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Longtime professor honored and surprised to be graduation speaker

December 4, 2013 By Greg Bump

Photo: Laura Singleton and Donald Downs

Graduate Laura Singleton and her 4-week-old daughter sit with Singleton’s faculty advisor, Professor Donald Downs, during a commencement ceremony at the Kohl Center May 17. Downs has been chosen to deliver the charge to graduates at UW–Madison’s Winter Commencement Dec. 22.



Donald Downs, a UW–Madison professor of political science, was preparing for a class recently when he got an unexpected call.

Downs was asked to deliver the charge to graduates at the Winter Commencement ceremony on Sunday, Dec. 22 at the Kohl Center. The ceremony begins at 10 a.m.

“It’s a genuine honor and a definite surprise,” says Downs, whose career spans 29 years at the UW.

“It’s exciting. Some of the students must have taken me, so I take it as a sign that I haven’t been all that awful in the classroom,” he adds, self-deprecatingly.

Downs earned his bachelor’s degree at Cornell University before going on to get his master’s from the University of Illinois and a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. Downs’ wife, Susan, her parents and her brother are UW alums. He says he feels like “an alumnus by association.”

“Some of the students must have taken me, so I take it as a sign that I haven’t been all that awful in the classroom.”

Donald Downs

Downs taught at the University of Michigan and University of Notre Dame, but he set his sights on UW–Madison.

“This was my dream job, it’s where I wanted to be,” Downs says. “Speaking at commencement is especially meaningful to me because of that and having worked so closely with students over the years.”

Downs teaches courses dealing with public law, American politics, and political theory. He is a longtime affiliate of the University of Wisconsin Law School and the UW–Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. In 2010 Downs was named the Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science at UW–Madison, and in 2013 received the national Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick Prize for Academic Freedom for his work on the issues of academic freedom and free speech.

He has been active in campus civil liberties issues, and is often called upon as an expert by the media on constitutional issues at the local, state and national levels.

Downs has won several awards for excellence in teaching, including the University of Wisconsin Distinguished Teaching Award and the Wisconsin Student Association’s teaching award.

His prize-winning books include “Nazis in Skokie: Freedom, Community and the First Amendment” (winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award for the best book on race relations); “The New Politics of Pornography” (winner of the American Political Science Association’s Gladys M. Kammerer Award for the best book dealing with American politics or policy); and “More than Victims: Battered Women, the Syndrome Society and the Law.” His most recent book, “Arms and the University: Military Presence and the Civic Education of Non-Military Students,” co-authored by Ilia Murtazashvili, was published in 2012.

“This moment in their lives will be the beginning of a time when I personally feel their future is very full with possibilities.”

Donald Downs

Downs says his commencement speech will focus on the values and mission of UW–Madison, and how what students have learned here can help them in their careers and personal lives.

“I’ll ask them to reflect back on what they’ve done, their achievements and to look forward to their future,” Downs says. “This moment in their lives will be the beginning of a time when I personally feel their future is very full with possibilities. I will convey to them how they are going to be writing the next page in their stories.

“This journey upon which they are embarking makes one feel like one does before taking a major trip somewhere, and even though the world is not an easy place for a variety of reasons, generations in the past have confronted difficulties and have always engaged and overcome those things,” he says.

The ceremony will last approximately two hours. Bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and professional degree candidates from all schools and colleges are welcome to participate.

Tickets are not required, and the ceremony is open to the public. Degree recipients are asked to be in their seats 20 minutes prior to the starting time of the ceremony.

The ceremony will be streamed live. Windows Media Player and a broadband connection are required in order to view it. The link to the streaming will be on the university’s main website. The stream will not be available until the beginning of the ceremony.

A complimentary shuttle bus will be provided to transport participants and guests between Union South and the Kohl Center. The shuttle will run from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and will make a complete loop once every 10-15 minutes.

The pick-up location is the Madison Metro bus stop on Randall Avenue, next to Engineering Hall and across from Union South. The ramp west of Engineering Hall (Lot 17) is a recommended parking location for those using the shuttle.