Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Biddy's Legacy

Capital Times Editor Paul Fanlund has written an interesting column in this morning’s paper about former UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin, who has decamped for tiny Amherst College. Fanlund says Biddy leaves Madison as an enigma, and cites plenty of evidence to support the view that she never really “got” UW-Madison.

I sent Paul a quick e-mail complimenting him on the column – we’ve disagreed on things he’s written in the past – and mentioned that I think Biddy’s legacy will be as quickly forgotten as the “Teach Me To Bucky” video. She had a cameo role in the video, and I believe her tenure at the helm of the state’s great University will be regarded as a cameo role.

Although they may grouse about it from time to time, I believe the people of Wisconsin truly love their huge, public, land-grant University. While some would say there isn’t much diversity in Wisconsin, there are plenty of differing constituencies that make up Badger-land, or, as my friend Tom Teuber calls it, “Cheesetopia”. And as another of my friends, talk-show host Mitch Henck is fond of pointing out, “there aren’t many pony-tailed, sandal-wearing folks in the Fox Valley”, which is actually the second-largest metro area in the state.

So many generations of Wisconsinites have been touched in one way or another by the great outreach programs born at the UW. Generations of Wisconsin farmers have benefitted from the research and advice so readily available through the UW’s ag extension programs. The Forest Products Lab has done yeoman’s service for a huge collection of industries, from home-building to baseball. (When Major League Baseball noted a problem with shattering bats a couple years ago, they turned to the Forest Products Lab to study the problem and make recommendations to the bat manufacturers.)

The guy working on a construction job on a sweltering day like today may not be the kind of person you’d think of as a UW supporter, but that fellow might very well know that the medication helping his dad with his heart problem was invented at the UW and patented by the UW Alumni Research Foundation, where they plow the royalty money right back into more research to save lives and improve lifestyles.

When a pet owner or a dairy farmer has a problem too tough for their local vet to solve, the vet says “let’s check with the UW Vet School and see what they have to say about this.” And, while folks in Oshkosh support the UW-Oshkosh Titans, and folks in Eau Claire are big backers of the BluGolds, and Whitewater loves its Warhawks, and on and on….when the Badgers take to the gridiron on Saturdays in the fall, five and a half million Wisconsinites and about 1.3 million cows are all cheering for the UW.

Where does your local doctor or hospital turn when they have a problem making a diagnosis or establishing a plan of treatment or dealing with a tough, unusual case? University Hospital.

That’s the thing that Biddy never “got” about Wisconsin. We’re DAMN proud of our big college on Lake Mendota, we all have a stake in it, we’ve all benefitted from its “work-product”, and we DO have a sense of ownership. Making a change like Biddy suggested, from a public university to some sort of “public authority” that smacked of privatization, did not sit well with Wisconsinites. A radical change of that sort would have to take years to percolate, and if it ever were to happen, would come from the bottom up, not the top down. That’s something Biddy learned the hard way.

Farewell, Biddy. We hardly knew ye; we’ll hardly remember ye.


  1. All of that is true. But you didn't explicitly "disclose," didya? Huh??

    Since I'm an MU kinda guy, my enthusiasm for UW-Mad is right on the 51/49 line. The UW has done all kinds of good things.

    But Martin did have a good point: the UW-Mad is having problems with the Lilliputians in the Legislature, whose target(s) are more properly the other System schools. But the sauce is spread over the goose (UWMad), too.

    Thus, there is little 'wiggle room' for Madison in procurement structure, and that IS a problem.

    Ask your wife!

  2. FWIW, I think that Shelly Lubar would agree with me on that point.

    Perhaps the UWMad should think of ways to spin off its Good-Doing elements so that they are not hashed up in "fixes" of the Leggies.

  3. I'm reminded of a time when I went to a hearing at the State House in Columbus, Ohio on a matter that I was working on. At that hearing, a number of fiscal matters came up re: The Ohio State University. Each item was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, some even in the millions of dollars. All, and I mean all, were passed on the "consent agenda."

    So what? My point is that I think a lot of frustration from the administration is that UW-Madison faces a level of scrutiny that may or may not be faced by other large land grant universities, particularly in the Midwest.

    I don't mean to suggest that good oversight isn't a good thing; it is. But some of the nits that needed to be picked by the Legislature often seemed a bit too much at times.

    If I recall correctly, UW-Madison passed the $1 Billion mark in sponsored research/grants in the past year or two. That's an amazing number...and helps fund many of the great research/results you mentioned.

    I'm not sure that there's an easy answer to how the University can generate a bit more respect for the economic powerhouse that it is from the Legislature, but it would certainly be interesting to find out....of course, we could just wait and let some of the cherry-picking of top research staff by other universities to continue; then figure it out later.