David McDonald planned to be on sabbatical next semester, but instead finds himself at the center of the search to fill the most important job on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
No, not identifying Bret Bielema’s successor, but UW-Madison’s next permanent chancellor.
McDonald, a respected and longtime history professor who is an expert on imperial Russia, is chairing a 25-member search committee that will recommend a handful of finalists in about two months to a committee of the UW Board of Regents, which will in turn work with UW System President Kevin Reilly to select the top candidate.
For those who have observed the various styles and priorities of chancellors at Madison’s most important institution in recent decades, the outcome will be fascinating.
That’s in part because it comes on the heels, indirectly, of the short and stormy tenure of Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, who came in as a young, hard-charging and charismatic outsider in 2008, just as Donna Shalala had done two decades before. It was Shalala who elevated UW-Madison in the national consciousness, and not just around its athletic programs.
But instead of duplicating Shalala’s success, the enigmatic Martin became mired in a baffling internecine fight over splitting UW-Madison from the rest of the UW System. She ultimately lost that battle and hastily exited in July 2011 to lead Amherst College in Massachusetts.
The drama-free 16 months since have been courtesy of David Ward, the former UW-Madison chancellor who moved back to town from Washington, D.C., in what started as a one-year interim position but has turned into two.
The Madison job is certainly attractive nationally, given the school’s excellent academic standing among public universities and its reputation as one of the nation’s most prolific research institutions.
And as a place to live, Madison is also a draw. Just last week, I chatted with a prominent Indiana University professor who fondly recalled his frequent weekend visits to Madison when he was at UW-Oshkosh.
McDonald glibly captures the job’s pluses: “I might be Pollyannaish, or I might have had 24 years of drinking Bucky Kool-Aid, but I think this is such a unique place.” He says he gets that good feeling “wherever I go and when I compare working experience with colleagues at peer institutions.”
McDonald acknowledges that Madison is far removed from coastal hotbeds of economic, political and cultural activity. “For a lot of the country, we’re seen as flyover country. Despite a lot of these things, we are really visible, a really important national and international institution, and I think we’re always going to attract great candidates.
“You look at the research funding that we get, you look at our footprint in everything from history to anthropology to medicine. We are a player and I think people are attracted to the opportunities that this place represents and its literally unique profile.”
That said, UW is in the market at a time when its internal candidates for chancellor are apparently not regarded as especially strong.
Listen to John Wiley, who preceded Martin as chancellor and who, like Ward, met with McDonald’s committee to share his perspectives. “I have, obviously, tried to think about who we have inside the university who might be prepared, or would likely be nominated or be a good candidate,” he says.
“Unfortunately, in my opinion, we’re right now just a little thin on the ground, in terms of the numbers of people that have the right kinds of experiences or have the right personality or the right preparation to do the job.”
Of the handful of finalists the committee will advance, Wiley says, “My guess is that of the group, the majority will be from outside the university.”
And the challenge itself is daunting. As state government has struggled with lowered revenues in recent years, other huge areas of state spending — K-12 education, health care and prisons — have seemed harder to cut politically than the university system. So politicians reduce support for higher education and then cynically wag fingers when UW officials are forced to raise tuition or compromise education quality.
“Things are going to be difficult, there’s no doubt about that,” Wiley says. “This is not just true of Wisconsin; it’s true all over the country. We’ve gone through a period of 10 to 15 years of state cutbacks for public education, accompanied by super-inflationary tuition increases, to the point where I think we’re really pushing the envelope on what’s justifiable and affordable.”
Wiley says when he went to college that tuition was about 1 percent or slightly more of median household income. Today, that same ratio would require a $900,000 annual family income, he says.
Two other factors might also come into play in Wisconsin’s search. One is a sense among some that the national talent pool of campus leaders is not especially strong, perhaps in part because some of the best and brightest might be choosing to stay within their academic disciplines rather than pursue the headaches of campus leadership. One experienced academic source likens it to the days of the Vietnam War protests that ripped campuses here and elsewhere, a period in which UW had five different leaders.
Another X factor might be Gov. Scott Walker and the way he and legislative Republicans seek to score political points by critiquing what they see as out-of-touch intellectuals at the other end of State Street. Top-of-mind Madison images for potential candidates from elsewhere might be our massive 2011 Capitol protests and the dysfunctional Wisconsin image satirically reflected on Jon Stewart’s show.
But Wiley and McDonald downplay that theory.
Of UW’s relationship with elected officials, Wiley says: “Honestly, it’s fairly invariant. It doesn’t matter too much who’s in power. The university is a big institution. … It just sort of rolls on independently of the comings and goings of different administrations.”
McDonald also dismisses state politics as a recruitment negative, but adds: “We have probably not done our bit (within UW) to remind people of how involved we are in the state and how much we see ourselves as serving the state.
“I think we do look a bit removed and elitist and protected, and we should take note of that and do what we can.”
Some outsiders have suggested the UW consider a business leader for the role, but that notion apparently hasn’t taken hold on campus.
Ward, in a recent interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said the job is more like “being the mayor of a messy city” than being a corporate CEO.
McDonald agrees, referring to the “kaleidoscopic nature of the responsibilities and roles” of chancellor. “Most companies are oriented to producing one thing, and they may have to incorporate things like transportation, delivery, design, concept and all that, but it’s all a pretty solid goal, whereas a university you’ve got a myriad of desirable outcomes in various work settings,” he says.
“You’ve got very different cultures ranging from athletics on one end to the med school, to engineering to English and foreign languages and literature, and so we need somebody who can speak to all those constituencies, and still give a coherent and compelling message about the university and its role to the Legislature, to business groups, to citizens of Wisconsin, and ensure continuing the 150 years of promise and success that the place has enjoyed.”
Adds McDonald, “My friends tend to make it much simpler than it actually is, and it’s a really huge challenge.”
His characterization also seems apt for what he and others face in finding the right leader.