June 19, 2008

Biddy Martin's Public Challenge

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What began as a 231-word blog post criticizing outgoing provost Biddy Martin has escalated into war – well, at least a press release war in the Wisconsin legislature. After The Capital Times reported that an aide to Rep. Steve Nass circulated the blog post among Republicans, the press release war commenced, leading to another article by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and then an article and an editorial from The Sun. While the author of the blog post, Travis Kavulla, has taken the rhetoric down a notch in his response to the whole fiasco, he raises an interesting issue concerning the difference between a public university like The University of Wisconsin – Madison and a private university like Cornell University.

Travis did not recant anything he said after describing Martin as a “obscure, self-indulged, theory-laden, post-modern scholar” in his respone; instead, he goes on the defend the use of every adjective. Yet simultaneously, his explanation is so verbose and nonchalant that it hardly carries the same kind of negative connotation the original phrase had. Nonetheless, it makes a point. Between his response and another post from Mark Bauerlein, you can certainly can understand the theory-laden part. Somehow, I do not think Biddy Martin’s work on the special double-issue of Diacritics or her description of how “the evacuation of interior essences and normative, disciplinary assumptions of gender cores and consistencies has been critical to the shift in postmodern queer theories” will exactly dispel that notion. Nor will it help her negotiate any potential legislative battles.

Yes, the legislature. Madison gets its funding from there; Cornell does not. Travis appears to all but concede that Martin would do a good job if Madison were a private university, but Cornell is not exactly a state school. While she can work well with the administration, faculty, and alumni to get the job done at Cornell, she has to face an entirely new breed of people: the legislators.

Take for example, an interesting fact our editorial pointed out: “UW-Madison is the only Big Ten school to deny domestic partner benefits.” Now one would expect this could be a priority that Biddy Martin would quickly take up given her background in LGBT issues. However, if she prioritizes this too much, she could quickly receive criticism for focusing too much on singular issues within the university and not focusing enough on the university’s main goal of education. Once this criticsm occurs, she will have to explain to the legislature why the pursuit of domestic partner benefits is consuming so much of the univeristy’s time and resources. Reading “Sexualities Without Genders and Other Queer Utopias” to the legislature will not exactly help her accomplish that goal.

Now many will rightly point out that Biddy Martin’s record of accomplishment span a wide array of issues beyond LGBT issues and diversity, and I will agree. But to some extent Cornell is already a utopia as a private, Ivy-League university. I do not mean this in a negative way, but Madison is not the same utopia Cornell is. And if Biddy Martin worries too much about that, she could get distracted. If she spends her time trying to make Madison the same utopia Cornell is, she may lose focus on big picture. Just look at her last State of the University speech, where The Sun criticized her for talking too much about rankings instead of defining a vision for Cornell. While she recognizes the differences between Madison and Cornell, just like she recognizes how meaningless rankings are, she has to avoid worrying about these differences too much.

Of course, it will be a long time before we see how Biddy Martin adapts to a new environment. But if this legislative spout is a sign of things to come, she will have to learn quickly. Should that legislative battle come, you will read about her work in a special issue of the local newspaper, not a special issue of Diacritics.

Mike Wacker is The Sun’s Assistant Web Editor. He can be reached at mwacker@cornellsun.com.