June 13, 2008

Martin Faces Public Criticism from the Badger State

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While many Cornell students, faculty and staff have offered both praise for Provost Biddy Martin as she prepares to assume the position of University of Wisconsin-Madison chancellor in September and lamentation in the wake of her absence at Cornell, the chancellor-elect has become the brunt of harsh criticism amidst a highly publicized battle between members of Wisconsin’s state legislature.

On May 30, the National Review Online ran a blog post questioning if Martin — who the author described as an “obscure, self-indulged, theory-laden, post-modern scholar” — has what it takes to be chancellor of UW-Madison. Soon after the post was published, Rep. Steven Nass (R-Whitewater) circulated it among senate and assembly Republicans, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Following Martin’s appointment as chancellor, Nass expressed concern with the university’s decision.

“I am cautiously optimistic that Dr. Martin, as an outside selection, will shake up the status-quo and return UW-Madison’s focus to a balance between undergraduate education and research,” he told the Sentinel, which is Wisconsin’s largest newspaper.

He further asserted that the citizens of the state of Wisconsin “don’t want a university promoting the liberal indoctrination of young minds at the altar of political correctness.”

Mike Mikalsen, an aide to Nass, agreed with his boss’ attacks: “Trying to figure out who she [Martin] is has not been easy,” he told The Sentinel. “She doesn’t necessarily have a very high profile in higher education.”

However, Nass told The Sun that he had no intention that his own words would become a public matter. He said that he only meant to forward the article to his Republican colleagues, and that he sent it because it conveyed what little information he could find about Martin. However, he said that there were other candidates more qualified for the chancellor position than Martin.

Democratic representatives in the Wisconsin were quick to criticize Nass and his office for publicizing the inflammatory blog post. On Tuesday, Reps. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) and Spencer Black (D-Madison) issued a statement in response to the personal attacks at Martin.

“It is incredible to me that a legislator would seek to trash the new chancellor, and it is even more galling that he would set such an ugly tone before she has even started her new job,” Berceau said, according to the statement.

Black further added that Nass has continuously taken potshots at UW-Madison, even though he serves as the chair of the higher education committee. He asserted that Nass’s opinions in no way represent the entire state house or the people of Wisconsin.

“Martin is coming by my office next week to introduce herself,” Black said. “From what I’ve read, it seems like her skill sets are a good match. I’m optimistic.”

In a press release, Black added his further dismay at the way Nass has acted.

“The attacks by Nass can cause great damage to our state,” Black stated. “The University is crucial to our state’s future and we must be able to compete for the most talented people in a very competitive environment. The kind of fierce attacks launched by Nass threaten the university’s key role in Wisconsin’s economic future.”

Nass responded to Black and Berceau in a press release issued on Wednesday by highlighting issues of administrative pay; the Wisconsin legislature recently approved a bill to increase salaries of UW chancellors.

“Assembly Democrats say they care about students and faculty to get their votes,” Nass stated. “However, they always support outrageous pay increases for administrators, while most faculty in the classroom are lucky to get 1-percent to 2-percent pay increases. Even worse is the outright dishonesty of assembly Democrats about caring for the middle class, but supporting every tuition increase that inevitably keeps more middle class students from attending a UW campus.”

Nass also blamed Black and Berceau for making these disagreements public, adding that he wanted to wait until Martin got settled to voice his concerns.

“I don’t know why they did what they did, but my particular course of action was to wait and see what the agenda will be,” Nass said. “To me that seems fair in any job, but Berceau and Black seem to want to set the agenda for her.”

Nass has plans — which he said he made before the controversy erupted — to meet with Martin in the near future. He added that it is now up to Black and Berceau to settle the controversy, which he believes has been blown out of proportion.

Another point of contention surrounding Martin is her sexual orientation. UW-Madison will be the largest school to be led by an openly gay leader when Martin takes charge in the fall. However, the university still lacks domestic partner benefits for gay couples — a policy that Martin helped implement at Cornell in 1994. Nass has questioned whether she will over-emphasize this political agenda once she takes the chancellorship seat, given her background in gender studies.

However, Black said that it has been republicans like Nass who have stopped Wisconsin from approving domestic partner benefits in the first place.

“This is unfortunate,” Black said. “In many ways Wisconsin is a very progressive state. Nass was one of the people against [domestic partner benefits]. The governor did propose it in the budget and many legislators — including myself — have advocated for it for a great many years.”

The one thing that all representatives agree on is the importance of UW-Madison to the state’s economy. Given this fact, both sides expressed hope that the controversy will begin to die down.