David McDonald, the Russian history professor who chairs the search committee to find the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s next chancellor, says he’s happy to be handing off the top five names to a committee of the UW Board of Regents this week.
David Giroux, the top spokesman for the UW System, says the identities of those finalists might be publicly disclosed by midweek.
That step, in turn, will unleash a torrent of intrigue.
Will it be an outside or inside candidate? A sitting president or an up-and-coming provost with long-term promise?
Will the pick possess a sufficient scholarly stature to impress the snobbish campus elite? And how effectively will she or he relate to business world skeptics with their “jobs jobs jobs” mantra and disdain for the liberal arts?
Oh, and there is certain to be kvetching about a salary of around $500,000 by those unimpressed by the complexity of running this enormous, eclectic institution. Only hedge fund managers, football coaches and the members of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, they seem to think, deserve such sums.
Martin, you’ll recall, departed in haste for the presidency of Amherst College after her plan to separate the Madison campus from the rest of the UW System created an uproar and eventually failed.
Ward, a former Madison chancellor who ultimately agreed to serve two years as interim chancellor, sounds as if he intended from the start to oversee a protracted period of deafening calm.
“I think that my style, even when I was chancellor the first time, was never to be constantly in the news, as it were,” he tells me during a ranging hour-long interview last week in his front corner office at Bascom Hall.
“My style is to work quietly and to let people retrospectively reflect on what I did. So, it may be a bit of a style of mine that goes back a long way.”
Looking back at those early post-Biddy days, he says, “Groups (on campus) had been divided; groups were unclear about what was going on. I tried to create a forward-going agenda.”
The Ward story, of course, is a familiar one to many here. Now 74, he arrived on campus in 1960 as a graduate student from Manchester, England, taught geography and later chaired that department on his way up the UW ladder, eventually becoming provost under the transformational leadership of then-Chancellor Donna Shalala.
He ultimately replaced her in the top spot, serving seven years until January 2001, and later accepted a prestigious job in Washington, D.C. In June 2011, he was asked — exhorted, really — while on a speaking trip to France to return as UW-Madison’s interim leader to help heal on-campus wounds and buy time for a proper chancellor search.
Ward talked about that search as well as the challenges he sees for UW-Madison in years and even decades to come. In short, those are pressure to spark economic development and to change campus culture, with money as the backdrop to both.
He’s had to deal with those himself these past 18 months, and it started quickly. Shortly after accepting the interim chancellor role, he says: “I tried very quietly to sort of see how we can realistically position the university. The dialogue that had been going on tended to be very polarized. We claimed we put billions of dollars into the state and others say we’re a big black hole of state expenditure. But actually, it’s a much more subtle thing, in between.”
Ward says his twofold goal was, in general, to get the university “thinking forward” and, secondly, asking “how can we connect with the community in a realistic way about economic development?”
Ward and another former chancellor, John Wiley, separately met with McDonald’s search committee months ago, but Ward says he has stayed away since. “I’ve kept my distance from the actual process other than abstractly describing some of the properties they might have,” Ward says of potential candidates.
“I think a key is that the number of sitting presidents with considerable experience ready to move may be small,” he says, so UW may need to find someone on her or his way up. “I think as they interview the finalists, they have to think about what this person will look like three years from now, not just what they look like now.”
In talking to the search group, Ward says he stressed that there would be three chief tasks for his successor “that I thought would be pretty universal, however individualistic the style might be of leadership.”
One of those is economic development — the need to stimulate job growth through research and also to turn out graduates prepared to work in the 21st century.
“I think the issue of the economic connection and the outreach — jobs, jobs, jobs — is happening in every state. Our governor (Scott Walker) is not unusual in that,” Ward says, adding that the related major question for the next chancellor will be: “Without destroying the core kind of liberal arts mission of the place … can you do enough in the outreach to deal with that?
“Then the other one is in the interior (inside campus), can you do change?” he says.
And in pursuing those themes, he says, a leader must “recognize that there’s not going to be a lot of new money. So, whoever is coming in I think would pick up, in their own unique way, either of these two themes and then face the reality that people aren’t going to dump new money on you in large amounts, either from tuition or state support.”
Ward says he has tried to cope with that financial reality while providing a “ramp” for a new chancellor to take on economic development and internal change. “Whoever turns up will have other initiatives, but I can’t imagine them avoiding this triangle, so that they can put their own imprint on it. But I will have at least provided a bit of a ramp for them to deal with.”
On reflection, Ward likens UW-Madison’s culture to a tree trunk: “There is a kind of rootedness. You may be in the branches of the tree and you may be pruning a few … but deep down there are some roots that you want to connect with. So, whoever comes I think will obviously want their own imprint. But the place has a long culture. It has traditions of communication, of governance, a pride in being skeptical, a pride perhaps in being in a certain political way engaged with issues of the time. It’s sometimes called liberal, but I think it’s more engagement rather than a point of view.”
