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Robert M. La Follette
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Witte to retire after 35 years of teaching, research, service

UW honors Witte with Hilldale award

John Witte's excellence in teaching, research and service has been honored with the University of Wisconsin – Madison's Hilldale Award presented at the April 9 Faculty Senate meeting. Read more in campus news




From former students

“As a student and member of the student association I looked to John as an important mentor. He helped me understand the interplay between budgeting and political and policy objectives. He was always willing to take the time in and out of class to talk through the real-world implications of the decisions I would make as a public servant. John affirmed my commitment to make government work. I am grateful for his career of service and the opportunity to know him as a teacher, mentor and friend.”

Sarah Barry, class of 2001, chief of staff, Wisconsin State senator Jessica King



“John has been my advisor since I came to UW seven years ago, and he has been instrumental in guiding me through graduate school and on into my professional career. He has been incredibly supportive of all my choices and goals, and he has gone out of his way to provide advice, encouragement and resources. I have learned an immense amount from working on several projects with John, and the knowledge I’ve gained through these collaborations has greatly improved the work I’ve done as a graduate student and will surely prove invaluable in my professional career. John is undoubtedly one of the most important factors in helping me get to where I am today. Everyone should be so lucky as to have an advisor like John Witte.”

Deven Carlson, class of 2007,
to join political science department at the University of Oklahoma in fall 2012



“John has been one of the most important influences on my career. As an undergraduate, I admired that he was willing to be open to points of view that were not held by the majority of faculty members in the department. After I graduated, I was considering whether to do a Ph.D. John thought maybe policy would be a better fit for me, but I wasn’t convinced, so he advised me to take a Ph.D. level poli sci course with him as a special student. I quickly decided he was right and enrolled at La Follette, where he continued to teach me about policy. When I did decide to do my Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy analysis, he continued to be a helpful connection. When I finished and was applying for jobs, he encouraged me to do a practice job talk and gave me all kinds of useful advice about how to improve it. When I worked for Governor Doyle, John remained a trusted ally, providing me with reinforcements (Ph.D. students), valuable information and the moral support I needed. Finally, when I decided to leave the university and wound up at the State Capitol as an education policy advisor, he continued to provide support. One of the things I’ve learned working on both sides of the aisle in policy is that it is important to hone your argument — and you can’t do that as effectively when everyone always agrees with you. With John’s retirement, we are losing one of the few professors I had who challenged me to say why I believed as I did, and to back it up with evidence.”

Sarah Archibald, class of 1998, education policy advisor for Wisconsin senator Luther Olsen



“John Witte taught me the difference between a teacher and a mentor. I met John in the early 1990s after moving to Madison, Wisconsin, from California to enroll in an MPA program at the La Follette School of Public Affairs. In my second year I took John’s course on ethics and values in policymaking. As in all great courses John didn’t teach students in the traditional sense; he connected with them, got them to care about the subject and, most importantly, made them appreciate on a gut level how the theories of Locke and Rawls were relevant to their lives. On my final paper John wrote a set of comments including instructions to come see him. John spent two hours outlining how I could turn the paper into something publishable and how he would help. In subsequent conversations we discussed policy, academics and my career, and I came to understood that academia and public policy were not mutually exclusive. He taught me how two people could disagree about policy yet still share a commitment to a public good. And finally, he continues to show me that an excellent teacher inspires and motivates students and a mentor provides guidance to channel that inspiration and motivation into a career or calling. I was fortunate nearly 20 years ago to meet someone who excelled at both — John Witte.

Mark Cassell, class of 1992, associate professor of political science, Kent State University

John Witte tends to learn a subject as he goes along. From industrial relations to education policy, the La Follette School political scientist accepts a challenge and becomes an expert.

Kazakhstan is next on Witte’s agenda. After he retires this summer, Witte will head for Astana and become dean of the new School for Humanities and Social Science at Nazarbayev University.

Witte retires after 35 years as a professor with the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In April he received the campus Hilldale Award, one of the university’s top honors for faculty members. It recognizes professors who excel in teaching, research and service.

Witte has been part of a group of UW faculty members who have extended the Wisconsin Idea to Kazakhstan in Central Asia. “I was part of a delegation from UW who traveled to Astana to see if it would be feasible for UW to help Kazakhstan establish a new university,” Witte says. “Now about 20 people at UW are advising and supporting Kazakhstan in the two-year effort.”

Witte’s research interests have always been eclectic. His Ph.D. in political science, completed at Yale University in 1978, examined how to establish industrial democracy and grassroots management in a factory. “I spent two years working in a factory in California that built high-fidelity speakers,” Witte says. “The research and subsequent book employed sociology, political science and public management, and in the end I concluded that economic democracy was very difficult to make work. Before my work, many others had assumed it would be easy.”

