One can't avoid the irony in Biddy Martin's words as she speaks of her youth in rural Virginia some 50 years ago. She's recalling the post-Jim Crow era of the South, a time when the shackles of segregation and separate-but-equal were loosening yet racism remained rampant. In her words, "virulent racism."
It is an image easily recalled even by those who grew up in the supposedly more enlightened North. That was the time when fire hoses and growling German shepherds were among the obstacles for those trying to practice the rights this nation had so boldly proclaimed as being "self-evident" in a document written by Thomas Jefferson, born about 80 miles from Martin's childhood home of Timberlake.
Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, now in her third year as chancellor of the UW-Madison, is no stranger to bias. Her journey to an academic career - including 25 years at Cornell University, where she wrote extensively on gender theory - began with some rough times at home.
"It was a world," she says, "[in which] even college for girls, at least in my family, was considered somewhere between an unnecessary luxury and a genuine problem."
Martin, 59, relays these words without emotion as she sits across from an interviewer at the conference table in her Bascom Hall office. Here she is charged with managing the daily operations and setting the course of one of the nation's major public universities. This is the school that has broken the $1 billion threshold in research money. This is the school that competes with the finest private schools in a variety of national rankings.
But those are laurels more of the past and present, offering no guarantees for the future. It is that future that concerns Martin most these days.
"The people of Wisconsin deserve to pat themselves on the back for what they've done to create this university," says Martin, whose first exposure to the UW came in the 1980s, when she earned her doctorate here in German Studies.
"But this state deserves to continue to have an institution that is competitive on a global scale. In 15 years, 20 years, I see this university leading the development in the state."
For the past few months, Martin has been lobbying for a dramatic change in the way the state of Wisconsin does business with the university. She's dubbed it "The New Badger Partnership."
Since September, in op-ed pieces in Madison Magazine and the Wisconsin State Journal, as well as meetings with business groups around the state and three specific campus meetings, Martin has essentially argued that the university's current position as a leading academic and research school in the United States and the world is in jeopardy. And if the university loses its status, the state will lag in its economic development.
"The point isn't to be at odds with Wisconsin," she told a group at a noontime meeting at Grainger Hall on Oct. 19, "but to foster the Wisconsin Idea in its 21st-century reincarnation."
It's a theme she is sounding everywhere she goes.
"The state stands to benefit with a different arrangement with the university," she told a mid-afternoon audience at the Waisman Center on Oct. 20. "You cannot treat a major university in the 21st century as if it were another state agency and expect it to remain competitive."
What does the state need to do?
Simple. Just give the university the power to control procurement and construction policies, compensation and hiring of staff and faculty, and, finally, tuition.
"It is very simple," she told the Grainger Hall audience. "The business model as it is now no longer works." What is needed is "an innovative approach to the realities staring us in the face."
Those realities are obvious:
- An economy that refuses to come out of a three-year slump.
- An employment picture that is far from rosy, not just for new graduates but for those who may have graduated years ago.
- Increasing competition from around the world, not just from a business perspective but from a university one as well.
"The state needs us to be a great research university," Martin told the Grainger audience. "Higher education is now market-driven, and we need to be globally competitive."
Another looming factor is the inevitable budget crunch that will come in January when the newly elected Legislature considers the new governor's first two-year budget. The state provides about 18% of the current UW budget, which comes to $435 million. The audiences at the campus meeting agreed on one thing: They expect that level of support to drop.
Martin isn't willing to concede the issue without a fight.
"What I need you to do," she told the Grainger Hall audience, "is advocate for more funding, not fewer cutbacks."
When she was making these presentations, Martin was working out of a bubble. That bubble burst on Election Day when the Republicans took control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office. Martin was on a two-week tour of China and Taiwan when the tally was complete.
"I don't think any of us woke up on Wednesday morning and went, 'Wow,'" a Martin aide said last week, after the election. "We were not surprised. We have been in conversations with all the candidates, and getting government out of our business is a Republican issue, when you think about it."
When Martin spoke with legislators and the gubernatorial candidates prior to the election, she didn't know who would be elected governor or how the composition of the state Legislature would change. She deliberately stayed vague to keep the university from becoming what she called a "political football" in the election season.
