Martin: 'What kind of model -- business model, if you would -- makes sense to move higher education forward in the 21st century?'
Biddy Martin did her due diligence as the outgoing chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last week when she allotted much of her schedule to parting interviews with a variety of media. What follows is an edited version of a 24-minute session held last Thursday afternoon.
The Daily Page: Perhaps I remain an effete Eastern snob even after living 40 years in Wisconsin, but I couldn't help but laugh when a local editorial writer said taking the job as president at Amherst College was below the stature of someone who was chancellor at UW.
Martin: It's just mutual regional snobbism. When I was on the East Coast and said I was coming to Wisconsin, they were like, "Is that before or after Michigan on the map?" When you're on the East Coast and they learn you're going to Amherst, it's like, "Amherst, that's fantastic." And here, it's like, "Amherst?"
I read something you said in another parting interview that now it would be "difficult for me to push to the point where I think UW-Madison really needs to get at this moment." What does that say about the whole process? It sounds like you are surrendering.
I'm not surrendering, definitely not. I don't think anyone else is either, and by anyone else I mean others on campus who supported greater flexibility, or even people on other campuses, other chancellors. This discussion is far from over. I think significant change is going to come.
Is it going to be a friendly going-away party?
Sure. It's going to be right here on Bascom Hill.
Your turf. So you're not walking down the road to Van Hise?
I'm sure they are going to throw me a party. I just don't know when.
The point I was trying to make in that interview was that it was not difficult to push [the new Badger Partnership], but it would have been difficult to push if I had stayed.
Did you burn bridges?
I don't know. Did they?
You turn the question around but I can't answer for them. You can answer how your fellow chancellors and the regents responded over the past four or five months. It wasn't like they were putting their arms around you and giving you a big hug.
What surprised me about the response was that there was no discussion on the merits. It became quickly me-versus-them, a Madison kind of debate. I was hoping it would turn into a substantive discussion, not just about UW-Madison but higher ed, given the changes in the world. I was hoping for that, but that's not how it played out.
Looking back to last September, when you introduced your plan, and with the advantage of hindsight, are there any regrets in how you handled this? Are there any changes you would make?
I'm sure there were tactical mistakes along the way, and if not mistakes, things we could have done better because there is always a gap between what one perceives and the ideal. But in the larger sense, do I regret how we proceeded? No.
It was smart of our staff that they suggested that we build relationships with gubernatorial candidates. Let them know what we were thinking and why. Let them think about what they might be willing to support. And then work with the governor-elect, and what would be supportable under his administration. That was the right way to go.
What we designed in the form of the New Badger Partnership was a good design, and the fact that [Gov. Walker] came up with a proposal for public authority which we had not made as a part of our original proposal, took it in a different direction but a direction in a way that it raised questions that would not have been raised ... if that hadn't happened.
Where will this leave the new full-time chancellor? Will he-she have to recognize that this is one way to make the University of Wisconsin sustainable heading into the future?
I don't think there is going to be a strong leader in the United States who would come to a major public research university without realizing that things have changed and will continue to change. UW-Madison is one of the greatest research universities in the world and will need more flexibility in order to be more nimble. That person is going to have his or her own ideas on how to get there and they might not have the same approach as mine. In fact, I'm sure it won't be.
But the approach will be dictated by the ideas of the people on the ground of the campus, and every chancellor is going to listen. There has been significant change in Oregon and New York. There has been significant change proposed but not yet decided in Ohio that will give universities more autonomy and remove layers of red tape. This is not a Wisconsin-specific initiative. This is a national and international debate.
What I'm saying in a long way is that the next permanent chancellor will face the challenges we faced in my administration.
I'm guessing it's a question that will come up during the interview process for a new chancellor.
Definitely. It was when I was interviewed. The one thing I really haven't brought up, or been asked, is the questions I was asked in the interviews and the expectations people seem to have when they interviewed me and chose me.
So things changed over three years as you were progressing along those lines?
I think people expected me to look for solutions and move the discussion forward. What kind of model -- business model, if you would -- makes sense to move higher education forward in the 21st century? That was one of my tasks. I received a great deal of support, but that wasn't always apparent because of the opposition to it. The general direction has a lot of support and will move forward over time.
As you were going through this process, did you ever think to yourself: "Mr. Regent, Ms. Regent, let's go back 2 1/2 years to when you interviewed me?" Or were you expected to be more congenial, in the so-called Wisconsin way?
I think I did it in the only way to get this on the agenda in a serious form. After years and years of trying, and asking for more flexibility, this is the furthest it's gone. It's really important it got his far, and it's important that it keeps going. Some people have different views on how we got there. I don't see a way that this would have moved forward without doing it the way we did. ...
What I said to myself last February and March is how can I get people -- system administrators, other chancellors -- to come together for a serious discussion of the merits of this proposal and how the system could be better organized.
