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Monday, November 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 45.0° F  Fog
The Daily
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Citizen Dave: Two challenges for the next University of Wisconsin-Madison chancellor
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Credit:Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

This may be the first time in history that a search for a new UW-Madison chancellor has run concurrent with the conclave in Rome to select a new pope. If I had to choose, I'd pick being chancellor over being pope. No, the outfits aren't as cool, it's not a lifetime appointment, and your word most definitely is not taken as infallible.

On the other hand, as chancellor there isn't a report waiting for you in a safe detailing God knows what, and your organization doesn't have a new, unsavory revelation coming out every other day. Also, the residence is smaller but it's newer and less drafty.

The four remaining candidates for chancellor have started running the gauntlet in their campus visits. Nicholas P. Jones, Dean of the engineering school at Johns Hopkins, was here the other day and the others will soon follow.

They include acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank, University of Chicago Law School Dean Michael H. Schill and Michigan State Provost Kim A. Wilcox.

None of these candidates have much, if any, connection to Wisconsin, either the state or the university. Blank went to Minnesota for her undergraduate work, but we won't hold that against her.

It's possible that not having a UW connection might be a good thing. After all, universities tend not to hire their own PhDs, I suppose on the theory that they don't want their institutions to become too insular. New ideas and perspectives are encouraged.

On the other hand, John Wiley and David Ward have been extremely effective chancellors, and they were Badgers beforehand. Biddy Martin, who I and most UW students liked very much, didn't fare nearly so well as she got caught up in the swirling politics of the moment. That might have been avoided by someone more familiar with the local folkways.

It's hard to know what you're getting into when you come to Wisconsin. For one thing, you have shared governance. The chancellor's word is not necessarily law. There's a lot of convincing that needs to be done even on campus. Then, you have the schizophrenic nature of Wisconsin politics. We're the state that elected Joe McCarthy and Russ Feingold, Fighting Bob La Follette and Scott Walker. Go figure. Who knows what's next.

But I think the college of cardinals who will be recommending the new chancellor to UW System President Kevin Riley should look primarily for two things.

First, I hope they look for someone who has done a lot of thinking about the confluence of several factors in higher education: the advent of massive open online courses, an aggressive for-profit college industry, increasing reticence to take on debt among students and their parents, and the political pressure to emphasize "practical" skills over a general liberal education. I put "practical" in quotes, because an argument can be made that there is nothing more basic than a broad education, but that's a discussion for another day.

These factors are coming together to challenge and to potentially reshape the big bricks and mortar research universities that are also home to large liberal arts programs. The next chancellor needs to have done a lot of thinking about these trends and how they might play off one another. We shouldn't be looking for someone who claims to have the answers, because that would be a sign of hubris. There are no clear answers. Instead, the next chancellor needs to be knowledgeable about each trend, hungry to learn more in this rapidly changing environment, and flexible enough to adapt and try new approaches. Rigidity of any kind will not serve the university well.

Second, we need someone who can play in the rest of the state. The separation between Madison (both the city and the university) and the rest of Wisconsin has been widening for some time. It's amazing to me that we still speak the same language and use the same currency. Madison's economy, culture and politics are different from just about everywhere else in the state, save maybe the east side of Milwaukee.

What's needed is a chancellor who can find a way to get comfortable at Serb Hall on the south side of Milwaukee, at Lambeau Field, at a deer camp near Hurley, at a fish fry in Lancaster. The winning candidate should take up ice fishing and learn to play Sheepshead (a true intellectual challenge.) They should drink more beer than white wine. They should take brandy in their Manhattans. You get the picture. The next chancellor should be outgoing and engaging, a Badger at heart if not by birth. The equivalent of the chilly, intellectual Pope Benedict XVI won't cut it.

The selection of the next chancellor is as important to the city of Madison as it is to the university itself. This person will lead our city's biggest employer and by far its most significant economic and cultural asset. I'm not optimistic that they'll get it right in Rome. Let's hope we get it right at home.

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