After spending two years in California, Witte returned to Yale to write his dissertation. Professors and colleagues involved with establishing what became the School of Management, Yale’s business school, asked the budding political scientist to give a presentation on the 1976 tax reform act. “I didn’t know anything about it, and I was working hard on my dissertation, but I put together a presentation,” says Witte, noting that Yale handpicked the business school’s first class to ensure success. “I did not realize that my audience included congressional staff members who had helped to write the legislation. They murdered me with their questions and comments.”

Witte survived the session and resolved to become an expert in U.S. tax policy. Years later he sent each of his interrogators copies of his second book, The Politics and Development of the Federal Income Tax.

Witte says he rejects the idea that the rich drive tax policy. Rather, the middle class governs tax policy. “Politicians want to keep taxes on the middle class constant, but we see policies that favor the rich, like the capital gains tax, fluctuate,” Witte says. One of the worst aspects of U.S. tax policy is that Republicans and Democrats support loopholes for their constituents. “The result is we have a tax code that is impossible to control and understand, and it is hard to raise enough money to fund programs,” Witte says.

Witte came to Wisconsin in 1977 and joined the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration (a La Follette School precursor) and the Department of Political Science. He taught La Follette’s beginning and advanced statistics courses, policy evaluation, and, more recently, courses on the policymaking process, federal budget and tax policy and administration, and an education policy seminar.

He counts himself lucky to have gotten a job in American politics in 1977. “They took a chance on me,” Witte says, “because I am so interdisciplinary.” The position was especially meaningful because Witte’s grandfather Edwin Witte was a longtime member of the UW economics faculty who chaired the federal committee that developed Social Security and wrote the legislation that created the program in 1935.

After Witte got tenure, Wisconsin’s governor tapped him to lead a commission on public schools in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. “I knew nothing about education policy, but I knew about politics,” Witte says. “It was a very intense year. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was filing a lawsuit, and the secretary of the Department of Employee Relations wanted to expose the problems blacks faced in Milwaukee Public Schools.”

With Witte as executive director, the commission studied the school districts in the metropolitan area and produced 1,000 pages of reports. “We published the students’ test scores, broken down by school, grade and race, almost two decades before such publications were required by law throughout the state and nation,” Witte says. “The Milwaukee Journal published the story; our work had a huge impact.”

Witte returned to Madison to serve as associate director of the La Follette Institute of Public Affairs. He won a fellowship to study at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences on Stanford University’s campus. In 1998-99, he again served as associate director at what was to become the La Follette School. School status was conferred when he was director from 1999 to 2002. Witte helped to design and implement the master of international public affairs degree program, and he created the accelerated program through which admitted UW-Madison undergraduates can complete a master’s degree public affairs with a fifth year of study.

The connections Witte made through his work with the Milwaukee area schools task force resonated through the rest of his career as he spent the next 25 years studying urban school systems, including Milwaukee. In 1990 the superintendent of public instruction asked Witte to be the state evaluator of Milwaukee’s new school choice program that gave vouchers to low-income parents to send their children to private schools.

From 1996 to 2006, the Legislature required no evaluation, but then in 2005 it authorized a five-year study, and Witte was drafted as one of the principal investigators. The new research studied the effects of vouchers and charter schools and the cost effectiveness of the various programs to expand school choice. Witte and his colleagues released the last round of findings in February 2012, including studies of student achievement, graduation from high school and attendance in college, and estimates of how many students with disabilities use vouchers to attend private schools.

Overall, income-targeted school choice is not a bad policy, Witte says. “We have found modest advantages for choice students in student achievement if they remain in choice schools, and about a 4 to 6 percent advantage in graduating from high school and attending college. However, poor families all have the same problems that affect how students perform, whether they attend public or private schools. A voucher program does give low-income students who otherwise can’t afford private school the chance to go to schools they could not otherwise attend, and which may prove to be better for them. In a small way vouchers equalize choices for poor families — and that is very important in my view.”

Now, with retirement, Witte looks forward to continuing his research and writing and applying his administrative skills to helping Nazarbayev University establish its School for Humanities and Social Science. “I know about higher education,” Witte says. “Now I’ll be learning about Kazakhstan.”

Witte to convene conference on higher education

To celebrate his retirement, a conference and reception will be held on Saturday, June 9, at the Pyle Center. Among others, a number of Witte’s doctoral students will return to Madison to present papers that explore higher education issues. The conference on Issues for Universities in the 21st Century will be 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The reception will be 4:30 to 7 p.m. with a formal welcome and remarks at 5:30 p.m.

In addition to heading to Kazakhstan, Witte plans to conduct his own research on higher education policy. Specifically, he and La Follette School economist Barbara Wolfe will continue to investigate whether higher education is becoming more elitist in terms of both admission and graduation. They conducted a preliminary analysis of UW-Madison and census data and determined in 2009 that family income does not affect whether the University of Wisconsin – Madison admits a student.

“Our early finding suggests that family wealth does not privilege college freshmen in gaining access to Wisconsin’s flagship public university,” Witte says. “We plan to keep looking at the issue on a national scale.”

A version of this article appears in the spring 2012 La Follette Notes newsletter for alumni and friends.

— posted April 10, 2012