Even now that the election is decided, uncertainty remains. But the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the UW has always contended that the changes it seeks serve the state's fiscal interests. "Her point is that we can help with this," the aide said. "This is not going to be a drain on the budget. We can reframe it."
Gov.-elect Scott Walker offered some words that might be considered encouraging in a meeting with the Board of Regents just two days after the election. "It isn't just always about more money," he said. "It's going to be about finding ways to take the dollars we have, finding ways with flexibility, innovation and creativity, to apply those dollars in the best way possible."
Yet selling legislators may not be easy. "We have a lot on our plate with our budget," says Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), who was selected this week as the next speaker of the state Assembly.
Fitzgerald met with Martin earlier this fall when she promised more details on the proposal once the new Legislature is seated. "It's always tough for a Legislature to give up its legislative oversight," Fitzgerald said, suggesting Martin's biggest obstacle to achieving her goals.
Mike Mikalsen, the longtime aide to Rep. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), indicates as much. Nass, a 20-year veteran of the Assembly who is in the running to once again head the Assembly's Colleges and Universities Committee, is the UW's most vocal critic in the Legislature. Mikalsen cites a host of possible objections to Martin's plan, including the suggestion that it could make the university harder to afford for middle-class families while failing to put well-paid full professors back in the classroom.
Yet Mikalsen acknowledges that Martin has one thing working in her favor - her personality. "She's very smart," he says. "She's not pushy. She listens to what you have to say and doesn't take it personally if you disagree. She's not like [former chancellor] John Wiley, who would come right back at you if he didn't agree with you."
Martin and her staff threw around some numbers prior to the election about how a new system might work, but she says they have not dived into any "what if" scenarios.
"We have our ducks in a row for exactly what we need to change and which body [of the Legislature] would need to take action," she explains. "Some of it could be driven by the new governor, some of it could be driven by key legislators, some of it by regents. But we haven't taken anything concrete to any individual and asked them to introduce the following changes in legislation. We're not there."
Yet it was clear from Martin's pre-election powwows that her agenda for the UW does not have unanimous support.
Students bristle when Martin mentions an inevitable increase in tuition, even if it is coupled with increased financial aid, as with her recently enacted Madison Initiative. While UW tuition remains ranked ninth among the 10 public universities in the Big Ten Conference, this year's bill of $9,050 is almost $5,300 more than it was 10 years ago, and $700 more than last year. Martin would like to see tuition eventually increase to the midpoint of the Big Ten public schools, a figure that now hovers around $12,000.
"That worries me, whether I'll be able to continue school," says Kara Bissen, a student who attended the Grainger Hall meeting.
Some students and staff members view this as another step in the "privatization" of the university, a move that alters the university's way of doing business in controversial ways. They point to the recent decision by the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, a new research facility on campus, to use a non-union company to provide food services at the building.
"I fear a slide toward privatization," says Randy Brink, president of Local 171 of the Wisconsin State Employees Union.
Martin understands that the give-and-take about the plan hasn't even begun.
"I am not contemplating failure," Martin says. "Plan B is Plan A with a little disappointment."
In the interview in her office, Martin is asked how much of that old Virginia remains in her. She pauses for a moment.
"Probably a lot more than I realize," she answers. "I don't think it's possible to grow up in that part of the South without having a strong sense of passion for that area."
Martin did her undergraduate work at the College of William and Mary. She received her master's degree at Middlebury in Vermont before completing her doctorate at the UW. She became provost at Cornell in 2000, 15 years after joining the faculty at the Ivy League school in upstate New York.
Her appointment as UW chancellor in June 2008 was generally well received. But a blogger for the National Review Online created a stir when he described her as an "obscure, self-indulgent, theory-laden, postmodern scholar." The piece was picked up by a frequent critic of the university, Rep. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), who spread it around the Capitol.
More than two years later, the description amuses Martin. "I can't say that I'd ever been described that way before," she says with a laugh.
But Martin says this description flies in the face of what she was taught by her parents. "If my parents heard me talking in a way that was overly educated, as they would put it, they would say 'you weren't raised to talk like that,'" she says. "It's important to be able to talk to people from lots of different backgrounds."