Ward says he will likely have met all of the finalists through his work in Washington, where for seven years he was president of the American Council on Education, a prestigious national hothouse on higher education thinking. He would like to help in a transition this summer, though he will defer to preferences of the new leader.
Besides trying to generally calm things since his return, Ward says he has focused on e-learning, a catchphrase for leveraging the Internet and technology to improve learning. He talks about “flipped learning,” the notion that the traditional classroom information transfer can now be done remotely and the class time becomes the interactive period, “flipping” how learning has traditionally occurred.
He is especially enthusiastic about the “WisCel” program, pronounced “whistle” on campus, in which parts of two campus libraries were outfitted last year with cutting-edge technology to provide futuristic learning centers. Both centers operate at near capacity, according to Christopher Olsen, interim vice provost for teaching and learning.
Another undercurrent that Ward has faced is concern about faculty compensation, or what Ward called the “human resource issue” in a speech to Downtown Rotary a year ago. The topic reared itself recently when Lorrie Moore, a celebrated author and professor of creative writing, left for what apparently was a huge pay boost from Vanderbilt University.
Ward contends that tension over faculty salaries is decades-old. He refers to a “Midwestern populism” that recoils from outsized rewards for elite performers. “Going way, way back, I think, we’ve had some challenges with this. I think if you read the history of the university (it is a recurring issue), so I don’t see this as being a kind of Walker issue,” a reference to decreased UW support under this governor. The “contemporary dialogue about resources is a little myopic, a little ahistorical.
“When you think of how good this institution is nationwide … and when you live in Washington as I did for 10 years, everybody thought (UW-Madison’s quality) was a miracle. Now the miracle was partly that the non-state money helped us, whether it was federal money or philanthropic money or WARF (the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation) that really always provided us with that edge to go beyond the average.”
He adds: “So in one sense, unlike some other great Midwestern institutions, we’ve often had just enough additional revenue to cope with this and at least be competitive. We’re never going to be at the top of the group but we’re competitive.” He talked about the effectiveness of a “critical compensation fund” that reallocated money to reward star faculty.
Ward mentioned what he calls the “Lorrie Moore effect” on perceptions, and also refers to Jeremi Suri, a star history professor who left two years ago for the University of Texas-Austin.
“I wish we could have kept her,” he says of Moore. “They (Moore and Suri) were both so unusual that really I can’t imagine lots of people having offers at that level. That’s not our typical marketplace. Perhaps we need to recognize that we keep a lot of people like that.”
Ward adds: “These two cases are possibly more a complicated short story narrative than it is a story of general malaise. The real issue is can you keep your depth at that upper level? That’s where so far at least I feel we do OK. When you look at the research capacity in terms of federal funds, being number three or number two suggests that we’re holding our own.
“This challenge goes way, way back. I don’t know a time when having been here since 1960 as a graduate student when there hasn’t been frustration about what you might call a rather populist position with respect to university resources,” he says.
Speaking of way, way back, I ask Ward, having first been connected to this campus 53 years ago, what he will be thinking when he packs to return to his permanent Washington home this summer?
In a nutshell, he says, it’s that even after all this time and all the recent political turmoil, the prestige of UW-Madison still amazes him.
“I arrived back here from Washington, where the respect for this institution is incredibly high,” he says. “It’s still seen as a very odd phenomenon to have a university this good.”
A 2012 survey ranks UW-Madison 19th among universities worldwide. “I mean, it’s like Finland or Norway having that ranking. They’re lucky to have one in the top 100. So, the idea of having the second-highest or third-highest-ranked public institution in global rankings is an absolutely staggering achievement.
“First of all, we’ll still keep that. I still believe that’s true, even though people were telling me this governor’s doing that or we’re losing people here,” he says in reference to Walker’s funding cuts and debate around retaining faculty.
“I’ll still go back feeling what a truly remarkable place this is, this little area of the Midwest. I call it mid-coastal. It’s so much more like a Boston or a San Jose in some ways than it is Superior (Wis.), just for example.
“So, I think I’ve consolidated my sense that whoever in the late 19th and early 20th century, I guess Charles Van Hise, has to be (credited as) the architect of this,” Ward says. Van Hise was a long-serving UW president (the title became chancellor later) who helped develop the “Wisconsin Idea” that the university should benefit the entire state.
Ward says he marvels that “you could have this very democratic, this unpretentious place, produce a place that’s right on the global network of knowledge production and recognized as such wherever you go.”
Ward recites the history of how the university has leveraged national programs such as those from the National Institutes of Health and the Peace Corps.
He likens what UW-Madison has created to what South Carolina does as an outsized home to the defense industry. “We brought in all these kind of federal programs that are human-resource based, and we still do it. So, I’ll go away with a very affirmative point of view.”
He adds: “The remarkable thing is that we still have this odd small state of average income with strong populist leanings, and yet have a world-class, global institution. I still feel that’s a story that I go around with.”
Ward pauses, and adds, “The tragedy is whether we really recognize what our grandparents did for us.”