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.