Chancellor Biddy Martin had finished her by-now-familiar sales pitch that the University of Wisconsin-Madison can only succeed by splitting from the UW System.

On this day, her audience was Downtown Rotary, the city's high court of business movers and shakers.

She made her point that UW-Madison brings $1 billion in research money into the state each year compared to UW-Milwaukee's $60 million and UW-Oshkosh's $1.6 million. The schools' challenges are different, she said.

For the business people in the crowd, she said she feels "fenced in" and gave the analogy of a widget manufacturer being told what kind and how many widgets to build, how much to charge, who to hire and how much to pay employees. It's untenable, she implied.

"Wisconsin cannot afford to lose what the rest of the world is rushing to establish," Martin said, which is a world-class research university.

Yet it was her unscripted closing to the final audience question that most reflected the high-stakes, all-in nature of her UW-Madison freedom campaign.

"I am tired of hearing things that simply aren't true, that are unfair, that are misrepresentations, that are scare tactics so that people will not support this," said the chancellor. "Or, are ways of trying to get at me as a way of getting at the credibility of the proposal. ... I don't care if I lose my job over this, to be honest with you, because this is the right thing for UW-Madison."

So, stripped of rhetorical niceties, this is what the Battle of Bascom Hill has come to: a knife fight among Ph.D.s.

Heavyweights with prodigious credentials and stellar reputations - all with apparently admirable motives - are fighting ferociously over this fundamental governance issue.

In a nutshell, Martin negotiated (critics would say conspired) with Republican Gov. Scott Walker on a plan that accepts $125 million less in state funding but gives UW-Madison the freedom to manage itself through a public authority and splits it from other state campuses.

Most UW System officials and the other chancellors see her gambit as, at minimum, a flawed idea that would not help UW-Madison and would hurt other schools. At the extreme, her critics see dealing directly with the governor as an act of insubordination for bypassing her bosses, UW System President Kevin Reilly and the Board of Regents. (Martin told Rotarians that Walker told Reilly of the talks and that Reilly chose not to inform the regents.)

I've listened to speeches, talked with experts and read a blizzard of authoritative pro and con position papers, op-ed pieces, testimony and more. So who is right? It is really hard to know.

My first takeaway is that one should disregard what any civilian - editorial board, blogger or columnist - proclaims as absolutely the best outcome.

That's because the people who really know what they are talking about - a who's who of academic intellect and experience - profoundly disagree. How can any of the rest of us confidently sort it out?

For example, Martin effectively appeals to our Wisconsin pride in saying that we have one of the nation's few top-tier research universities, so the only way for UW to compete globally is her way.

Her backers include former Chancellor Donna Shalala and former UW System President Katharine Lyall, each of whom authored op-eds in favor. Shalala's headline was "UW-Madison needs a new business model," while Lyall's was "A historic opportunity for the UW System." Even athletic director Barry Alvarez went public in backing Martin's plan.

The many on the other side include Martin's immediate predecessor, John Wiley, Reilly, and Tom Loftus, a member of the Board of Regents and an expert on the State Capitol terrain as former speaker of the Assembly. They and others argue that Martin's hoped-for changes could hurt UW-Madison, cut it off from its allies, exacerbate its perceived elitism and make it more, not less, vulnerable to anti-intellectual political winds blowing from the other end of State Street.

This week, ironically, Shalala's former chief of staff, Harry Peterson, joins Reilly to lobby against Martin's proposal to the same Downtown Rotary audience the chancellor wooed last week.

The regents and other chancellors have proposed an alternative to Martin's plan that gives more freedom to all UW schools, but Martin rejects it as inadequate for UW-Madison's needs.

It seems indisputable that problems are real. State rules and regulations are not working for UW-Madison, the civil service system functions poorly for a research university, just as state facilities management programs do not meet the needs of donors. And state personnel policies are a barrier to attracting and rewarding star faculty and staff, and so on.

So the need for change is urgent but, even if some of it does happen, the collateral damage may be great.

The worst of it might be for Martin.

Unless a slew of people I've spoken with are wrong, she is likely to lose this fight.

She began her Rotary remarks to laughter last week by proclaiming that "news of my demise and the demise of our proposal are greatly exaggerated," referencing several news accounts that the plan is likely to be dropped from the budget bill at the Capitol.

But the outcome appears to be unimportant to Walker. In fact, the more cynical critics say that Walker probably lacks sincere interest in UW-Madison but got what he wanted: agreement on a massive reduction in state aid. A Democratic legislator wonders whether Walker's support was just another way to mess with Madison. There are even those who speculate that Walker "suckered" Martin into accepting the huge aid cut and now will let the backlash hit her.

You do have to wonder. By making the death of high-speed rail to Madison a key campaign theme and then declaring war on public-sector employees in a government town like this one, how can one believe Walker has the interests of our city or university at heart?

If Martin's plan does fail, it would be a blow to a popular and effective leader who has been widely regarded as successful in her two and a half years as chancellor. Even small public relations touches have worked well, as when she beat UW-Milwaukee's chancellor in a free-throw contest to a raucous "Biddy" chant of approval at a Badger basketball game this winter.

Now some are calling her insubordinate. There are rumblings that coming from Cornell, where she was provost, she had minimal dealings with Albany, New York's capital, and has never really grasped the university system form in Wisconsin. (Martin has a retort, telling Rotarians she is not sure her foes understand challenges facing a global research university in 2011.)

How, if things proceed as they seem likely to, does she emerge unscarred? At Rotary, it became obvious she is acutely aware of what critics are saying. Her persona has morphed from careful to carefully combative.

I often write about progressive interests in and around Madison responding to right-wing attacks. What we have here feels like an enormous family feud, albeit nuanced, arcane and hugely important. It feels oddly timed, on the heels of everything and, well, kind of sad.

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