient overdosing and dying is a lot. So sixteen is way over the top. So we knew he was a public health risk.”

A closer investigation found that the office maintained a price list for prescriptions: $125 in cash for an opioid prescription for an ordinary patient; $250 for patients whom the office regarded as “complex” — that is, who had multiple opioid prescriptions in a month or whose prescriptions were above a certain number of milligrams.

“Clearly he was just selling prescriptions,” Brennan says. And that’s the kind of physician she and her office are targeting. “We’re not going at [doctors in] the gray area, where you might quibble about what criteria they might use or how much they’re prescribing, but the blatant selling of prescriptions.”

The role of doctors, and the implied authority they bring, has made fighting prescription drug crime difficult. Those who become addicted often don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into.

“We find many accidental addicts to opioid prescription drugs,” Brennan says. “With crack, it has a big stamp of society’s disapproval and society’s fear. It’s illegal. What could be more clear than that? Crack and heroin have that written all over them. The opioid prescription drugs, not so much.”

John Allen is senior editor of On Wisconsin.

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