Losing Biddy is a tremendous blow for the University of Wisconsin. As I’m writing this, I’m watching the video stream of Biddy being introduced to the Amherst community as their 19th president and her tremendous address. I’m thrilled for Amherst, and happy for Biddy. She’ll do great there, and it seems to be a great start – she received five standing ovations during the event. However, I can’t help but be angry. Not at her, but at us. I’ve got a mental list of students, faculty, groups, and politicians that I want to lash out at, that I think created and perpetuated a toxic environment, but what good would that do? Jeremi Suri wrote an extraordinary piece titled “Destroying Ourselves” reflecting on Biddy’s departure and broader trends in politics. It doesn’t offer any solutions, but it is an accurate assessment of the despair and defeatism that pervades politics today. 

The last question Biddy took during her introduction was a request to tell a story that would help Amherst get to know who she is as a person and who she is as a leader, and she closed her answer with “I think it’s extremely important to be able to disagree about things that are important in ways that are not damaging.” UW-Madison and Wisconsin could not, and we are poorer for it. I will take that as the last lesson I learned from Biddy. 

[Also during the introduction, Amherst gave Biddy a few gifts: a very nice purple scarf, a Amherst women’s basketball National Champions t-shirt (number 19), a football jersey (also number 19) and an Amherst windbreaker jacket. Note to the next search committee: we can do better than that.] 

So instead of dwelling on the past, I will look to the future, and some of the questions that Biddy’s departure raises. I’ll start with who may take over as interim Chancellor. In the future, I’ll look at what matters in the search for a permanent replacement, and what big issues will be more difficult to handle with uncertain leadership over the next year.

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Biddy is going to leave before we can do a full search to appoint a successor, so sometime in the next few days or weeks, System President Kevin Reilly will have to name someone to be a caretaker. Here are a handful of people who I think are “Chancellorable”, in rough order of their likelihood.

 – Provost Paul DeLuca. The Provost serves as Chancellor in the absence of the Chancellor, so DeLuca is the obvious front-runner for an interim appointment. The last time we were in a similar situation, when Donna Shalala left for Bill Clinton’s cabinet in January of 1993, Provost David Ward served as acting Chancellor before eventually being named Chancellor several months later. DeLuca knows the University and is well-respected, even if he did ruffle some feathers with the research enterprise restructuring effort last year. 

The strike against DeLuca is that being Provost is a large and complex job, and we might be better off leaving him where he is to keep continuity. I would not think it wise to try and serve in both jobs at once, even if it is technically permissible. It’s also not clear how good he’d be (or enjoy) fundraising. This interim job may last for nearly a year, so we will not be able to let fundraising slide, and the Chancellor has to carry a large share of that burden. Mike Knetter at the UW Foundation is very good, but the acting Chancellor is still going to have to raise a lot of money to keep the UW going. 

– Former Chancellor John Wiley. There is obviously little question that Wiley can do the job. He’s currently serving as interim director at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, and his successor is supposed to be named soon. He had planned on retiring afterwards, but Wiley has spent his entire life in service to the UW-Madison. If asked, I’m sure he’d agree to serve for another few months. Again, there’s precedence, even if it is a century old: Edward Birge held the job in 1901-1903 on an acting basis, and after Charles Van Hise died in 1918 Birge was called on to serve again. (It was again meant to be acting, but the Regents talked Birge into serving until 1925) 

The strike against Wiley is that he famously went out speaking the truth. The full article seems to have disappeared from the web, but he blasted Republicans and the group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and has not stopped speaking his mind since. The Democrats will likely take back the State Senate this summer, and the Legislature will settle in for a war of attrition, stagnation, and gridlock. Getting the Democrats and Republicans to work together will be very difficult. Wiley, having made clear which side he falls on, may not be the best face to help us navigate that terrain. 

As an alternative plan, Wiley could step back into an administrative role as interim Provost or some similar title if DeLuca serves as interim Chancellor. 

 – Graduate School Dean Martin Cadwallader. Cadwallader holds the working title of “Vice Chancellor for Research” in addition to Dean of the Graduate School, and is effectively the number three of the University. The Vice-Chancellor for Research is becoming an official title, and not just a working title for the Dean of the Graduate School. There is a search underway for this position, with the short list of finalists announced just last week. (More on that later) Cadwallader is scheduled to return to teaching the fall (he’s a geographer, and teaching a course examining “various urban empirical regularities and theories which explain them”) so like Wiley, the timing could be good with minimal disruption to other parts of the University.

The strike against Cadwallader is ‘can he do the job?’ I believe he can: he’s been a fine administrator, and I’ve seen first-hand how he cares for students. He also doesn’t have any of Wiley’s baggage, nor a pressing desire to retire. However, unlike Wiley who has done the job, or DeLuca, who was hired with the expectation that he had to be able to be act as Chancellor if need be, this is not something that has been asked of Cadwallader. Kevin Reilly would be wise to consider him, though. 

– Letters and Science Dean Gary Sandefur. Dean of L&S since 2004, Sandefur was a finalist for the Chancellor position in 2008. Prior to that, he served as interim Provost for 9 months in 2001 when John Wiley stepped down as Provost to became Chancellor, and carried out all of the “public face of the University” duties the Chancellor is called upon to do in the aftermath of September 11th, when John Wiley was stranded in California. Sandefur is definitely “Chancellorable.” 

I would have put Sandefur higher than Cadwallader if not for two reasons. First, serving as acting Chancellor would mean that L&S would have to find a new or interim Dean as well. We have enough leadership positions on campus in “interim” status as it is, and having the Chancellor and the Deans of our two largest Colleges (L&S and CALS) all be in interim roles would be a challenge. Second, as he was a finalist last time, and he may want to pursue the job again. It’s not impossible for an acting Chancellor to be named Chancellor (see David Ward) but Kevin Reilly may avoid the issue entirely and select a different acting Chancellor. 

 – Dean of the School of Education Julie Underwood. In fairness, nearly any of our Deans could step up and act as Chancellor, but Underwood has the advantage that she also served as Interim Provost for six months in 2009. Add to that a very successful track record in fundraising with the School of Education remodeling project, and a visible, public role in school reform efforts, and she would be a strong candidate. She obviously would have the same strike as Sandefur does with regards to disruption to her college. 

Even if Underwood does not serve as acting Chancellor, I hope that she enters the search for the permanent position.

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There are others on campus who could certainly do the job – associate Deans, Department Chairs, Center Directors, but once you get outside of the Vice Chancellors or Deans of the Schools and Colleges, the “is this too big of a jump” question becomes harder to ignore, especially when the decision has to be made in short order without the opportunity for deeper and wider vetting. So, look for the acting Chancellor to come from the list above. We would be in fine hands with any of them.