At the start of the musical “The Music Man,” riders on a train discuss salesman Harold Hill’s modus operandi. “Now he doesn’t know the territory. Doesn’t know the territory? What’s the fellow’s line? Never worries about his line.” This brief exchange helps explain why the Faculty Senate voted Thursday night to slow the process of restructuring of the graduate school’s research operations.
In the musical, Harold Hill had no problem selling little River City, Iowa on the idea of a boys band, but here in Madison, Chancellor Biddy Martin and Provost Paul DeLuca have found their major restructuring of the graduate school to be a much harder sell. The chancellor and provost’s desire to fix research administration issues such as grant payment and safety compliance seems sincere, but as the Faculty Senate made clear, unilaterally implementing major structural changes is not the way to lead a parade.
UW-Madison is among the top three universities in the country in securing research funding, and with that quantity comes nearly unrivaled research quality as well. UW-Madison’s philosophy of shared governance has fostered a research system that others have described as a “bottom-up” system that promotes creativity and supports the larger educational mission of the graduate school. The dynamic integration of research and academics is something the university’s professors are obviously quite proud of, and there should be no surprise that proposing changes to that system without their input would be an issue.
Both Martin (somewhat explicably) and DeLuca (pretty inexplicably) should have had a better understanding of their university territory. They both are aware of the tradition of shared governance valued by the faculty and the rights reserved under that tradition. Not knowing the territory has now cost both administrators some credibility with university faculty and has gotten the process of addressing research administration shortcomings off to a rocky start.
In addition to not knowing the territory, both Martin and DeLuca probably should have put more thought into worrying about their sales lines before publicly presenting the restructuring plan during a series of town halls last month. To be fair, at least DeLuca did not start a rendition of “76 Trombones” during his question and answer session.
Based on responses at the town hall I watched and quotes from faculty in the campus newspapers, many faculty members appear to agree with Martin’s assessment that improvements in the university’s research administration can be made. However, the way this message has come across from the administration is the decision to create the new vice chancellor of research position has already been made. There is no indication that less drastic solutions have been extensively pursued.
The result is a perception, especially given the shared governance tradition, that the restructuring decision is coming solely from the administration and thus is an attempt to add more top-level control to the graduate school. The chancellor and provost should have been more cognizant of the magnitude of their proposed changes and should have anticipated faculty and students would want a fairly concrete plan that details how those changes would be made. A brief PowerPoint presentation might have worked in River City, but here in Madison, a more polished tune is expected.
In “The Music Man,” Harold Hill is fully prepared to fleece River City of its money before he has a change of heart and decides to stick around to lead the new band. Hill’s conversion into a decent human being shows people’s good graces usually win out. Although the process of improving the graduate school’s research operations has gotten off to a tumultuous start, the dialogue between the faculty and administration that appears to have finally started is still a great opportunity to improve a rocking research program.
Many of the concerns cited in Martin’s Oct. 21 letter to the university community — grant administration, problems with industry contracts and safety and compliance problems — are largely administrative in nature and could potentially be addressed with more administrative staff rather than splitting the graduate school in two. Hopefully the Faculty Senate’s slow-down resolution will facilitate the discussion of different alternatives, and the result of the process will be a consensus decision between faculty and the administration that addresses important shortcomings while preserving the University’s unique, bottom-up research structure.
Likening Martin and DeLuca to Harold Hill is ultimately an off-key comparison. Both should be commended for having the leadership to suggest making changes to a very successful research system, even if their method of doing so has left a lot to be desired. The logical steps going forward are to heed the Faculty Senate’s resolution to have more faculty involvement in the restructuring and then pen some catchy show tunes entitled “76 Mass Spectrometers” and “The Fischer Scientific Wagon.”
Zachary Schuster (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate student studying water resources engineering and water resource management.