Downey says this motion appears to "single out" the journalism school's arrangement with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
A last-minute budget amendment would prevent the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from operating out of an office on the UW-Madison campus. That would have implications far beyond just the center and the university's journalism school, says Greg Downey, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
"The language seems just so broad as to really raise a lot of academic concerns for me and my colleagues," he said in an interview Wednesday.
The two-sentence amendment to the budget was part of an omnibus motion that was introduced by the Republican co-chairs of the state Legislature's Joint Finance Committee and passed just before 6 a.m. It reads:
"Prohibit the Board of Regents from permitting the Center for Investigative Journalism to occupy any facilities owned or leased by the Board of Regents. In addition, prohibit UW employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee."
Downey says he interprets the second sentence to mean that UW employees would be prohibited from collaborating with outside groups as part of their duties.
"As UW employees we engage in research, teaching and service. Through that, we are constantly cooperating and partnering in different ways with for-profit and nonprofit organizations around the state and country. It's not only what we do, but it's part of the Wisconsin Idea -- that not everything we do sits in a university lab."
Noting in a statement that there are many other arrangements where outside organizations use UW space for activities that are deemed to be in the interest of the school's "research, teaching and service mission," Downey says this motion appears to "single out" the journalism school's arrangement with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
Other UW officials Wednesday afternoon joined Downey in condemning the budget proposal and "rejecting its attempt to limit university collaboration."
"Arbitrarily prohibiting UW-Madison employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism is a direct assault on our academic freedom; simply, it is legislative micromanagement and overreach at its worst," said Gary Sandefur, dean of the College of Letters & Science.
Sandefur said such micromanagement "is a threat to the tradition of the college, the university and the state."
The reasons for the budget amendment are not clear. Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) could not be reached Wednesday to clarify the intent of the proposal or to respond to concerns raised by Downey and others. But an Associated Press article quotes Nygren as saying that he does not believe state facilities should be provided for the center.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism was launched in 2009 by Andy Hall, a former investigative reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. Hall says in a statement that he was "blindsided" by the JFC action. And he defended the center's collaborative and nonpartisan approach.
"The center doesn't take sides or play favorites. Its articles have provided in-depth coverage of government institutions, including the University of Wisconsin System, which houses it."
In exchange for allowing the center to have space in Vilas Hall, where the journalism program resides, the center hires students as paid interns. Downey says these internships provide real-life experience for journalism students.
"Their work gets out in the world. It's great training. It's great exposure. They go on to win state and regional awards and have great careers."
Hall says news of the committee's motion has spread quickly.
"Today I'm overwhelmed by messages of support from journalists and journalism educators, here and across the nation," Hall says. "They're concerned that the Joint Finance Committee's action could have a ripple effect, limiting the public's access to critical information that holds the government accountable, threatening the operations of other campus-based nonprofit journalism centers across the nation, and unreasonably restricting academic freedoms of educators to draw upon the best resources for educating students."
Downey says UW officials are already lobbying against this move. "We are working to try to get this language removed," he says, "so I'm hopeful."
[Editor's note: This article was updated at 4:17 p.m. with further comment from UW-Madison officials.]