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Destroying Ourselves

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Destroying Ourselves

Politics is a form of warfare. In its best moments, it encourages creative competition to innovate and improve. In its worst moments (like today in the United States), it produces pathologies of self-destruction. The belligerents fight in ways that undermine the very things they are fighting for.

I have never lived through a more self-destructive political moment. The examples, from those who deny the September 11 terrorist attacks to those who question President Obama’s American birth, are numerous and they are multiplying. Attack politics have become so pervasive that they are now almost “normal.” My young kids have never seen anything different. Neither have my undergraduates at the university. Most depressing, these attack politics have made it impossible to address our real problems: broken budgets, a failing health care system, environmental degradation, growing international competition, and the decline of educational institutions, our engines of mobility and innovation.

Wisconsin, the traditional heart of progressive American politics, has received a lot of international news coverage for its wrenching struggles with these destructive dynamics. In the latest and most depressing development, University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, resigned her job in evident frustration. Of course she did not say this, but anyone watching events could recognize the clear causes. Martin is one more bold and creative leader shot down by attackers on all sides. She is leaving her job, recognizing that real reform in major institutions, with broad public impact, is nearly impossible today. The stagnation and decline at the University of Wisconsin is the stagnation and decline of Wisconsin as a whole, as well as the United States and its world-leading institutions.

Chancellor Martin was not flawless. She made many mistakes. What made her a promising leader was her effort to address the crisis of our country head-on. Public universities sponsor the vast majority of our society’s research and innovation. They also educate the vast majority of students. If you have spent any time at a public university, you will immediately see that they are terribly under-funded. The classrooms are bulging at the seams, and the students are carrying ever-heavier debt burdens. The only exceptions to these observations are college athletic facilities (and salaries) that appear to grow as academics suffer.

Like most athletic teams, universities are under-performing. They are more isolated and inward looking than ever before. As they face budget cuts, they circle the wagons and oppose all external advice. They protect traditional departments and fiefdoms, as overall quality suffers. Universities badly need more money, more reform, and more outreach.

Martin was unwilling to coast in the face these challenges. She could have done that if she wanted. She could have accepted the circumstances and committed herself to empty rhetoric and small changes. Many experienced people offered her exactly that advice: “don’t go so fast,” “don’t rock the boat,” “don’t ask too much from people.”

Martin did not follow this cautious advice. More than almost any of her peers, she initiated big changes that offered a new model for higher education. Martin pushed a “Madison Initiative for Undergraduates” to encourage the teaching of new interdisciplinary subjects and to hold the university accountable for offering the best education to its undergraduates. Martin also invested precious resources and energy in supporting collaborative research focused on pressing social and political problems: global health, environmental sustainability, and international security. Most of all, Martin insisted that she receive the necessary authority to allocate campus resources and reform administration for serving student, research, and public demands. She pursued a “New Badger Partnership” that would make the university more flexible, responsive, and innovative.

These bold initiatives began to change the university, and they received wide attention. They also inspired a barrage of unceasing attacks from all political directions. I witnessed this myself. I felt the isolation that our Chancellor felt, under siege, unable to engage in serious public discussion without becoming the immediate target of name-calling, personal insults, and even direct threats.

Republicans, including Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, approved of calls for flexibility and accountability, but they offered absolutely no substantive support for the university. They cut budgets drastically. They insulted and harassed scholars. They attacked the very idea of public education and free inquiry, proclaiming that the goal of all government efforts must be to encourage business, or at least the particular businesses that finance Republican activities. The Tea Party movement in Wisconsin has taken direct aim at the alleged “elitism” of intellectual life. They really do not believe in a free society that does not conform to their rigid market visions.

Democrats, including the distinguished lawyers serving on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents and many of my faculty friends, praised Chancellor Martin’s efforts to defend the university, but they viciously attacked her initiatives. She threatened their comfortable status and their independence. She called for reforms that would increase pressures for accountability, excellence, and public service – all things that established protectors of academic privilege abhor. Most of all, Martin placed a premium on experiment and change for left-leaning figures who feared those words would jeopardize other values they hold dear. In Wisconsin and around the country, Democrats have proven stubbornly conservative. They have offered few new ideas, and they have savaged their sympathizers who try.

Chancellor Martin’s resignation, then, is part of a broader nation-wide purge of creative institutional leaders, perpetrated by Republicans and Democrats together. Look around. Does anyone deny that the quality of our leaders at all levels of American society has suffered in the last ten years? Congress? Corporate CEOs? University Presidents? Where are the leaders with a positive, reforming vision? Where are the institution-builders and the inspirational innovators?

American attack politics have destroyed these leaders. American attack politics have sent them running. The best and the brightest are not encouraged to become leaders if they value their integrity, their freedom, and their sanity. Instead of our most capable figures in command of our institutions, we are left with mediocrity, at best.

