February 2014

Director's NotesEric

WIPPS rings in 2014 with a renewed commitment to addressing the issues that the people and communities of Wisconsin care about.  We do so in part to honor the memory of WIPPS founder, Jim Veninga, who passed away on January 10, 2014, after a courageous battle with cancer. While serving as Dean of UW-Marathon County, it was Jim’s vision to bring the resources of the university to bear in addressing public issues that led to WIPPS founding in 2007.  On a personal note, Jim was a friend and mentor, and a human being of unending grace and compassion.  Jim had an incredible ability to inspire people to be their best selves, a trait which is as rare as it is appreciated by all who knew him.  While we celebrate WIPPS accomplishments and welcome new staff and Fellows in this newsletter, we also give thanks to Jim Veninga for his vision and legacy.

Remembering WIPPS Founder Jim VeningaJimVeninga

Jim Veninga graduated from Baylor University and went on to earn a Masters of Theological Studies (M.T.S) degree from Harvard Divinity School followed by a Ph.D. in History and Religious Studies from Rice University. Before coming to Wisconsin to take on a job as Dean of UW-Marathon County, Jim was the Executive Director of the Texas Council for the Humanities (now Humanities Texas), a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities -- a post he held with distinction for twenty-three years, from 1974 to 1997. During his time at the Texas Council, he helped found and give shape to a public humanities movement that expanded the civic life of Texas and the nation.


Upon leaving, an award was established in his name: the “James F. Veninga Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities Award …. This award was established to honor James F. Veninga, Humanities Texas Executive Director Emeritus, for his twenty-three years of extraordinary contributions to the state council and to the public humanities in Texas and the U.S.” In 1999, while President of the Institute for the Humanities at Salado, Texas, the University of North Texas Press published a book containing his collected addresses and essays -- one of five books he wrote, edited or co-edited.

Jim founded WIPPS while Dean of UW-Marathon County and served on the board from 2007 – present. He brought to Wisconsin the same spirited leadership he exhibited in Texas, both academically and philosophically, strengthening the connection between the university and communities served.

As Dean of UW-Marathon County, Jim was a visionary leader with a deeply held belief in the transformative power of the liberal arts for individuals and in the contribution of the liberal arts to the well-being of society in different ways. He was true to his beliefs throughout his tenure as dean and in the years after, when he remained a great supporter of the campus. He promoted a vision of civic engagement and deliberative democracy for society -- conversations at the intersection of values and policy-making. He was ahead of his time in working to promote civil conversation in society and in our legislatures. He believed in the value of public service scholarship by the University and for this and other work, he was named a Wisconsin Idea Fellow, 2004-2005, by former President of the UW System, Katherine Lyall: “A champion of civic engagement, Veninga has worked on dozens of projects connecting campuses to community needs and is a frequent speaker on the role of the liberal arts in an increasingly technological society.”

This kind of advocacy gave rise to his founding of the Wisconsin Institute of Public Policy and Service (WIPPS). His vision ultimately led to the building of the UW Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) with support from the County, the Federal Government, and the UW System and Colleges. The UW CCE houses WIPPS, Wisconsin Public Radio’s WHRM, and UWMC Continuing Education, as well as UWMC’s Theatre Program.

Many of us will remember the forums Jim led, including one the eve of the Iraq War on “Just War” and one with author Reza Aslan, then relatively unknown, on “Islam and Democracy:  For what can the world hope?” He also took the lead in the establishment of the UW Colleges Religious Studies program.  In 2012, a joint campus-WIPPS lecture series was established in his honor: “The James Veninga Lecture on Religion and Politics.” The third annual lecture in this series is planned for September, 2014.

Jim's passing is greatly mourned at WIPPS and throughout Wisconsin.  A memorial service will be held in Wausau in May.


WIPPS VITA Program Ready For Tax Seasontaxes

The 2014 tax season is underway! Now in its 5th season, the WIPPS/UW-Marathon County VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program uses volunteer tax preparers to process returns for individuals who qualify for free tax preparation. The service is available to anyone who has a total gross income of $51,000 or less, no ownership of a business or farm, no rental property ownership, and no capital gains.


All volunteers complete an IRS certification process in order to serve as tax preparers. Currently, nine volunteers are enrolled in the certification course. College students who volunteer are eligible to receive academic credit for their service.

During the 2013 tax season, the WIPPS/UW-Marathon County VITA program prepared 158 returns, using 16 volunteers, and processed $155,842 in tax refunds. We know there are many individuals who could benefit from this service that might not be aware of it.

If you know of an organization, business, or other group we should contact to expand our reach to effectively serve the people of Marathon County, please let us know. During the 2014 tax season, the program will run every Saturday, from February 1 to April 12, from 9 am to 2 pm.

To have returns completed by a volunteer tax preparer, you must make an appointment by calling 715-261-6104. If you are interested in volunteering, please call 715-261-6104 or email


People of Rural Wisconsin’s Website Under ConstructionEd Janus

The People of Rural Wisconsin Project records and preserves the stories of dairy farmers, cheesemakers, loggers, and others who grew up or made a living in rural Wisconsin. People of Rural Wisconsin project team members and volunteers are taking a break from interviewing to organize already collected interviews and make them accessible to the public. To date, project staff and volunteers have gathered 67 interviews from farmers, judges, former Alice in Dairylands, and many other unique and interesting Wisconsin citizens! Project staff is currently developing a website to archive the audio interviews. The website will also feature photo galleries to tell the stories of our rural Wisconsin citizens and an eBook to showcase the most compelling interviews. The website archives and eBook will continue to be updated as more interviews are conducted. We hope to launch the website this spring.    

