A sad day … and a new chapter.

Biddy Martin has a great many admirers on the UW-Madison campus.  This is no surprise, as her public persona is very appealing: she is exceptionally intelligent, articulate, diplomatic — all the qualities, in fact, cited in the Amherst press release announcing her hiring.

I was among those faculty who greeted with enthusiasm her arrival as our new chancellor in September 2008, a scant three years ago.  And a bit like those for whom the Obama administration failed to live up to (possibly unrealistic) expectations, I am among the most disappointed today.

For despite continued broad and enthusiastic support among many faculty, students, and alumni, Biddy Martin also came to have a fair number of detractors, especially with regard to her attitude toward shared governance, which some — including this author — perceived as stubborn, arrogant and divisive.  This attitude was especially manifest in her aggressive (yet ultimately unsuccessful) top-down campaigns first to restructure the Graduate School and, not longer after, to split the UW-Madison campus from the rest of the UW-System.

There was no reason why either proposal needed to engender the alarm and bitter controversy that they did, had they only been handled differently.   Unfortunately, in neither case were we given much reason to believe that the chancellor was interested in encouraging a careful, nuanced analysis of the pros and cons of each proposal, let alone serious consideration of alternative solutions to the problems she identified.

While at other public universities today, this kind of top-down, corporate-style administration has become the norm rather than the exception,   UW-Madison has — rightly, in my opinion — resisted the trend.  And I believe that our long tradition of bottom-up shared governance has been a major reason for our success, not an impediment to it.

But even for those who have been critical of her management style, Chancellor Martin’s announcement of her departure for Amherst is cause for sadness, not celebration.   And for all campus citizens, it should be an occasion for sober, thoughtful reflection on the opportunities that were missed, on the unnecessary battles that were fought, and on the energy and resources that were diverted from our most pressing tasks.

Most importantly, it is occasion to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, internalize the lessons of the past three years, and  redirect our intellectual resources and energy toward building an even brighter future for UW-Madison despite challenging economic and political times.

I hope that our next chancellor will have all of the admirable qualities that Biddy Martin has.  But I would add to that wish list the single quality that I believe is more essential for a chancellor at UW-Madison than at any other campus in the world, and that is an abiding commitment to the tradition of shared sifting and winnowing in the search for truth and for solutions to the thorny modern problems facing public higher education in general and UW-Madison in particular.

I wish Biddy Martin well.


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19 Responses to A sad day … and a new chapter.

  1. Frank says:

    Exactly what sort of initiatives have ever arisen out of this vaunted “shared governance”? Or is it just another term for doing nothing much and keeping the status quo? Please be specific and passing silly anti-war resolutions or chiding sneaker-makers does not count.
    In my view your job is to teach and do research/public service in your area of expertise. The UW nor any complex institution does not need 2000+ opinions–often on issues they are neither trained in nor have any real expertise to offer. Most can’t get past their own political leanings and bring those to every issue–often when it is not applicable. What this is is a recipe for changing nothing which also happens to be a recipe for certain failure in an era of rapid change. What worked for 150 relatively sleepy years where nothing much changed is not the answer today. Big problems were emerging inthe research enterprise and due to inertia nobody at a high level was responsible and in charge. Because that was the way it evolved before there was even a $100 million research budget. I mean seriously, why are the art department and the dance program still stepchildren under the School of Education?? Because they were there 100 years ago and nobody has the balls to change that because Education likes their little fiefdom and nobody will rock that boat.
    I’m sorry but having the faculty run the place is an idiotic construct. A PhD does not qualify you as an educational leader. Just do your job and leave running the ship to the captain with some real experience.

    So I am sad to see Biddy go but not for some of the reasons you noted.

  2. A badger not a weasel says:

    The long-span record of this institution demonstrates the success of shared governance. That ‘idiotic construct’ has proven itself time and again in creating and sustaining one of the greatest and most fundamentally public institutions in the country and well beyond.

  3. Frank says:

    That’s real specific. In my reading of the UW’s history most real change and progress came at the behest of strong UW leaders. Men with their names on UW buildings. Not the faculty. Of course most of those strong leaders were gone for many of the same reasons we saw today. Better opportunities elsewhere.