This must change. American society must stop destroying itself. States like Wisconsin must promote, not attack, creative leaders on the model of Carolyn Martin. Institutions like the University of Wisconsin must promote excellence and creativity, not comfortable conservatism.

Great leaders do not appear magically from the gunfire of unceasing conflict. They are made from efforts by citizens of diverse political stripes to find new sources of common ground, new instruments for collaborative innovation. Americans need to start nurturing real leaders of positive vision, rather than the trigger-happy foot-soldiers who are now disastrously in control.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.



  1. Brian Lawson June 15, 2011

    While I respect Biddy for her time here at UW, instead of seeing her proposals through, she decided to leave the field in the middle of the game. Wiley was not free from immense personal attacks either or troubling times with budgets, cutbacks and outside competition for UW faculty and staff yet he remained. It’s unfortunate that she left, but it would have been nice to see her stay until the job was somewhat close to being done.

  2. Chris June 15, 2011

    This opinion piece by Prof. Suri is a very eloquently stated reflection of today’s situation in not only WI, but throughout the country. At a more abstract level, this article applies far beyond the subject of Chancellor Martin’s departure from the UW. While I wish I could be more optimism that all those departing the UW will find their utopia elsewhere, away from this festering and sinking ship, the diseases of “trickle-down monopolies” and attendant toxic politics are becoming omnipresent across the US. It is even spreading to Canada and elsewhere. There really is no true refuge from our self-destruction as we are all interconnected. I believe true leaders must stop running and realize we are losing the war everywhere.

    I suspect, in the long run, a sort of cruel incarnation of Darwinism will be the only force to correct this course we are hell-bent on completing. Then again, maybe that’s too simplistic. It seems our negligence of the world’s environment and its resources will make the social Darwinism more complex and more severe.

  3. Dan Sebald June 15, 2011

    Professor Suri,

    While I’m in synch with you about the current destructive state of American politics and higher education (when times get lean, people bicker I suppose) and appreciate you drawing attention to these facts, I see the situation with Chancellor Martin somewhat differently than you do.

    In hindsight, Chancellor Martin was for a while seeking employment elsewhere, which is her prerogative. However, this is an indication that her full attention may not have been on something that requires a large effort to build momentum from within and from outside the university.

    Although Biddy Martin may have had a lot of the concepts of what eventually became New Badger Partnership in mind soon after joining UW, it is the formulation of the initiative and implementation over the past six to eight months that seemed somewhat disorganized. Her plan was under wraps for much of the time with many people only able to speculate what New Badger Partnership might be. It’s difficult to get on board something one knows little about because, as is the case here, there are potentially items that one does not agree with. So yes, the destructive political forces are certainly at play, but even big proponents of the UW, like myself, struggled with this one.

    I can agree with much of the flexibilities sought by the chancellor, but there were two major items that caused problems in my mind.

    The first item was the Board of Trustees. This board came out of the ether, had little to do with Biddy Martin’s and many UW employee’s desires, and simply was another layer of politics with inappropriate representation, in my opinion. That last thing UW needs is internal squabbling over representation on a board. I doubt the Board of Trustees was the chancellor’s idea originally.

    The second item was the flexibility to set tuition and build infrastructure. As happens in the business world, there is potential for unsustainable largess that can lead to problems down the road. For example, you point out the expenditures to college sports. I doubt there was anything in New Badger Partnership or Board of Trustees that would address the prioritization of education and sports at a large university. I feared things would get worse given the makeup of the proposed Board of Trustees.

    I like your comment: “The belligerents fight in ways that undermine the very things they are fighting for.” In some ways I felt the New Badger Partnership was doing just that. As a UW graduate, I wasn’t looking for a New Badger Partnership, I was looking for the UW to get back to the OLD badger partnership. Being an historian, you clearly understand the purpose of the land grant institution, which seems to be lost in this whole discussion. The land grant was an actual legislative commitment to higher education that Wisconsin agreed to almost 150 years ago now. Affordable tuition, fair compensation to educators, infrastructure–that’s all part of the Merrill Act and Wisconsin Idea. State taxpayers invested a lot of money in the UW over that time. Removing the UW from state oversight and funding is giving away a valuable item.

    By all accounts, Biddy Martin has an excellent rapport with students and faculty at the UW. One can only expect her to do well at Amherst College. It’s unfortunate she couldn’t prioritize the items of the list of goals, present them one or two at a time to the public, system and government, then build momentum to reach those goals. In the bigger picture, though, this New Badger Partnership is only a few months out of three years as chancellor and there are her other accomplishments that you list.

