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UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin defiant on her way out the door
'I'm not surrendering'
on (1) Comment
Martin: 'I can't say I enjoyed everything about the past six months.'
Martin: 'I can't say I enjoyed everything about the past six months.'
Credit:Jeff Miller/UW Madison

One thing is certain about Biddy Martin. She knows when her time is up.

The final bell will go off this Thursday, July 14, when the University of Wisconsin chancellor officially ends her duties in Madison after three interesting yet sometimes tempestuous years to become the president at tony Amherst College in Amherst, Mass.

Perhaps Martin, 60, could have stayed atop Bascom Hill for a few more years despite a contentious past six months that saw her New Badger Partnership become a focal point of debate among legislators; UW faculty, staff and students; and Wisconsin citizens interested in the future of the state's flagship university. Under the plan, the Madison campus would have gained more flexibility from state oversight.

Gov. Scott Walker became Martin's unlikely ally, proposing that the UW-Madison be governed by a public authority that would have separated it from the UW System. But last month the Republican-dominated state Legislature removed his proposal from the 2011-13 budget. Shortly thereafter, Martin announced her resignation.

Even if she had decided to stay, Martin understood her leadership abilities would eventually be questioned in the light of the controversial plan. She essentially admitted as much last week in one of many parting interviews she granted to local media.

"It would be difficult for me to push the point where I think UW-Madison really needs to get at this moment," she told one television interviewer.

When later told that sounded like she was surrendering to a process that put UW as an institution and Martin as its chief administrator under the glare of a sometimes unfair statewide spotlight, she responded defiantly.

"I'm not surrendering, definitely not," she said. "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."

If that change is to come, Martin will be an interested observer from afar. She will be in a small, west central Massachusetts town running an Ivy League-like institution with under 2,000 students and an endowment that matches those seen at large public universities like UW.

If Martin has run away, she has at least chosen the sort of bucolic college setting where discontent is more a battle of intellectual words than the war of political actions she found the past six months in the legislative budget debate about UW's future. She is not going to be criticized for finding herself aligned with an increasingly unlikable governor. In fact, the biggest political debate she is likely to face will be with the Amherst town board about issues that will maintain a town-and-gown peace that has lasted for most of the past 180 years.

Still, Martin says she is going to miss the give-and-take of the political tug-of-war she found herself involved in since announcing the New Badger Partnership last fall.

"I enjoyed the bigger realm of politics, though I can't say I enjoyed everything about the past six months," she says without a twinge of regret. "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 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."

When Martin looks back at the experiences of the past six months, she will inevitably wonder if her proposal would have received a warmer reception from all the different constituencies if Walker had not dropped a bombshell - an end to most collective bargaining for most public employees - in the budget repair bill last winter. Once her proposal was inadvertently attached to Walker's war on unionized state workers, it had little chance of succeeding.

"I knew [Walker] was interested [in the proposal], and once he took office he let us know he was seriously interested and thought a public authority would be a viable option," she recalls. "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 they did, it changed the dynamic of the proposal.

"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."

But the question remains: Did Walker's support hurt Martin's chances with those who opposed Walker's overall budget plan?

"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," she says. "But I don't know if they would have supported it otherwise.

"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 working together on particular issues that make sense, despite the fact that we may not agree on everything."

Martin believes the New Badger Partnership did not get a fair shake because of the umbilical cord that connected it to Walker's plans.

"It became quickly me-versus-them, a Madison kind of debate," she says. "I was hoping it would turn into a substantive discussion, not just about UW-Madison but higher education, given the changes in the world. I was hoping for that, but that's not how it played out."

Now that she is leaving, Martin feels that she has established the groundwork for future UW budget initiatives. If anything, she knows a new chancellor will have a blueprint from which to work. Just how close a reading a new chancellor gives that blueprint remains to be seen. Former UW Chancellor David Ward has been appointed as interim chancellor and will serve a one-year term.

"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," Martin says. "UW-Madison is one of the great research universities in the world and will need more flexibility in order to be more nimble.

"[The new chancellor] 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] this is not a Wisconsin-specific initiative. This is a national and international debate."

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