Allow us, for a moment, to indulge our journalistic predisposition for cliché: The University of Wisconsin finds itself at a crossroads.
This has been the stuff incessantly-repeated for the two-and-one-half years since former Chancellor Biddy Martin began to roll out the New Badger Partnership, a crucial, controversial and ultimately doomed legislative proposal that coincided with protests against Gov. Scott Walker.
Interim Chancellor David Ward has acted as an effective steward of UW for the last two years despite his public appearance as an uninvolved bureaucrat. He has executed the job for which he was hired and has maintained a seemingly amicable relationship with some of the most important power brokers in the state, namely Walker and the Board of Regents.
But now is the time to move on from Ward and introduce a leader with an agenda rather than a time-restricted steward.
Last week, when the university announced the four finalists to replace Ward and Martin, we were pleasantly surprised with the diversity of experience represented on each candidate’s curriculum vitae.
Considering UW’s current position at a crossroads, we arrived at several conclusions about the distinct hypothetical futures of the institution under each candidate.
All four finalists are, on paper, exceptionally qualified and impressive candidates. Similar to Martin, who left her position as provost at Cornell University before moving to Madison, our next chancellor will come from an elite university or institution and will continue to uphold UW’s long-standing reputation as one of the nation’s top public universities.
It is also obvious each candidate would bring a unique approach to the university’s administration. This board will distribute a questionnaire to the four candidates this week; their answers will give us more insight into their plans and motives for those plans.
But for now, let us provide some initial analysis of the candidates:
- Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank is, unquestionably, the candidate who will satisfy those who called for UW to appoint a business-minded chancellor late last year. Her knowledge of government processes, combined with her academic achievements and strong background in higher education, make her, to borrow a phrase from sports reporting, a triple threat. Blank is also the only candidate with a connection, albeit small, to UW — in 1985 she was a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Economics.
- Nicholas Jones, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering, would bring a wealth of experience in science and engineering to UW. Of the candidates, he would likely place the greatest emphasis on scientific research if chosen. This board believes an advocate for the sciences is tantamount to a business advocate given that supporters of higher education and economic development continue to view science and technology as crucial to the university’s future as the state’s economic engine. We hope his selection would not compromise UW’s active humanities departments. Previous chancellors, such as John Wiley, have shown a steadfast commitment to both academic sectors.
- Michael Schill, the dean of the University of Chicago Law School, has an impressive legal resume and holds an academic and administrative role at one of the most prestigious law schools in the nation. We find his candidacy appealing not solely because of his current institution’s reputation, but also because his legal background could be helpful in UW’s dealings with the state government. We would be interested to observe how Schill adjusts to a university with a different culture than UChicago’s.
- Kim Wilcox, currently Michigan State University’s provost, brings a familiarity with Big Ten universities unique to the four candidates. He is the only finalist presently employed at a public university. His current special assignment in Washington, D.C. at the Partnership to Cut Poverty and Hunger in Africa is a smart and gracious use of his academic capital. We believe his experience in Washington could bring a unique approach to lobbying and international expansion that is crucial as UW strengthens its reputation.
Next month’s forums, combined with our questionnaire, will paint a more comprehensive picture of the finalists. But we are intensely satisfied with what the search-and-screen committee has provided the UW community, and we are confident all candidates could bring UW the visionary leadership that has been its standard for years.