Do you feel like the pioneer who gets halfway across the plains but you're not there when the party gets to see the Pacific Ocean?
I don't know about that metaphor. It's like football. I feel good about the entire team, the amount of work we did, and getting this into discussion on a broad level in the state. Without the conflict, I don't think it would have drawn the attention the way that it has. I wanted to go even further. I wanted it to work for UW-Madison and the other campuses because I really feel passionately about higher ed. If they reach the promised land without me being here, that's fine. I'm an alum. I have a degree from here. It matters to me that this place flourishes, whether I'm the chancellor, the past chancellor or just a graduate.
You ended up with what some describe as an unlikely ally and what others describe as an unlikable ally in Scott Walker. With all the groundwork you did last fall, did anything change in January when he took office? Did you know you had an ally?
I knew he was interested, and once he took office he let us know he was seriously interested and thought public authority would be a viable option. So I knew there was an ally in the governor's office. But once the budget repair bill went forward and the political divisions in the state became acute in the way that they did, it changed the dynamic for the proposal.
My feeling was, and I think Gov. Walker said the same thing, we don't agree on every issue. But what frustrates me is that I would like to believe of this country and state that people with different positions on a range of issues can nonetheless come together and work on a meritorious project for the good of the whole. The fact that there was a certain amount of major opposition to this, based on the fact that Gov. Walker supported it, didn't really surprise me based on what was happening in the state.
Did you find friends of the proposal who became opponents because of Gov. Walker?
I don't know if there were people who turned against it. But I do know there were certain people who said to me they couldn't support it because it was part of Gov. Walker's agenda. But I don't know if they would have supported it otherwise. There were people who said that and other people who said they had colleagues and friends who could not support it because of that. Again, given the political situation, I understand. But I am going to hold out for the ideal that the country, not just the state, must advocate for working together on particular issues that make sense, despite the fact we may not agree on everything.
Is it going to be nice now that your outside political dealings will be with the Amherst city council and worrying about protecting students, faculty and staff from parking tickets?
I enjoyed the bigger realm of politics, though I can't say I enjoyed everything about the past six months. It will go down as one of the most interesting periods in my professional career and life. I want to have the time and energy to think about it carefully, and one day write about it. I wouldn't give it up for anything.
Amherst is a different kind of challenge. What I love is when I finish my career I will have helped lead a major private research university [as provost at Cornell], a major public research university, and one of the best, if not the best, private liberal arts colleges in the country. I feel like I'm taking advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity.
At a university with more than 40,000 students, you can get to know students but you can't get to know them all. At Amherst, with a student population of about 1,700, you have a chance to get to know them all.
One of my greatest pleasures has been dealing with the students here. A friend said, "I understand why you are going to Amherst and that's because you probably know 2,000 students here by name and now you'll get to know all the students." I don't think I know 2,000 students by name here but I certainly have interacted with them. Focusing on the students and being enlivened by their knowledge, creativity and fun is one of the greatest parts of this job.
What is the subject of the President's seminar at Amherst next fall?
I don't know yet. Have an idea?
No. Just asking. I figured you'd have the syllabus all written.
I don't have a syllabus ready because I've been kind of busy here.
Ronald Ehrenberg, a former associate of yours at Cornell, recently said: "In the current environment, being president of a public university is not that fun."
I know what he means. He's an economist of higher ed and he's referring to those difficult questions we've been grappling with -- how to deal with declining state support and how to continue to flourish. But I don't agree at all. It depends on how you define fun. Being chancellor of this university is really fun, and I had a lot of fun.
Next chancellor -- academic or business person?
Did you choke when you read some of the commentary suggesting a business person rather than an academic to run the university?
I don't agree. I understand the argument. But universities are unique institutions. They offer something to the world that no other institution offers. They are among the longest lasting and stable institutions in Western culture. I think it makes sense to have academics running them. I think it's a shame that there are so few humanists who are university presidents. There are a lot of engineering people, business and law school deans.
Maybe that's why they don't have fun.
Here's the thing. Don't misunderstand me. I don't think there is anything wrong with having university presidents who are engineers and scientists, lawyers, business school deans. Many of them have been very successful. It's because of the direction many research universities have moved. But I really don't think that a university of this quality would need to hire a business person. It needs to remain true to the academic tradition.
Ever since the debate about the New Badger Partnership began last fall, there has been a lot of discussion about UW being an elitist institution, not just an elite institution. Is it an elitist institution? If it isn't, does it need to be?
We certainly are an elite institution. The conflict we just saw really drew on the opposition of the popular egalitarian [view] on one hand and the elitist [view] on the other, with UW-Madison seeming to be the elitist player. That is a problematic opposition to draw on and reinforce. There is a great deal of misunderstanding. It is possible to be elite, reward merit and be selective without running afoul of the principles and values the people in the state hold dear. I regret that Madison has been painted with that brush.