Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

Search for new Provost critical to UW’s future (April 2009)

[This article originally appeared in the April 30th issue of the Badger Herald. Truth be told, it was my least-favorite piece of the year]

Hopefully, this doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but we are nearly at the end of the semester. When we return in the fall, the most important change to campus will be the installation of a new provost. This change won’t be as visible as the giant hole that will have taken the place of Union South or other construction projects sure to spring up by fall — most students have no idea who the provost is or what they do in the first place. Undoubtedly, the provost touches the lives of students in mundane ways. For example, it’s the provost, not the chancellor, who decides if classes will be cancelled when it gets too snowy — remember that for the next Facebook group. But the next provost will also be part of the biggest academic reshaping of the university we’ve seen in a long time, and that’s going to be anything but mundane.

The state is going to cut what it contributes to the university’s budget, and although there will likely be new funding through the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, that funding will only go to specific, targeted areas. Cuts in administration alone are not going to work anymore. If anything, we have gone too far: the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, an office without which the University of Wisconsin effectively cannot receive federal grants, was so understaffed last year that UW was missing out on grants it could have easily won and was in danger of losing its existing grants. Chancellor Martin — even before she arrived — cautioned that we cannot excel equally in everything we do and that we will have to make hard choices. It is time to be upfront about it: Hard choices mean cuts in the core research and instructional efforts — something the university has not been very good at in the past. Many of these hard choices will fall to the next provost.

This isn’t to say we need an academic hitman, a tenured Luca Brasi to Don Biddy. We need our next provost to be tough but with a heart and a brain. These cuts must be targeted. The worst possible approach would be to slash programs and positions with no broader vision, and that vision should not end at the campus boundaries. Successful scholarships often depend on having a mass of similar scholars with whom to collaborate. For the sake of scholarship in the fields where we are not going to sustain that mass, we should help those affected find a new home to carry out their work and encourage some faculty to leave. That may sound heretical, but by being upfront about which programs will suffer cuts, we can better guarantee ourselves positive outcomes to negative situations for all parties involved. If we do this right, academia will be stronger and we will minimize the number of people hurt. This will take a skilled provost and administration to pull off.

Unfortunately, Chancellor Martin has decided to limit the search for the next provost to internal candidates. Her main reasoning is that as she was an external hire and having both the No. 1 and No. 2 positions of the university be from outside of the UW would not provide enough institutional memory at the top. I’m surprised that after eight months here she still thinks that is true. The “Madison process,” as she must have surely discovered, ensures that we take our time and the entire institution gets its say when making a decision. We would have been fine with a provost new to our campus.

I do not for an instant doubt that we will be able find plenty of qualified, dedicated and passionate candidates on campus willing to be provost (as one administrator said, she would “drive the Zamboni if that’s what the university asked” her to do). However, by limiting our search to those already on campus, we have denied ourselves the opportunity to bring in someone who has a record of making the hard choices we face. I worry that without that experience, the university’s efforts will not be successful.

At this point, the next provost is already on campus, waiting to be discovered. Whoever it is, he or she will need to be honest, open, compassionate and bold enough to act and to take ownership of the upcoming challenges and their consequences.

Biddy’s initiative helps Grads, too (April 2009)

[This article originally appeared in the April 15th issue of the Badger Herald]

Chancellor Biddy Martin’s tuition surcharge plan is called the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, but the big winners are graduate students.

By now, the details are well-known. Undergraduate tuition rises faster than normal for the next four years. Half of the new money goes to expand financial aid; the rest goes to opening more sections of bottleneck courses and better student services.

So what’s in it for graduate students? Probably not an increase in direct financial aid. Although nothing published so far rules it out, there would be hell to pay if this money were handed straight over to graduate students who are also struggling to meet tuition. Graduate students also aren’t clamoring to take Calc 221, Econ 302, or any of the other “gateway” courses many undergraduates find are closed by the time they get to register.

Graduate students gain from this plan in ways the administration doesn’t talk about. The faculty expansion is pitched as a way to open up more classes, but it could equally be cast as an expansion of our research capacity. This means more faculty members, and even better, more junior faculty members for our graduate students to work with. (A bit of advice for younger graduate students: All things being equal, always work with the junior faculty member. Your work is their tenure case, so they’re especially motivated to see you succeed.)

The new course sections are also essential financial aid for graduate students in the form of new TA positions. This helps more than just having new open sections. Without enough TA spots, departments can’t guarantee their admitted graduate students funding, especially in departments that don’t have a lot of external grants. Good students usually have multiple offers, so the best students pass the UW up and go be outstanding TAs somewhere else.

Nearly all career service efforts in the university don’t discriminate between graduate and undergraduate students, so any improvements help everyone. The same goes for the technology enhancements that might be part of the initiative.

One myth that seems to float around the Madison Initiative is it won’t help much in the first year. This is bunk. If the Regents approve the plan this spring, there is no reason to believe we won’t see its effects in the fall. The financial aid can obviously be made immediately available, and if UW hurries it should be able to put much of the advising in place by the fall, which will help seniors as much as it helps freshmen. Finding new faculty members is not even as difficult as it might seem. The decline in faculty numbers is from not replacing as many faculty members who leave, which is different from not hiring anyone. Every department has been interviewing faculty candidates all along, and there is a surplus of qualified candidates they could hire. If the deans gave the word, the UW could easily extend a few more offers and meet the modest goals for faculty expansion this year. It is entirely feasible that graduate and undergraduate students could see benefits right away.

Several objections to the plan may be raised. First, for the small minority whining that the sole focus of the new faculty should be more teaching, get over it. UW-Madison is not just another UW System school that happens to have a better football team than the others. Research and teaching are on equal footing here.

Second, graduate students seem to get all of this without having to pay anything for it. So, out of fairness, maybe graduate students should be pitching in. However, for many, their tuition is remitted and an increase would just be a shell game of the UW increasing a fee that it paid to itself. Others are already struggling to pay. Careful study would be needed first.

My only real objection to the Madison Initiative is it is basically an admission that progressive taxation has failed us and we have to do it ourselves. From a practical standpoint, the tax code is a much more precise way to measure families’ circumstances. Simple forms like the FAFSA don’t have the same flexibility, and there will certainly be a few students who really can’t afford the increase but no existing program will be able to help. However, there are more students who are being hurt by the status quo that need help now. The perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good, and so in the interests of all students, I support the Madison Initiative.