Deconstructing Don Kettl

Media Rants

from the July 2004 edition of The Valley Scene

By Tony Palmeri

In the early 20th century University of Wisconsin faculty developed and advocated bold public policy initiatives that bettered the entire nation. The Social Security System, unemployment compensation, and the progressive income tax were all Wisconsin innovations pioneered by progressive, practical professors.

UW faculty could pursue socially conscious reforms because of the university system's commitment to the "Wisconsin Idea," defined in 1947 by Edward Doan as "the joint effort of the politician and the professor to serve the common interest of all the people rather than the special interest of particular groups." The UW Board of Regents in a classic statement acknowledged that such service requires maximum freedom to think and speak: "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."

Today the Wisconsin Idea survives in a condition that would have appalled its early proponents such as John Bascom, Charles Van Hise, and Robert LaFollette. With the Wisconsin legislature now under the control of corporate interests and highly paid lobbyists bent on rolling back the state's progressive tradition, there's little patience for reform minded professors. The controlling interests and corporate media that support them prefer pliant profs whose politics represent no threat to the power brokers.

That brings us to Don Kettl, for the last 14 years a professor of public affairs and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's LaFollette School of Public Affairs. In May professor Kettl announced acceptance of a position at the University of Pennsylvania, ending a badger state tenure that had seen him become Wisconsin's most high profile academic, the favorite professor of Republican Governor Thompson and Democratic Governor Doyle, and a darling of mainstream media outlets. More than any other UW faculty, Kettl came to symbolize the tendency of the modern professoriate to serve as tools of power rather than challengers of it.

Upon learning of Kettl's resignation, the state's corporate cheerleaders heaped praise on the prof. Jim Doyle, whose subservience to corporate chieftains would make even Tommy Thompson blush, issued a statement calling Kettl "an example of the success of the Wisconsin Idea, and the tremendous contributions the university makes to our state." The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, today little more than a newsletter for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, called Kettl a "rational" voice whose comments have been of "enormous help to the public in understanding complex issues."

Kettl became known to Wisconsinites when appointed in 1996 by Governor Thompson to serve as chair of a Blue Ribbon Commission on Campaign Finance Reform. The members of this "bipartisan" Commission were: David Adamany, president of Detroit's Wayne State University; Robert Friebert, a Milwaukee attorney; James Klauser, a Madison attorney and former Thompson cabinet member; and Brandon Schulz, executive director of the Wisconsin Grocers Association. Then Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen's spokesman Steve Bass said that Kettl was put in charge of the commission because, "he has a lot of credibility in the Capitol." Predictably, this group of inside power brokers came up with a report and recommendations which the Capitol Times' John Nichols said were "tepid . . . it does not qualify as a serious reform initiative." The Heffernan Citizen's Commission on Clean Elections, chaired by retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Heffernan, was formed in 1997 almost as a direct response to Kettl's Old Guard guardians. The Heffernan Commission recommended full public financing of campaigns.

So pleased was Tommy Thompson with Kettl's ability to give respectable academic cover to an administration dominated by big business interests that in April of 2000 he put the professor in another prestigious position. The "Governor's Blue-Ribbon Commission on State-Local Partnerships for the 21st Century" (later known as the Kettl Commission) was charged with being "radical and bold." Sadly, the Commission began with the premise that Wisconsin's taxes are too high for everyone, thus ruling out immediately any chance of studying seriously the manner in which higher taxes for the middle class during the Thompson years were the direct result of the costs of corporate tax breaks being shifted on to their backs.

Not to be outdone by Tommy, Jim Doyle in late 2003 asked Kettl and Tim Sheehy of the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce to co-host a conference on how we can hold down or reduce property taxes. Kettl and Sheehy presided over a conference in which the idea that closing corporate loopholes might be a way to create tax relief for citizens never came up.

Former State Superintendent of Education Bert Grover delivered a speech at last year's FightingBob Fest in Baraboo in which he asked: "Who in the university is lending the institution's wisdom, judgment, intuitive response and resources to talk about campaign finance reform? Who in the university is talking about tax reform and the fact that 80 percent of the insurance companies in the state do not pay taxes? We subsidize our corporations in this state to the tune of $2.7 billion a year. Who at the university is saying that?"

As we wish Dr. Kettl well in his new position, let us hope that UW faculty begin to take Bert Grover's advice.

Tony Palmeri ( is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.