Tribute: Remembering WIPPS Founder Jim Veninga

It is with great sadness that we share news of the death of Jim Veninga, who passed away January 10, 2014.

A graduate of Baylor University, Jim went on to earn a Masters of Theological Studies (M.T.S) degree from Harvard Divinity School and then a Ph.D. in History and Religious Studies from Rice University. Before coming to UWMC, 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 then-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 to 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 lead, 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 early spring.