A group of more than 60 students convinced Biddy Martin to come out of her Bascom Hall office Tuesday afternoon to chat about the state budget and future of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
With five members of the UW Police Department looking on, the students and UW-Madison chancellor held a sometimes tense but mostly friendly conversation in a first-floor hallway.
"I respect what you're doing," Martin told the students during the impromptu gathering, which lasted more than an hour-and-a-half. "I really do. We can disagree with one another, but I do care about what you have to say."
The students were protesting Gov. Scott Walker's 2011-13 budget proposal, which contains a controversial plan -- which Martin supports -- to break UW-Madison away from the UW System and give it some long-sought autonomy from state oversight by granting Wisconsin's flagship institution http://www.secfac.wisc.edu/senate/2011/0404/2263.pdf">public authority status. Walker's budget also all but guarantees another series of tuition increases as it cuts $250 million in state funding for UW System schools over the next two years, with UW-Madison slated to absorb half of that blow.
"We see these provisions in the budget bill as a blatant attempt to privatize public education in Wisconsin," reads http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/host.madison.com/content/tncms/assets/editorial/c/1d/478/c1d478f8-7064-11e0-8475-001cc4c002e0-revisions/4db7625d58af3.pdf.pdf"> a letter delivered to Martin by the students. "The budget bill divides the campuses of the UW System and makes sweeping cuts to our institutions and thus higher education in the state."
The event started with a rally atop Bascom Hill, with student groups holding a mock auction to portray what they view as the turning over of the university to private-sector special interest groups.
Many then headed inside to deliver the note to Martin. The letter -- signed by the Student Labor Action Coalition, Students Progressive Dane, International Socialist Organization, African Students Association, Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association, MEChA de UW-Madison, and Wisconsin Resists -- criticizes Martin for backing Walker's proposal, then makes a series of demands. Perhaps most noteworthy, the students want the chancellor to declare opposition to the public authority model proposed by Walker.
"No, I won't do that," said Martin. "I'm going to do what I can to preserve the quality of the university. That's my job."
UW-Madison sophomore Beth Huang, a member of the Student Labor Action Coalition and a student government representative, was pleased the chancellor took the time to meet with the students. But the biochemistry and history major was disappointed the students appeared to make little headway in changing the chancellor's mind.
"This definitely had a different dynamic than the public forums she held to talk about this issue," said Huang. "But she always finds a way to stick to her talking points. It's very clear she wants to break the university away from the system. I respect her for listening to us but you don't get the feeling she's going to incorporate the feedback we're giving her."
Some students pleaded with the chancellor to spend less time pushing for public authority status and more time urging state leaders not to make such major cuts to public higher education. Others asked why Martin wasn't pushing for higher taxes on the rich as a way to better fund the university system.
"If I were in charge, I would raise taxes," said Martin, before reminding everyone she has no such power.
"We just hope she takes us seriously," said freshman activist Xander Gieryn. "Because when you get right down to it, she works for us."
Although Martin refused to make any concessions, she continually thanked the students for sharing their thoughts. After an hour-and-a-half, Martin's assistants insisted she take off for an undisclosed meeting at the Capitol. Before leaving, however, the chancellor committed to meeting with students in that same Bascom Hall corridor on Friday at 3:45 p.m.
Some students originally had planned to camp out inside Bascom Hall until their demands were met, but Huang said a couple dozen students decided to leave the building around 7:30 p.m. rather than face arrest by UW Police. Signs on doors leading into Bascom Hall indicate the building closes each day from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Meanwhile, another group of students -- including those with ties to Students for the New Badger Partnership -- headed to the Capitol on Tuesday in an attempt to meet with state leaders and explain to them why they back Walker's proposal to split UW-Madison from the rest of the system. The move was in direct response to the rally at Bascom Hall.
Both UW-Madison and UW System leaders have been asking for more autonomy from state oversight for at least two decades. But Martin has been pushing especially hard to gain UW-Madison some freedoms and flexibilities for more than a year. When it became clear in mid-February that Martin had been working with the governor's team behind closed doors to secure public authority status only for UW-Madison, it presented a political liability for Martin. However, she has continued to push hard to gain public authority status for UW-Madison.
Leaders across the rest of the UW System oppose the idea, arguing that every campus deserves more freedom from state oversight to purchase goods, construct buildings, hire and pay workers outside the state pay process, and set its own tuition rates. They now are pushing for the http://www.wisconsin.edu/wip/">Wisconsin Idea Partnership, which would grant all campuses across the system some flexibilities, while also keeping UW-Madison under the system umbrella.