Student statesmen: Aspiring politicians lured to UW-W

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Kevin Hoffman
Friday, November 12, 2010
— Wisconsin's budget deficit is spiraling out of control, unemployment is hovering near record highs and lawmakers can't agree on a working solution.

So, who wants to clean up this mess?

Apparently more people than you might think.

It's plausible that political infighting and voter angst has tainted the landscape for future leaders. But when it comes to fight or flight, the next generation is ready for battle.

"People are more interested than I've ever seen them," said sophomore Scott Coenen, legislative affairs director for UW-Whitewater's student government. "I think from my generation's perspective, we've never seen challenges like this, but I think in order for us to attain the lifestyle our parents have and previous generations, we need to get to work and do what we need to get involved."

More students graduated from UW-Whitewater with political science degrees in 2009-10 than in the 10 years prior. It's somewhat surprising based on the perceptions of the nation's government during that time.

Even gubernatorial candidates Tom Barrett and Scott Walker during their debate admired the irony of fighting for a job few others want. On the surface, it seems reasonable the state of the economy soured impressions for aspiring politicians, but some say history has proven otherwise.

Dick Haven, professor at UW-Whitewater for 38 years, said there was a surge of students declaring journalism majors at the peak of the Iraq war. He believes they have a natural tendency to gravitate toward "the action."

"I do think the students, like all generations that have an interest in politics, are often drawn there for reasons other than money," Haven said. "It's simply something that excites them or attracts them, and often when the times are turbulent they get more excited."

Last year, 41 students graduated as political science majors. That's more than twice as many as in 2002.

Degrees in public policy and administration across the UW System are about 13 percent higher in the last three years than earlier in the decade. Graduates with that focus often seek employment within government but not necessarily as an elected official.

Whitewater Students Government is feeling the effect, too. Coenen said 21 senators were seated this year after struggling to find willing participants in 2009-10.

The university is facing its own issues—budget cuts, tuition increases and a booming population that has students occupying all available space. Coenen speculates some are attracted to the opportunity to influence change.

The looming question is: Will interest continue to climb, or has it reached the summit? It might depend on who holds the power.

"I think now a lot of Republican students are particularly motivated, and in 2008 a lot of Democrat students were particularly motivated," said Susan Johnson, political science chair at UW-Whitewater. "Each group thought they were going to affect change, so now a lot of Republican students feel like the policies they want, they'll see enacted."

That pattern is reflected in the way students vote and how often they do it.

In 2008, students voted

with the rest of the nation in record numbers, but midterm elections have proven less

popular. That doesn't mean interest is waning this year or even that the political fire is beginning to dim at UW-Whitewater.

Haven said it's expected

that students generally vote in lower numbers because issues such as Social Security or health care haven't yet become a concern. That might make students react differently to the nation's most pressing problems.

"I don't feel like there's a lot of anger," Johnson said. "The screaming and yelling and stuff we see on television I'm not seeing in my classroom.

"I think it manifests itself (more) than just interest. Young people are less invested in the political process. Whereas it might manifest itself in anger, it manifests itself in disaffection."

Last updated: 3:36 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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