Yet Martin admits that growing up in a "very, very conservative" family didn't always sit well with her. She's always had some ambivalence in her relationship with her father, who saw frontline duty in World War II, from campaigns in North Africa to the end of the war. He was wounded three times and came home with malaria.
"I can understand where his anger and fear and his day-to-day anxiety came from," she says somewhat ruefully. "I do understand what he went through, his childhood and the war. The war created enormous suffering from him. But the damage that it did to him meant it wasn't very easy to grow up in that household."
Martin is making a complicated point, and doesn't want to be misunderstood.
"It's not a matter of criticism or blame, but he had a very difficult time. And, for that reason, those around him had a very difficult time. But I think that's true of a lot of World War II veterans. They came back as the victors, but at least for him and his friends, there weren't any assumptions made that they needed support of any kind for the trauma they saw. I don't think anybody in the world knew how to deal with the effects on them."
Martin says her father rarely spoke about what happened. But one time, when she brought home a friend from Germany, he opened up. The only other time she recalls him mentioning the war was when he was dying of cancer in 1985. "I've been through worse," he said.
At any rate, one gathers, there was not a lot of interest from Martin's family in her academic pursuits. But that didn't stop her.
"I loved school, and that, of course, carries on to today," she says. "I often catch myself saying, 'I'm on my way to school.' I loved it. I enjoyed it. I still do."
That made her stand out in a family whose first love was sports. Her two brothers, now both deceased, were football players. She remembers the three of them playing Wiffle ball in the backyard. Martin was a high school basketball player at a time when sports participation was just opening to girls; she excelled, even setting a school scoring record, which has since been broken.
"It wasn't a matter of great interest in my family that I was doing well in school," she relates. "It wasn't what was salient. What was salient was football, first with my older brother and then my younger brother."
Clearly, this attitude was difficult for Martin. "I once purposely got a B in conduct in a Latin class so I wouldn't make the Dean's List to see if anybody noticed. They didn't."
It's hard not to notice her now.
As she talks up the New Badger Partnership, Martin engages audiences as though she's teaching a graduate seminar. At the final two or three meetings in October, following a 20-minute slide presentation, she asked the audiences to break into small groups to discuss her plan and come up with questions. In each of the sessions, she expertly fielded often very pointed questions, sometimes even turning the tables by asking questions of her own.
Martin recognizes that the success of her run as chancellor will be measured in large part by the success of her proposal. She can't have it any other way.
"I don't think we're far enough along in this process for it to be my legacy. Would I like it to be my legacy? Yes. Anything that puts this university on firmer footing, I would want to be part of my legacy."
Martin's new deal is about the 'big picture'
In touting her concept of the New Badger Partnership, UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin is able to boil it down to a single, simple phrase: "We can't be treated like just another state agency."
For some, including newly elected members of the state Legislature, who will get first crack at sifting and winnowing Martin's ideas when they contemplate a budget plan for the university during budget deliberations next year, those may be considered fighting words.
Yet Martin is doing her best not to pick any fights.
"That doesn't mean we're better," she says, trying to soothe any hard feelings from the previous remark. "But we are different, and we operate in a completely different world" from other state agencies.
Martin envisions a new system that will offer the university the freedom to do its business more efficiently. That means greater flexibility in how the university pays and rewards faculty and staff, purchases goods and materials, spends private and corporate donations and oversees campus construction projects.
"It is our responsibility to preserve and enhance the university," she says. "The state stands to benefit with a different arrangement."
That's because Martin sees the university as an engine to state economic development. The state, she says, "needs us to be a great research university."
At this point, no one seems to have a handle on just how the state will maintain some oversight of university actions. Martin would like to see a "five-year window" that will test the university's new flexibility in conjunction with new rules for university accountability to the state.
"It is the university as the driver of a knowledge-based economy in a world that is increasingly globally connected, not only by the education we provide but the research," says Martin of the UW's future.
She drives the point home.
"I have heard the criticisms of being a liberal bastion and how it ruins the culture of the state," says Martin. "But that's not what I hear when I talk to the chambers of commerce or business officials around the state. They see the bigger picture. The bigger picture is what their state university can do for their state."