Jeff Miller for University of Wisconsin
Compared to the alternatives, Biddy Martin struck many as dynamic and engaging.
Everyone is talking about Biddy Martin, the next UW-Madison chancellor. After seven years of the gray chancellor, David Ward, and another seven of the combative John Wiley, the word on most Badgers' lips is "change." The hope is that Biddy Martin will be the agent of that change, and not a moment too soon, since Bucky is in big trouble.
Wisconsin is a public university that is losing its public element. The university receives only one sixth of its funding in direct public support. A generation ago, most UW dollars were public, and tuition at the UW is more than four times higher, in real dollars, as it was then. The median family income of the average UW-Madison student has doubled in just a decade, and the vast majority of the Wisconsin residents have effectively been priced out. The university is even less accessible to Black, Latino, Native American, and Southeast Asian youth than it was a few years ago; as those populations have rapidly increased, their share of the UW-Madison student body has stayed level or even decreased. Many university employees have not had a real raise in years, and the public interest fields such as social work, sustainable agriculture, education, and the humanities generally are hurting.
Unless you are a major owner of a corporation that has a "public-private partnership" arrangement going with the UW to get you tax- and tuition-subsidized research on the cheap, or a fan of Bo Ryan's squad, Big Red has lost its sheen.
That's why everyone is talking about Biddy Martin. The hope, as Teaching Assistants Association co-president Kaja Rebane told me during the chancellor selection process, is that Martin will be:
Someone who values all parts of the university and is interested in restoring balance to the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences, and in restoring public funding to the university.
Among the pool of four chancellor finalists from which she was selected, it may be that Martin was the best choice to achieve Rebane's hopes. The rap on the other finalists was mixed:
- Gary Sandefur was a nice, quiet, get-along kind of guy; too nice.
- Becky Blank was serious and scientific; too serious.
- Tim Mulcahy was John Wiley on steroids; been there, done that.
Compared to the alternatives, Biddy Martin struck many as dynamic and engaging, and as several people involved in the hire told me, "she said all the right things." But will she do the right things?
I worry that she will not. I worry that her background as a Cornell University administrator has prepared Biddy Martin to lead a Cornell-type institution: A publicly-subsidized private university. In an era of rapid corporatization, the "Cornell Model" is known among higher education policy wonks for its claim to achieve a public mission without direct public control. Given the recent removal of public controls over UW tuition via "differential tuition," and "limited tuition flexibility," I think I can be forgiven for worrying that a badly beaten and dazed Bucky Badger will continue stumbling down the Cornell road to corporatization.
Because of her background, I hope Biddy Martin arrives in Madison to find herself challenged to break from the Cornell path. I hope that instead she will use her dynamism to do what her predecessors failed to do: Work effectively with students, faculty, staff, and the broader public to build the kind of political coalition necessary to restore public funding to this once great public university.
Legislators and governors have been using the UW as a quarry for years; 30,000 people bearing down on them from the other end of State Street would be certain to get them to put down their pick-axes. If Biddy wants to be Bucky's buddy, she can make that happen; otherwise, I'll be biding time to bid Biddy, "bye bye."