  4. Crazy Harry says:

    A very dark day for the Madison campus. A giant has fallen. History will regard Chancellor Martin as a transformational leader.

    Now President Reilly will select an interim Chancellor who will likely be at the helm for 14 months. Will he take the high road, and pick someone with vision, or will he seek to retrench and reverse the progress made by the Madison campus in the Budget, those sections which differentiate it slightly from the dead weight of the System? I fear that I know the answer…

  5. Liberalscum says:

    Good riddance. Can’t think of a single positive from her tenure. Bad ideas, handled badly. Still, she is a pleasant and engaging lady, and I wish her all success. UW and Biddy were a very bad match from the beginning, Amherst should suit her well.
    Her departure, in haste, suggests undue pressure. Pressure from politicos? or Reilly? or from information not yet available to the public? I am very concerned that Reilly’s denial of a ‘forced resignation’ came out less than an hour after Biddy’s own announcement. Highly suspicious, but par for the course. I believe there is a lot about this decision that needs clarification.

  6. Frank says:

    How about the Madison Initiative which turned UW from a net loser of faculty into a net gainer and improved the morale on campus 100%?. Departments that had fallen in stature due to faculty losses were rebuilt with senior people from top schools. The advising program is being completely rebuilt. New dorms will be built to house all students who want them as freshmen–very important to many parents today. The Institute for Discovery is up and running. UW did very well in getting research funds from the Federal Stimulus program @ nearly $180 Million. UW will still benefit from the Madison Initiative funding increases while most other UW schools will face a limit of a 5.5% tuition increase. Applications and student quality soared. Pretty good for just three years.

  7. Crazy Harry says:

    I would lay the blame for her departure on Reilly and a few turds on the Board of Regents. Folks, this isn’t too hard to figure out. She did the noble thing and fell on her sword. Don’t buy it.

    Martin’s resignation clears the path for our own resident know-it-all, Dr. Sara, to go for the gold. She has all the answers — just ask her! — and this would be her chance to put all of her nutty feel-good theories to the test.

    Reilly is now likely licking his chops, figuring that he can manipulate the process and get a servile toady to replace her. University of Idaho, here we come!

  8. Crazy Harry says:

    I don’t mean to aim a general broadside at all members of the Board of Regents, but there are some who still yearn to bring out the long knives on Martin. Those of us present at the most recent Regent meeting noticed the look of anger and revulsion on the face of the outgoing Regent President as the separate authority given to the Madison campus in the new state budget bill was described. I think that the pejorative term clearly applies to him.

  9. A badger not a weasel says:

    Can we please elevate the level of discussion here? Calling regents turds is way too much like 4th grade and the stakes are very high here.

  10. Admin says:

    Eliminating name-calling would raise the level from 4th grade to 9th grade. To raise the discourse to, say, college senior level would require stating a thesis (“I think Regent X is doing a poor job”) and then supporting that thesis with specific, verifiable facts.

  11. Joe Salmons says:

    Well said. and thank you. Let’s aim for college senior and accept nothing lower than, say, 12th grade. This blog has been a tremendously valuable resource to many on and off campus through a set of recent crises and the school-yard bully posturing detracts greatly.

    The coming months are going to pose real challenges for UW-Madison and we can squeeze out opportunities if we’re smart and careful. S&W can help us.


  12. Frank says:

    There are no facts about the BOR because they say little and do nothing. They rubber stamp 99.9% of what comes from the System, grumble/grandstand when they have to raise tuition–like they have a choice–and that’s about it. They do not go out and campaign for the UW like some Chancellors and seem to be generally politically ineffective until the NBP arose. First time I have seen them actually awake.

  13. Joe Salmons says:

    Frank’s not up for the 9th grade challenge, I guess.

  14. Frank says:

    I’ll reverse it–show me where they have successfully done anything in a leadership type position other that the items noted–complaining about raising tuition (always one) and condemning the NBP after doing nothing to gain that type of freedom for oh–30 years we’ll say.
    There is your challenge. Always easier to prove a positive than a negative now isn’t it. Should be a piece of cake.

