Sunday, June 5, 2011

Biddy Martin's Next Bold Vision

Chancellor Biddy Martin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison enjoys making bold moves. Here are some thoughts on what those next moves could be.

Since his election, Scott Walker has successfully divided the constituencies supporting public education across Wisconsin. Advocates for poor children who see charter schools as the best option are attacking public school teachers who struggle to feed their families while being painted as living lifestyles of the welfare "queens." Proponents of publicly-supported research universities are attempting to preserve the rights of UW-Madison by denigrating the work of other UW institutions. By distracting supporters of public higher education with a divisive "public authority" model for UW-Madison, Walker convinced most administrators, faculty, staff, and students at that school to fight against their brethren, rather than against his $250 million cut.

Regardless of her intentions, Chancellor Martin participated in Walker's charade. Great ugliness has resulted, and I think she's well-aware of that. For example, last week, even as the media declared the death of public authority, the Badger Advocates issued a press release that castigated UW System President Kevin Reilly and humiliated everyone not at UW-Madison. While the Badger Advocates consistently claim to represent the Chancellor--above and beyond the institution-- even she couldn't take it anymore, attempting to distance herself from their work.

That was a good start. Much more is needed. The past several months have illuminated some extremely elitist, ugly attitudes among Madison's employees, students, and alumni. To be clear, I am not attacking students here-- indeed, I feel we are collectively responsible for their actions. I am extremely concerned, however, by Martin's expressions of uniform support for alumni involvement in Madison when alumni express opinions like this one, written by Frank Rojas (UW, '74) in the comments of a national higher education online newspaper:

"Madison gets more outside research funding in one day than than Oshkosh gets in a year. It raises more donations in a day than Oshkosh does in a year. Madison would be happy to see the other schools grow and improve as it would take away some of the heat it now gets over admissions/rejections of instate kids. But to date none has shown much ability or vision in that area. There is no College of New Jersey or William and Mary equivalent in Wisconsin. Madison endorses similar freedoms from state regs for the other campuses. But it does not want to be held back by the limits of the lowest common denominator thinking either."

Frank has written to me and about me since this debate began, accusing me of "hateful" behavior towards UW-Madison. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have worked tirelessly to preserve the best of UW-Madison -- its unselfish leadership and opportunities it provides all of Wisconsin. I have worked to defend UW-Madison from global forces that aim to corrupt it-- a market-driven vision that is antithetical to its populist roots, a neoliberal approach that prioritizes pragmatism over values, a narrow definition of excellence that excludes others' accomplishments. I honor UW-Madison, the institution. That is why I fight efforts to distance it from the rest of UW System -- a move that would transform it from something unique and wonderful, to something common and truly mediocre.

Biddy's bold step should be to ensure that all of UW-Madison understands her lesson learned from the past six months: divided we fall. She should work to instill a sense of collective efficacy, and teach her employees and staff to empathize with the struggles facing all of Wisconsin. She should endeavor to educate UW alumni about the institution's values, lest they be away far too long and simply forget.

I know Biddy can do this. I recently watched a wonderful video of her during days at Cornell, where she spoke of rejecting the corrupting influence of college rankings that create a "winner-take-all" society, and focused on "questions of value" for the future of higher education. She talked of the "threats to meritocracy" that stem from "public resistance to paying the taxes it would require to keep pace with the costs of higher education and research." That is the Biddy Martin we needed to fight Scott Walker's cuts.

That Biddy Martin also talked about something crucial when she said, "I think that there is a kind of lack of attention to interiority generally, by which I mean the relationship we have to ourselves, and I believe that education is letting us all down when it comes to that. I am not talking about interiority in the form of naval-gazing or individualism in the sense of some sort of asocial obsession, but I am talking about the value of awareness and individuality, the development of individuality and the development of the ability to integrate, what we take in and what we establish as our own. I think we owe it to our students to model those things. They require engaging with the world and with other people, but they also require that each of us engage with the person that we are in the process of becoming, and that we give our students the tools to engage with themselves as the people that they are becoming to. It is a combination then of wired connectivity and super-fast pace on the one hand, which our students require of us and we require of ourselves, but also the ability to take space and time in the midst of the gold rush for contemplation and reflection."

The Biddy Martin of that video is capable of repairing the immense damage inflicted by the push for public authority. She is capable of standing up to alumni who wish to promote a UW-Madison that views the UW-Oshkoshes of the world as part of the "lowest common denominator." She is capable of reaching the hearts and minds of students who mistakenly believe they are at UW-Madison because they deserve it more than other people in the state.

That's the Biddy Martin I look forward to meeting this fall.

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