This is the fifth in a series on Whitewater’s local politics of 2021. Whitewater, Wisconsin is a small town where about half the residents are university students. Town-Gown conflicts here aren’t the most in all North America, but they’re not the least, either.
The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater is beset with challenges apart from politics: long-term structural limitations of the UW System’s funding, a declining demographic of typical college-age students, short-term revenue losses from the pandemic, two unsuited chancellors in a row (Telfer, Kopper), a mediocre media relations shop, and a current chancellor (Watson) who undermines any chance of improvement whenever he stoops to that media shop’s stale or false talking points.
The direct influence of the university on the town’s local politics is probably overstated: many university faculty or staff members do not live in the city, and students attend UW-Whitewater for reasons understandably more important to them than city politics. (For those who do live and vote in the city, national or state elections draw more participation than wholly local races.)
It’s indirectly, as a topic, that the university plays its key political role: as an economic resource (although, again, an often over-stated one), as a source of pride, frustration, or controversy. Old Whitewater – whatever the politics of the residents – has never been comfortable with the university (especially as it grew larger from 2006-2016). Some of Old Whitewater wished the university never grew, others that it grew only on campus, and others would have preferred that the whole city look more like an extended nursing home or library than a college town.
There have been landlords who have profited from this public university’s rise during that time, but not all residents have seen benefits so tangible. (These landlords are, mostly, self-identified business conservatives who owe their livelihoods to a state-funded public university.)
It’s as a source of continuing controversy among those unaffiliated with the university that UW-Whitewater exerts the most influence over city politics. That’s the unsolved Town-Gown problem, one that is no less a problem now than it was ten or twenty years ago. Structural limits, misconduct, and unforced errors have left UW-Whitewater a public-relations failure within its own divided city.
Some small towns’ residents universally ache with love and pride for their local campus; Whitewater is not one of those places.
How many people from the university vote in any given election is less significant to the city’s local politics than the indirect influences of the campus.
Tomorrow: The Subcultural City.