    The priorities, from my perspective, are retaining quality faculty and making tuition affordable so that higher education is accessible to Wisconsin’s youth. (Diversity is perhaps another goal, but anyone who’s attended UW knows the school is pretty diverse already.) Those have historically been the priorities and should continue to be. I can get behind that. Basically, the legislature has to start bumping up its support of UW to the historical percentages. The bigger problem is that Wisconsin is unable to balance a good budget. Trying to compete with very expensive schools in some national rankings is an uphill battle for a large university that has been geared to be a value institution.

  4. SI June 15, 2011

    While I accept the broader thesis about the degradation of leadership in positions of power, this piece seems to assume that the NBP was, all things considered, good and just. That is very much up for (civil!) debate. In particular, one thing that is notably absent from Suri’s discussion is how the NBP would affect *ALL* of the university’s in Wisconsin, not just Madison. THAT is what a lot of people had problems with: it’s negative impacts on the rest of Wisconsin’s students and faculty. And I would argue that this concern for all of the people of Wisconsin–not just the people at the flagship school–is staying true to the Wisconsin Idea. I’m all for making the university more responsive to public needs and accountable to standards of excellence. But there has to be a way of doing that without also hurting other universities in the state.

  5. George June 15, 2011

    Suri asks, “Where are the institution-builders and the inspirational innovators?”

    In silicon valley…

    Brewing and stewing over what new education and new leadership will look like for tomorrow.

  6. Jeremi Suri June 15, 2011

    Austin too? I hope so.

  7. Chris June 15, 2011

    I appreciate the essay and the points you make, but they would resonate more if you weren’t running for the hills (of Austin, that is).

  8. GP June 15, 2011

    I don’t disagree with much of what is laid out in this article. However, I think it glosses over one exceptionally important reason why Biddy Martin ran into the trouble she did: It’s not because of her bold initiatives, which I think many would have welcomed under the right circumstances. Rather, it’s because she took a unilateralist approach that alienated many of those who felt that change at an institution like UW-Madison should be a transparent, open, and deliberative process and should reflect the judgments and expertise of a spectrum of constituents, not just the judgment of the chancellor, her inner circle, and (apparently) our very controversial governor.

    I was one of those who was highly critical of her NBP campaign. But my criticism was very specifically of the process, not the idea itself. She campaigned for the NBP for a long time before anyone had any inkling that it included splitting UW-Madison from the UW System. When that information finally came out, it landed like a bombshell, and it felt like a bait-and-switch. That’s when the angry opposition began from a variety of quarters.

    And the subsequent “discussion” was really a heavy-handed, one-sided sales pitch involving mass emailings by the Chancellor pressuring us to support something we didn’t understand and even very visible paid lobbyists (“Badger Advocates”) who sponsors remain to this day a complete mystery to most of us. Requests for concrete details of the public authority plan were met with platitudes and unsubstantiated generalities, not with real information.

    The resentment over being treated as children to be cajoled into supporting something that no one fully understood was quite intense. And, I believe, it was quite justified.

    It’s too bad. Biddy Martin had enormous potential to be a great chancellor for UW-Madison. I believe that potential ran onto the rocks because she vastly overestimated the willingness of those concerned to passively sit back and let major things be done to our institution without at least feeling like informed, consenting participants in the process. Had she shown greater respect for the “sifting and winnowing” tradition of UW-Madison and had she not blindsided those who could have been her allies, I believe she could have been incredibly effective in achieving important changes.

  9. Frank Rojas June 16, 2011

    UW has been sifting and winnowing away for about 30 years trying to get even a few of the goals called for in the NBP and all that hot air yields exactly ZILCH. In just 6 months BM completely changed the dynamic and now the UW has more control than it achieved in 30 years of S&W–whatever that means.
    I am angry with her for not staying to see it through and build on the large beachhead she nearly established with little support from the System except to ride on her coattails.
    The faculty should go back to performing the S&W they do best like arguing over who should be making Badger Tshirts. Please inform me as to one major productive initiative that ever arose out of the faculty S&W?? Just one–ever. Progress at UW has come about from strong leaders at the top and the major deans. The faculty is good at collective obstruction and maintaining the status quo. The faculty should do what they do best–teach and research. They have no training or experience in management and most are against most change as Suri said. The need to be lead in areas outside their expertise. I doubt BM was coming down to tell profs how to do their labs or teach a class.

