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ELPA News

Witte (ELPA) to Retire and Serve as Dean at Kazakhstani University

April 19, 2012
Kazakhstan is next on Professor John F. 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 has been an affiliate in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis for more than 10 years. He has been working with faculty in the School of Education since 1984 when Dean Emeritus John Palmer recruited him for a project to study Milwaukee public schools.

Witte will retire after 35 years as a professor with the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Department of Political Science at the UW-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.

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   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.

"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," he says.

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."

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 UW-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."

- adapted from a University Communications release by Karen Faster
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