The Madison Experiment

Chancellor Martin’s letter to the community indicates that she and the provost have accepted the shared governance process, belatedly. This is a positive development. So, in the spirit of shared governance let’s consider the administration’s proposal and see what we think about it.

The essence of the current proposal is to centralize control over our research enterprise by splitting research functions off from the Graduate School and consolidating them in a new office for research under a new vice-chancellor. The question of whether such centralization would be a good move can be broken down into two parts. First, what might we gain? Second, what could we lose?

So what might we gain from centralization? One argument often made by our provost is that having a dedicated office for research would make us more competitive by bringing us into line with our peer institutions. However, year after year UW-Madison ranks among the top research institutions in the country, despite being located in a state with a relatively small population and a moderate average income. Though public investment in our higher education system has been anemic for decades and our faculty salaries are far below the median of our peer group, we continue to excel. We routinely beat our peer institutions in the funding race despite these challenges, so it would seem that we have little to gain by emulating them. It seems like they should be copying us, not the other way around.

Now, what could we lose from centralization? Since we are very successful but don’t really know why, we could conceivably lose the key to our success. What if our success owes to us having the most bottom-up culture of any U.S. university? What if it is our strong shared governance system that encourages faculty to pursue research in novel directions, since they know that they won’t be second guessed by a department head, dean or vice chancellor for research? Though the free-wheeling chaos our shared governance system generates no doubt causes periodic headaches for administrators, it may be the source of our competitive advantage. If our culture of shared decision-making is even partly responsible for our stunning success, dismantling our Graduate School to create a centralized system is probably a very bad idea.

We routinely out compete our peer institutions for research funding, and the reasons for our astounding research success have not been identified. Any proposed restructuring should be based on a clear identification of the problem to be solved, careful consideration of alternatives and sound data analysis. Anything less amounts to a reckless experiment on the UW-Madison research enterprise.

CK Adams

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6 Responses to The Madison Experiment

  1. GP says:

    With respect to the possible role of “bottom-up” vs. “top-down” in our success, I can provide a personal anecdote: I was at another Big Ten university for 10 years, and I did well enough there that I made tenure a year early. But I never felt at home and was always watching for an exit. A very big part of the reason was its very top-down, corporate style administration. The departments had heads, not chairs, the heads were picked by the deans, and so on up the line. In fact, our head, when I was new there, had been the result of an outside search, so he wasn’t even drawn from the department he presided over.

    The heads controlled pay raises and a lot of other things. The faculty tended to be afraid of the unilateral discretion of the heads, and the heads in turn probably felt the same way about the deans. In short, the atmosphere was tense, and people who had complaints about the way things were being run kept their complaints to themselves or confided them only to trusted friends. Faculty meetings were an odd mix of run-of-the-mill business and subliminal politicking. Secret alliances were common.

    When I had the chance to move to UW-Madison, I saw it first and foremost as a chance to escape that oppressive top-down environment. Actually starting here felt like a breath of fresh air. My new colleagues were egalitarian and collegial, and decisions were (and still are) made largely by consensus. I felt empowered to do useful things with and for the department without worrying about running afoul of someone higher up. I noticed that nobody bitched about the chair, because, after all, they elected him.

    For all these reasons, I quickly came to feel very loyal to UW-Madison and its unabashed embrace of shared governance. I also noticed that UW-Madison had attracted a lot of other people with the same values as mine and that these tended to be creative, energetic scholars and researchers. I saw, and still see, a correlation.

    If there’s a single factor in the present situation that most explains my gut reaction, it’s my perception that the provost is pursuing exactly the kind of unilateral, top-down leadership I thought I had escaped.

    I had a hallway conversation recently with a colleague who is one of the most visible and productive researchers and teachers in our field. He, too, is extremely concerned about what’s happening. He said something like this: “If they succeed in taking away what we have had here, I’m not really sure I would want to work here anymore.” I understood what he meant.

  2. A Concerned Graduate Student says:

    “Provost DeLuca has developed and shared a proposal that would involve creating a new position — a vice chancellor for research — whose responsibility it would be to coordinate research infrastructure in a separate Office for Research, foster research efforts across campus, and establish a greater presence with funding agencies and foundations for UW-Madison and its researchers and scholars.”

    I want to draw particular attention to the phrase I have highlighted above and ask the reader to keep this in mind.

    I write to share a comment made by a faculty member at a department meeting I attended where the faculty discussed the proposed restructuring plan. The faculty member noted that this trend of having an ‘advocate’ in Washington to ‘establish a greater presence’ etc. comes dangerously close to realizing a process where some research or research areas are deemed worthy of funding, are recognized as posing “legitimate” questions, while others lack this “quality”; the judgment then rests not on the answers and insights research would provide of our world, but would reflect what was politically acceptable to support .

    It seems quite clear to me that this proposed “strategy” element would affect what falls within the realm of academic inquiry because those troublesome and inconvenient questions about our world would likely be under-researched at best and un-researched at worst. Despite the Chancellor’s claim to the contrary that “it is not the job of the administration to decide what faculty will pursue in research and scholarship”, I think pursuing an organizational structure and policy that relies on such an “advocate” in Washington WOULD ABSOLUTELY dictate the research agenda of universities and the researchers who work in them. How could it not?

  3. Anonymous says:

    It seems to me that there are some important points on both sides of this issue.

    But rather than restructure the entire Graduate School into two units, could they try modifying the existing Graduate School structure? To start, perhaps some changes in leadership are needed? If there were so many problems, then why did no one lose their job? Where’s the accountability here?

    Some re-alignment of the leadership of the Graduate School, at the highest levels, might accomplish a lot. Changing the duties of the Associate Deans might be helpful too.

    Wouldn’t this be easier? And wouldn’t it show that the UW is acting responsibly, with accountability, rather than growing the administrative layers more and more?

    Just a thought. I don’t really have an axe to grind here.

  4. ELY says:

    Anonymous: It is probably safe to say that most of us (faculty and staff) that have been trying to make sense of this restructuring proposal have no idea what specific problems occurred within the Graduate School that would warrant people losing their jobs. We (or at least I) were under the impression that it was a question of inadequate resources. Are we wrong? Could you please elaborate? Who should be accountable, and for what? What is your specific suggestion, and how would it satisfy the other objectives that have been cited by the provost for the restructuring?

  5. anonymous says:

    I don’t know anything more than you do. I’m just saying that if there were so many near misses and screw-ups in the current functioning and structure of the Graduate School, then maybe they should fix the graduate school by changing personnel, leadership or responsibilities? Perhaps have the team focus more on the management of the research enterprise, and less on graduate education per se? (After all, graduate education happens in the departments, not at the Graduate School itself.)

    Please don’t infer that I’m advocating sacking a bunch of people. I’m not. But it’s a question that I think should be asked. In the private sector (i.e. real world), if a unit is having problems, you generally look to have someone come in a try to fix it before throwing more money into management.

  6. DQ says:

    Article in WI State Journal today explains AAALAC problem – happened in Med School (DeLuca’s previous home), not in the Grad School. It’s understandable that it took some time to complete the WIMR building so that the animals could be transferred from MSC and it’s also a relief to others on campus with animals that this AAALAC problem was cleared up. However, it seems that this was a Med School problem more than a Graduate School problem so I have to wonder why the Grad School is taking the hit for it.

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