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.