Back in 1980, I worked for the University of Wisconsin system, which was made up of 27 campuses. And I had fallen in love with the tiniest.
Its name was the Medford Center Campus, and it resided in Taylor County in the north-central part of the state. About 120 students went to college on the two-building campus. The city of Medford (population: 4,035) had put up for the cost of the land and buildings, and the prestigious University of Wisconsin had provided the education.
Medford Center was the pride of the local townsfolk. Their kids could stay at home, keep their part-time jobs during their freshman and sophomore years and then go off to a big state school to finish their degrees. The tiny brick campus also served as an educational, cultural and social hub for the entire county.
At the time, I was just a mid-level staff person working out of an office in Madison, but I admired Medford Center’s dedicated faculty, its students and the idea of a tiny campus playing with the “big guys” in higher education.
However, it didn’t make much economic sense to keep the Medford Campus afloat. When state budget cuts called into question the existence of the tiny campus, a political battle took place. It looked like Medford was going to be the sacrificial lamb for the legislators and taxpayers.
For some weird reason, perhaps out of love for a David battling Goliath, I fought to keep the Medford college experience alive. I had no clout within the huge bureaucratic educational system, but I made this personal. Without permission, I traveled day after day from Madison to Medford to rally local support. I attempted to sway the views of the Board of Regents and legislators to keep the campus open, and keep the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea alive.
The following year, in 1981, the Medford Center campus closed. I was heartbroken. I thought it was a huge injustice and I thought I had failed. I remember hugging the Dean, Darwin Slocum, the day the announcement was made. Tears were streaming down my face.
When I look back on that time, I realize how insignificant my efforts really were. My emotional and irrational pleas had no chance of changing the political tide, or the minds of “important people.”
And yet, I also recognize how my quixotic and fumbling efforts changed who I was, and the personal and professional choices I would make in the decades that followed.
Failure, when following one’s beliefs and passion, may prove to be a darn good thing.