    To Dan S–education without high quality is nearly worthless today. Now and in the future only those with degrees from the best institution need apply for the better jobs. Even in Chicago there are many firms that will only hire Ivy and maybe Big Ten grads. Northern Illinois grads need not apply. This trend will only get tougher over time. So while keeping tuition as low as possible is a goal it must be done with the commitment to preserving top quality too. Right now people are flocking to the most expensive schools because they know there will be a payoff. Wisconsin kids are lucky that for a small fraction of the cost they can have a top quality education that will get them in the door for the best jobs. Even Teach for America is very competitive with up to 20% of an Ivy class applying. The list of those chosen the most from schools includes UW Madison in the Top 10 along with generally highly selective and more expensive schools. UW tuition right now is a bargain and it will still be a bargain at $12,000 a year if that is what it takes to keep UW where it has always been. Land grant status was added on to the then existing UW. It is only part of the UW today and most of the money it brought in was quickly pissed away by what–a dumb and corrupt bunch at the other end of State Street. So spare me the stories of the great land grant status. More like the land grant fraud.(See the UW Histories for details)
    UW has been lucky that some Chancellor (I seriously doubt the faculty had the idea) years ago saw the benefit of high out of state enrollment. The extra tuition they pay subsidized the instate kids for decades. Now other schools are competing like hell for those students so there are limits to how much out of state tuition can be increased. With declining state support it is time the instate families and kids stepped up to pay their fair share. Otherwise you are giving up your future for a few thousand dollars today.

  10. Dan Sebald June 16, 2011

    Frank, you are getting at the core question of whether Wisconsin wants to abandoned the principle of affordable education for its citizens via state schools. It’s perspective, but one can look at in-state tuition as being subsidized by Wisconsin taxpayers, not out-of-state families who don’t pay Wisconsin state taxes.

    If I recall correctly, one component of the Merrill Act was that the country wanted a group of schools that would educate citizens in the more pragmatic applied sciences coinciding with the country’s expansion westward. These schools were intended to not be in the elite class that already existed as with many of the colleges on the east coast. If someone wants to know about conservation, seed hybridization, nutrition, biology, nonlinear dynamics, etc., Yale is not an institution that immediately comes to mind.

    I understand hiring trends (and dearth of jobs…a different discussion), but at the same time I think there is a trend of families and youth who are deciding to forgo higher education because the end result is tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt, which is a risk in this economy. That’s unfortunate, because it’s undermining the principle of broadly educating the populace.

    University of Illinois is further along in the privatization process than UW, and unlikely to turn back. U of I was once arguably the best value in the country; I don’t know what people think about the situation in Illinois. It’s an example to look to and see what the affect of NBP would have been. NIU is fairly reputable.

    Sifting and winnowing means not being beholden to some ordained train of thought or influenced by biased opinion and outside forces–fleetingly achieved I suppose. One recent example would be Prof. Nellie McKay, co-editor of Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. She didn’t hold to convention and as a result helped establish a whole new area of study.

  11. Frank Rojas June 18, 2011

    Academic freedom to sift and winnow is fine with me. The problems start when you have 2000 people who also think they are admins and can run the place. UW is far from the little college it was what that might be workable. It now has a $1 Billion subsidiary that takes virtually no state funds and actually subsidizes the university . You don’t need some animal rights activist academic trying to take over the research functions. Leave that to the professionals.. That’s why they were hired.

    The principle of a broadly educated population does not have to mean 4 year college degrees. There are many ways to remain educated if you can read which is taught in the K-12 years.

    Whatever the intentions were of the Morrill Act 150 years ago are hardly all that important today. The UW gets very little money to even carry out any of those ancient goals. It still provides thorough top notch instruction in engineering and agriculture so it is meeting its duties. Get over the land grant. They blew the money 150 years ago. It’s meaningless today. And it was only a PART of the UW to begin with. UW always had a Yale component too in teaching the liberal arts and sciences. That’s why it was part of the founding AAU schools. The others–Harvard, Princeton, Michigan, Berkeley, Penn, Chicago, and Cornell. Very good company and not limited to land grant schools. Just the opposite really.

  12. Frank Rojas June 18, 2011

    Left off Johns Hopkins and Stanford. Even better company.

  13. Ryan Long June 20, 2011

    While I am a big fan of Mr. Suri, I completely disagree with his stance on President Obama’s birth certificate. For people who are truly sincere in their commitment to ethics let me ask a simple question: What if President Obama wasn’t born in the US? What if he did, in fact, lie? Adherents to the post sixties liberal beast would have us believe that merely asking such a question is racist and ignorant. Yet isn’t there something suspiciously Orwellian about this attack? This country has, at its core, the belief in the individual over the group and the celebration of this struggle. The Obama machine (and this includes a lot more than just his administration) will destroy anyone who dares question its legitimacy…even if that means the individual.

  14. Tiffany Rafalko June 23, 2011

    I am not by any means in touch with politics. What I do know leads me to believe that bw was correct in saying that everyone running for office has an innate desire to boss around large numbers of people, and once elected, tries to expand their ability to do so. Power doesn’t corrupt, it merely attracts the latently corrupt.

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