28 May 2011

Will Chancellor Martin Make Peace?

Photo by Eric E. Johnson
The Wisconsin State Journal reported yesterday that the proposal to split UW-Madison from the University of Wisconsin System is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Several key legislators have publicly stated that the proposal will be stripped from the biennial budget and the Madison campus will remain a part of the greater University of Wisconsin.

Good.

Thankfully, Chancellor Martin appears to be accepting this development with some dignity (rather than accepting a better paying position at another university, for example, and suggesting on her way out the door that this is what happens when people don’t listen to her). In response to the legislators who claim to remain interested in administrative reform, Chancellor Martin said, “I'm focused on ensuring that these flexibilities, as we call them, that all the campuses get are actually still meaningful when the vote is taken.”

Did you catch that? Yes, she said it. All campuses.

It’s about friggin’ time.

Two months ago I drafted a lengthy post taking Chancellor Martin and others to task for their support of the unnecessary proposal to separate Madison from the rest of the UW System. I had a lot to say at the time and I was pleased to see that the post generated more traffic on my blog than any other post in the past year. However, in light of recent developments, I wanted to revisit just one particular item:

…To note over and over again that higher education requires administrative discretion different from the Department of Transportation neglects the issue that so deeply troubles many of us – the separation of UW-Madison from the rest of the state’s postsecondary infrastructure. Should one’s concern for teaching, research, or entrepreneurship be genuine, one ought to care about these issues at all public institutions of higher learning. Self-interested pursuit of them for one campus is exactly that: self interest. And to slyly cover up this fact with the hope that Madison will serve as a “positive precedent” for other campuses is to conflate selfish actions with actual partnership, leadership, and advocacy.

My point was this: I’m happy to talk about addressing the administrative challenges facing higher education in Wisconsin. I’m eager to discuss it. However, reforming higher education’s relationship to state government does not necessitate dismantling the University of Wisconsin. And what make the events of the last few months so frustrating are the scores of really well educated people, including Chancellor Martin, who engage in self-serving logic and bad-faith debates that treat these issues as one and the same.

From where I sit, the whole ordeal has been rather embarrassing for UW-Madison.

I was thinking about this last week when I wrote to a friend to explain why I disagreed with the break-up plan and, more specifically, why I felt that a recent Madison Magazine post by John Roach, Biddy Martin, Above the Fray, was not an accurate assessment of either the proposal or the Chancellor’s behavior. My disappointment with the proposal and the Chancellor boiled down to this:

…This campus owes a great deal to the state and being a full partner with the "other" campuses is one way to meet that responsibility. Yeah, we work in Madison. But we are part of the University of Wisconsin. We support our colleagues and students from Racine to Ashland. We stand firmly behind and shoulder-to-shoulder with them always.

… Roach is being overly generous in his interpretation of the Chancellor’s motives and working style. I think she exemplifies (among other things) an inappropriate and unattractive Madison-first mentality. She has positioned herself as an advocate for Madison only. She could have been the "first among equals" with regard to other Chancellor's and rallied all of them as a team. And she could have done so in a way that did not suggest that each campus could or should be "the same." But, alas, she didn't do that. Her work on this issue has been neither bipartisan nor teacherly.

…I do not think Chancellor Martin is a complete villain. But I also do not think she has been an "above the fray" leader, a role model, or a representative of the Wisconsin I was so excited to join four years ago.

I simply do not understand how it can be said that Chancellor Martin has been “above the fray.” Since mid-February, she has been the very face of intra-system dysfunction.

During a Tweetchat in February, I asked the Chancellor to elaborate on why this proposal did not amount to abandoning our peers. She responded with a flippant (even by Twitter standards) nonanswer. “Separation was not the goal," she told me. "But we can enhance our collaborations and partnerships and share our name forever, regardless.” Oka-a-ay. So… You weren’t necessarily looking for separation but you’re fine with it as long you get what you want? And it's all gonna be OK because we  "can enhance" our collaborations... as soon as we're done dissolving our current relationship? OH! And you want extra-credit points for leaving a little room on your coat tails? Classy.

Chancellor Martin also lobbied hard to win the support of the faculty senate at Madison. Lucky for her, she had some outspoken colleagues within the senate who came to her aid. Professor Ronald Kalil, for example, made his feelings quiet clear at a meeting of the senate by explaining that “UW-Madison has been shackled by the UW System from the time it was merged with the UW System.” Shackled? Really? Very diplomatic, Professor. Very collegial.

Let’s face it. Much of the dialogue surrounding the New Badger Partnership has centered on frustration and disrespect between Madison and the other UW campuses. And, somewhere between assertions to the contrary, Chancellor Martin has been content to capitalize on the biases and arrogance that make Madison a constant target of suspicion and disdain. No, the Chancellor has not been above the fray. She has been neck-deep for months and has been stubbornly pushing on… and on… and on….

Enough is enough, though. It is time to make peace.

Now that public authority status for Madison is reportedly off the table, Chancellor Martin seems to be signaling that she will return to the fold. I am more than happy to hear it (even if the change is a bit begrudging). Not only does this development put the discussion back on track – administrative reform for the whole system – it also presents a chance for damage control. The Chancellor will have a genuine opportunity in the coming weeks to attend to strained relationships, rise above animosity, and be an educational leader for all of Wisconsin.

The question is… Will she?

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