  15. Frank says:

    Well here’s a fine example. Upon the recent retirement of a Regent as he tries to exult the success that was the creation of the UW System he cites the ranking of the UW Madison as a “Top 20”. Apparently he did not know that just a couple years before the merger the UW was ranked as a Top 10 university in the US in one of the best known university rankings at the time by Roose and Andersen. And he exclaims about the great trajectory at UWM. I’ll believe that when their grad rate hits 50%. Right now it’s a great waster of scarce resources.


  16. GP says:

    Frank writes, “There are no facts about the BOR because they say little and do nothing. They rubber stamp 99.9% of what comes from the System, grumble/grandstand when they have to raise tuition–like they have a choice–and that’s about it.”

    To the extent that that’s all true, I believe it’s probably equally true of boards anywhere, including throughout the corporate world. Is it possible that the whole idea of boards whose members have minimal true accountability is simply flawed from the get-go? Is there a better way?

  17. Crazy Harry says:

    When Reilly charged the Chancellors and two-year campus Deans with killing the New Badger Partnership, some of them (who obviously hadn’t been around Wisconsin very long and/or didn’t know much about the history of the University of Wisconsin) came up with truly bizarre arguments. The Dean at Boo-U, for example claimed that the rankings for the Madison campus had risen since merger — that the Madison campus was nowhere prior to merger. The truth is that every comprehensive ranking of national universities ever printed has included the Madison campus in the top rung. The hard truth is that the merger may well have strengthened the so-called comprehensive campuses, it has done litle to nothing to help Madison. Folks, if we let the Madison campus slide into mediocrity the UW brand won’t mean a thing to anyone, and that will hurt UW-Superior and UW-Oshkosh to a much greater degree than giving the Madison campus its autonomy every could!

    Biddy may be gone, and so the debate can continue without her being the issue. Perhaps in the long run this will be a net positive.

    The folks who believe that taking Biddy out of the equation means that the governance argument is resolved as mistaken. The discussion and debate must continue.

  18. Grant says:

    I have to comment on what Frank wrote in the first comment: “Exactly what sort of initiatives have ever arisen out of this vaunted ‘shared governance’? Or is it just another term for doing nothing much and keeping the status quo? ” and “I’m sorry but having the faculty run the place is an idiotic construct. A PhD does not qualify you as an educational leader. Just do your job and leave running the ship to the captain with some real experience.”

    Okay, so let’s imagine that there’s a spectrum of possibilities between total top-down decision-making and total bottom-up “faculty running the ship”. Frank seems to think it’s one or the other extreme. I believe that a chancellor with vision and wisdom can and should be the instigator of essential initiatives. That’s why the choice of chancellor is important. But that does not preclude open-minded consultation (of the two-way, not one-way variety) with those who are affected and with those, in particular, who might be able to point out possible unintended consequences of those initiatives. That is where shared governance comes in.

    A PhD may not automatically qualify someone as an educational leader, but we certainly have many individuals on this top-tier campus whose expertise IS relevant, not only in education but also administration and university-state relations. When the problems are complex and proposed solutions are sweeping (as was the case with the NBP and to a lesser degree with the Graduate School restructuring), it’s not good leadership to simply hatch a plan in private and then present it as an all-or-nothing, make-or-break deal that must be supported and implemented even before people understand the implications. Which leader, no matter how visionary and well-intentioned, can be trusted to have the complete picture?

    Shared governance doesn’t mean dictatorship of the proletariat. It means faculty, staff, and students having an informed role in the shaping of the chancellor’s initiatives, not just rubber-stamping them.

  19. Frank says:

    If the actual practice were to seriously point out unintended consequences I am fine with that. In practice it means long discussion without much resolution unless the Chancellor forces the issue as in the appointment of somebody to actually be in charge and focus on research. The only implications seemed to be turf protection by those enjoying the status quo. It was not like they were actually doing a good job running it. UW was decade or two behind in research management and responsibility. Basically nobody was minding the store and the issue was just ignored for years.
    So, Ok, consult–but I believe in strong central leadership and responsibility so if things are not working there are no excuses like “the faculty would not OK the changes we needed”. If the BOR does not like the leadership they have the job of changing that. Also most profs bring far too much of their politics to the table. So you get things like an Honors Program that is now meaningless as there are minimal qualifications and not much honor in being in it. That was a direct result of liberal faculty leadership with the Lake Wobegon mindset. There is a real example of real unintended consequences of misguided good intentions.

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