Biddy Martin, Above the Fray

Why I like Biddy's support of the New Badger Partnership

First, full disclosure.

I am a UW–Madison grad, as are my three kids, my bride, her mom and my dad. And several of my siblings, nieces and nephews are System grads or current students.

Also, like most creative shops in Madison, our branding/film production group has done work for UW. Even did a piece in support of Biddy Martin’s latest initiative, although their production budget was hardly enough to sway my opinion.

Still, if you believe, as many do these days, that your Sworn Enemy For Life is anyone who does not toe the absolute line of The Wisconsin 14 Are Saints/Public Unions Are Flawless/Walker Is the Devil mantra, you probably want to stop reading … right … here.

But before you go, please know that I voted for our current president, and both Governor Walker’s and Senator Johnson’s opponents.
If you are still here, let us continue, as it means you have a trait rare in Wisconsin these days: a discriminating intellect.

I support Chancellor Biddy Martin’s efforts to forge a new organizational model for UW–Madison. Would I like more details hammered out? Yes. But are her heart and brain in the right place? You bet. In fact, if you think, as I do, that the last few months in Wisconsin have been a movie with no heroes, look again. The person riding in on the white horse could be Biddy. And let me tell you why … and how it is only partially due to the chancellor’s proposal called The New Badger Partnership.

Biddy is UW–Madison’s first openly gay chancellor. To come out, especially in the era from which both she and I emerged, is no easy thing. In fact, it is courageous. Further, it is no stretch to suggest that an openly gay academic might not vote a straight (pun pardon assumed) Republican ticket. And yet, here she is putting her head down and trying to do business with Scott Walker in fiscally challenging times for her university and our state, while everyone else in Wisconsin seems to be either pouting or screaming.

Why do I support Biddy? Because she is acting like an adult.

In a time of unprecedented political polarity brought about by a once-in-a-lifetime economic collapse, Biddy has her sleeves rolled up and is working in a bipartisan fashion to move things ahead for all, despite the fact that Scott Walker did her no favors by turning our state into a fistfight in his first month in office. In the midst of a shocking lack of statesmanship from either side of the aisle, and the feeling that our state has the buoyant energy of a tree sloth, Biddy is working with all to get something done within the fiscal, political and human realities that exist today, despite dealing with boards and personalities that give cause to rename our state bird The Ego.

Her new partnership concept has been around for two decades. The economy and dwindling state financial resources moved the idea from back burner to front burner. The status quo, which, ironically, seems to be defended by every Progressive in the state, is not the answer to our problems. Biddy’s proposal deals with real issues that truly affect the UW and Madison right now.

First, unlike the System schools, UW–Madison is a global brand and has to be managed as such. Far more people around the world know about our university than our state in the same way they know more about Oscar Mayer hot dogs than Madison.

Secondly, state dollars are going to continue to dwindle for the UW and the System schools regardless of what party lives on Lake Mendota. If you don’t believe me, check out Jim “apres moi le deluge” Doyle’s budgets. And it is time for the state schools to step out from Madison’s shadow. The System worked in helping launch and legitimize many of the System schools. But the time is long overdue for them to quit the band and start cutting their own albums. Too often they are perceived as a second choice, when in fact they are simply a great choice in their own right.

Further, in this new digital era, education and what it means to be a university are going to change profoundly. Everyone in education is going to have to be smarter and more nimble. Fewer boards, meetings and process will help.

The Wisconsin Idea has been bandied about a lot lately. It is the notion that the boundaries of the university extend beyond the campus to the state and the world. UW–Madison can continue to deliver and improve on that powerful mission. And the state schools can begin to fulfill the second half of the “state and world” clause. And Madison and the state of Wisconsin can continue to benefit from these remarkable schools.

But it won’t happen without change. Smart change. But change nonetheless.

Interestingly, it has been Biddy Martin who has emerged to show us how to handle this change.

Which makes sense. She is, after all, a teacher.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at

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