Leaders Come and Go

Big changes are taking place in Madison

Change is good. I really believe that. I value experience and institutional wisdom as much as the next guy, but I find the stubborn clinging to power and responsibility for the sake of keeping one’s power and responsibility unseemly at best and counter-productive at worst.

So change is good. But it sure seems like there have been a lot of comings and goings lately. My head’s spinning. The first going of course is UW–Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin. This one really stings. Martin is young, smart, strong and visionary, and exactly the type of leader the UW needs to maintain—and, yes, grow—its position as one of the great research institutions of higher learning in the world. She may—may—have been guilty of one or two slight missteps in terms of communicating her plans for greater autonomy for the Madison campus and her response to Governor Scott Walker’s modifications of those plans. But I don’t buy it. It’s not possible I knew of the plans and Martin’s too-many bosses did not. And if any middle-aged white guy had done what she did, it’d perhaps be mildly criticized, then accepted as “the way to get things done.” Instead Martin was forced out. This was not Wisconsin’s finest hour.

So suddenly there’s an opening for an “interim” chancellor. And former chancellor David Ward rides to the rescue. It’s probably as good a choice as any available. Ward was a terrific chancellor in his own right—a personable, thoughtful, highly respected administrator and educator and an absolute expert on the state of higher education in America. I always enjoyed talking with him and writing about him and gladly welcome him back to lead us through this transition.

The next going makes me smile. Madison Fire Chief Debra Amesqua arrived in January 1996 with all those demeaning and, thankfully, antiquated descriptors: “first woman chief,” “first Hispanic chief,” “first lesbian chief.” And worse: “outsider,” “unqualified,” “Affirmative Action hire.” Really hurtful stuff that Madison should have been above, but wasn’t. Amesqua was amazing through it all—strong, stoic, committed and confident in her abilities. She never returned the venom, never whined and never retaliated. Her professionalism and dignity never wavered. And over the course of sixteen years she not only silenced her critics but she won most of them over. And you know why? Because she was one helluva good fire chief. And to see her leave the job with her head high and her many accomplishments celebrated is an absolute joy.

And then, much to the surprise of many, including me, Dane County Circuit Judge Dan Moeser retired. Moeser was on the bench for more than thirty years, a career roughly spanning the decades I’ve been writing about the courts in Dane County. And if I was any good at it at all, it was because of Judge Moeser and colleagues back in the day, like Bill Eich, Mike Trophy, Chuck Jones, Mark Frankel, Moria Krueger, Stu Schwartz, Angie Bartell, Jim Boll, Mike Nowakowski and George Northrup, when relationships were built on trust and a mutual interest in helping citizens understand and respect the criminal justice system. They did, I think, understand and respect our courts, because of those efforts and because Moeser was one of the strongest proponents of open courtrooms, cameras in the court and strong judge-media relations of any judge I’ve ever known. I got the chance to work with him on a bunch of efforts and I enjoyed every one of them. I’m sorry to see him go but so pleased that he made his decision in good health and with typically understated class.

So, just as I’m thinking about how to wrap this up, Sean Robbins says he’s leaving Thrive to take an even higher-powered job in Portland. All these comings are goings are really testing my change theory.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at nheinen@madisonmagazine.com.

Find more For the Record columns here.

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