People of Rural Wisconsin is now on Facebook! Find us on Facebook as “People of Rural Wisconsin,” or go directly to the page:

Meet WIPPS New Program ManagerJohn Viste

We are pleased to welcome new Program Manager, John Viste, to the WIPPS staff. John comes to WIPPS after a successful career managing development and humanitarian programs for over thirty years, primarily in the Middle East.  According to Viste, “I look forward to giving back to Wisconsin, and I see WIPPS as an excellent vehicle to help address community-identified needs. Previously, Viste served as the American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) group's country director in Lebanon where he supervised programs spanning health and education services, sustainable community development, water rehabilitation and agriculture, microfinance as well as emergency relief and medical aid. ” 

Prior to joining ANERA, Viste was assistant country director for CARE in the West Bank and Gaza. He also managed multimillion dollar projects for Chemonics and ARD in the West Bank, Gaza and Egypt. Earlier in his career, he worked for AMIDEAST as a field director in Egypt, West Bank and Gaza. The Wisconsin native is a graduate of George Washington University with a Master's in Educational Administration from Harvard.

WIPPS Hosts Second Conference on the Federal Health Insurance Marketplace

Health conference
Hundreds gathered in the Fox Cities for a two-day conference on the new federal health insurance marketplace in Wisconsin which featured national and local leaders discussing and clarifying key issues surrounding the new law.


The conference (It’s Here:  The Federal Health Insurance Marketplace in Wisconsin), held at UW-Fox Valley on November 7-8, featured over 40 national, state, and local experts from key sectors who examined the latest developments in implementing the Federally Facilitated Marketplace (FFM) in Wisconsin.  The event focused on the situation in Wisconsin six weeks into the launch of the historic yet controversial program, and served as a follow-up event to a similar June, 2013 statewide conference held in Wausau.

The conference kicked off with an enrollment training session conducted jointly by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and Covering Kids & Families, and included sharing practical information about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the FFM and available resources. 

Thursday evening’s session, “Putting Politics Aside:  The Realities of Obamacare” drew over a hundred people from the general public.  The keynote address by USA Today Washington Bureau journalist Donovan Slack, focused on perception versus reality of the consequences of the ACA.  Conference panels the next day continued to focus on the impact of the ACA and featured a variety of professionals ranging from physician and small business owners to large employer human resources professional and DHS representatives.  Wisconsin Public Television video clips were used to center discussion on real-life situations across the state, what the law means to everyday people, and how it will affect them.

Talk of the major technical glitches of the website were front and center at the Friday, November 8 professional conference, and several discussions centered on problems and uncertainties involved in the launch of the FFM.  Friday keynote speaker, Jonathan Gruber, architect of the Massachusetts health reform effort and a subsequent consultant to the Obama administration in crafting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, discussed the three key principles of the ACA: 1) coverage cannot be denied or revoked because of illness; 2) everyone must purchase or be eligible for coverage; 3) subsidies need to be available. Lessons from Massachusetts were shared, such as the impact of the marketplace on access to, cost and quality of care.  For more information, visit

New WIPPS Fellows

Bill Rizzo, Local Government Specialist, UW-Extension Local Government Center
Bill Rizzo is on a mission to help local officials improve governance processes throughout Wisconsin’s counties and municipalities. “The big question,” says Rizzo, “is how to expand civil dialogue within local governance processes.” Rizzo is in the right place to make a difference, recently joining the UW-Extension’s Local Government Center as a Local Government Specialist.


In this role, Rizzo is delivering educational programs and conducting research around topics of constructive dialogue; deliberation; issue identification and framing; civil society; and public participation in local government. As a 2014 WIPPS Fellow, Rizzo is working with partners to develop an active network of practitioners of dialogue and deliberation dedicated to building a culture of civil discourse, citizen participation, and healthy democratic practice in Wisconsin. Rizzo will work closely with WIPPS and other partners to build this network, which will include local government officials and the state-wide organization which represent them, Extension Educators, citizen groups, centers for public life, researchers, trained facilitators, and other organizations and practitioners who collectively seek to build a culture of civil dialogue. Over time, Rizzo hopes the network will grow to become a hub for synergistic, cutting edge practice and research on deliberative approaches to governance, citizen participation, civil dialogue, and healthy democracy at the local level. Rizzo is optimistic that the time is ripe for the creation of such a network given that local officials and citizens alike are becoming more concerned about the detrimental impact of partisanship and incivility on local governance. According to Rizzo, “The network will have the greatest impact if it can attract a wide variety of people— elected officials, researchers, practitioners, and active citizens—who are willing to work together to move Wisconsin communities toward local governance processes which leverage the power of constructive dialogue in addressing local challenges.


Margaret Armstrong, Professor Emerita, UW-Waukesha
Armstrong is developing a model of educational intervention to assist teachers at the K-12 levels improve teaching and learning. The project uses software technology to connect course lectures and materials to student expectations about learning outcomes.

This cognitive development model is based on systematic remediation that is not typically available to teachers until students have already tried and failed to conquer a set of materials. Armstrong’s project will focus on automating feedback mechanisms through open-source code software, which will be web-based and modifiable by any instructor. The overall goals are four-fold: 1) automate teacher’s individual representation of their course objectives and how they hope to accomplish them; 2) automate student responses to the teacher’s representation and provide results of student responses to the teacher; 3) show teachers how to use student response to provide focused remediation, then collect new student responses after remediation has been instituted; and 4) have teachers evaluate the effectiveness of their remediation efforts in the context of individual student understanding. As part of her fellowship, Armstrong will develop software to automate the process, make it more user friendly, thus permitting wider dissemination and testing across a variety of Wisconsin educational contexts. Armstrong will seek to disseminate their tools via peer-reviewed publications and through classroom demonstration projects.