Leadership & Governance

After a Contentious Year, Chancellor Martin Is Leaving Madison

Jeff Miller, U. of Wisconsin at Madison

Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, who has coped with political battles and reduced public support for the U. of Wisconsin at Madison, is leaving to lead a well-endowed private liberal-arts college.
June 14, 2011

While acknowledging she has had a contentious tenure as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin rebuffed suggestions Tuesday that her decision to become president of Amherst College signaled an exhaustion with the budgetary constraints and political attacks that have beset her campus and much of public higher education in the past year.

"I certainly don't shy away from political turmoil or budget cuts," Ms. Martin said. "Is it difficult to deal with them? Yes."

In leaving for Amherst, Ms. Martin walks away from a public research institution that she describes as besieged by reduced public support and onerous state regulations, and into a private, liberal-arts college where a robust endowment allows for need-blind admissions and relative autonomy. Her decision comes just a day after another high-profile president who has had to deal with similar budget challenges opted out of public-university leadership: Robert N. Shelton, of the University of Arizona, announced on Monday that he would resign to become director of the Fiesta Bowl.

Many 'Strands' in Decision to Leave

Ms. Martin's departure from Madison will bring to a close a relatively short stint as chancellor that coincided with high-profile clashes over the future of the flagship campus and the power of labor unions in the university system and the state.

She forged alliances with Gov. Scott Walker, who supported a now-doomed proposal to split the flagship off from the University of Wisconsin system, while at the same time speaking out as a defender of the collective-bargaining rights that Mr. Walker, a Republican, sought to strip from Madison's faculty and most other public employees. (Governor Walker apparently has prevailed on that point: The Wisconsin State Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday afternoon that a law enacting his plan could go into effect.)

Ms. Martin was further thrust into the collective-bargaining debate when the state's Republican Party sought the e-mail records of a Madison professor who had been critical of the governor's plan.

While acknowledging the "turmoil" of the past year, Ms. Martin says she is still unsure of the degree to which the recent controversies influenced her decision to leave. She conceded, however, that she had not expected to end her first college presidency after just three years at Madison, where she earned her Ph.D. in German literature in 1985. She will begin her new role at Amherst in August.

Ms. Martin was emphatic that the failure of the proposal to break the flagship campus from the university system, a quietly devised plan that drew the consternation of the system's Board of Regents when they learned of it, was not among the reasons for her departure.

"Amherst would have been an attractive possibility to me at any point, because of my own history, what I feel like I owe to liberal-arts education," Ms. Martin said. "What role the actual events of the past year have played, it's hard to say. Maybe a year from now, it will be clear to me what various strands went into the braid of this decision. What I can tell you, honestly, is I'm not leaving because I didn't like the outcome in the Legislature."

Indeed, Ms. Martin says she is actually heartened that lawmakers appear poised to give Madison and the system much of the flexibility they sought. The state's Joint Finance Committee recently approved a plan that would, among other things, allow the University of Wisconsin to give pay increases to faculty and staff, irrespective of whether other public employees in the state received raises. Securing that authority had been a key piece of Ms. Martin's push for autonomy, which she says is crucial for recruiting and retaining top faculty.

No Push From the Regents

Ms. Martin's efforts for independence strained relations with system officials, including Kevin P. Reilly, the system's president. When asked on Tuesday whether Ms. Martin's departure was a loss to the system or a welcome turning of the page, Mr. Reilly said, "I think it's a little bit of both."

"It was a bruising fight. Let's put it that way," he said. "I'm sure she feels some bruises, and others do."

At the height of system officials' frustrations, some faculty members questioned whether the regents would force Ms. Martin out. But Mr. Reilly said neither he nor the regents advised Ms. Martin to look for another job, and he suggested the relationship had not soured to the point that the parties could no longer work together.

"Am I surprised that somebody would want to move along after having gone through that kind of fight? No," he said. "But could it have worked in the long term if everybody wanted to make it work? I think so."

The chancellors of the other campuses within the university have made it clear they want Madison to remain a part of the system, but Mr. Reilly said there would be no litmus test for a future chancellor to commit to that position.

News of Ms. Martin's decision surprised many in higher education, including Mr. Reilly. He said he received a "courtesy call" from Ms. Martin, a couple of hours before Amherst announced her hire, informing him that she was moving on. She had never indicated to him before that she was a candidate, he said.

Timing of Amherst's Search

Ms. Martin said she kept her discussions with Amherst private to protect the confidentiality of the search process.

Amherst began its search for a new president in February, and Ms. Martin said an executive search firm, Isaacson, Miller, first contacted her in the spring. The talks went on for a couple of months, but it wasn't until "maybe late March" that Ms. Martin told the firm she wanted to be considered as a candidate. At the time, she viewed the proposal for an independent flagship to still be very much alive, she said. Republican lawmakers publicly acknowledged in late May that the plan was no longer under consideration.

Ms. Martin says she accepted Amherst's offer Saturday.

"This took a lot of work to convince her to be in this process," said Jide J. Zeitlin, chairman of Amherst's Board of Trustees and the search committee. "At first she was saying, 'I'm thrilled where I am. Amherst is a place I respect a lot, but this is not the right time.'"

Ms. Martin was sensitive to the possibility that leaving for Amherst would convey the appearance that she was jumping ship after a year of controversy, Mr. Zeitlin said, and Amherst officials were wary of appearing to exploit the situation as well.

"We're part of this larger higher-education ecosystem, so we were not particularly fans of trying to beggar thy neighbor," Mr. Zeitlin said.

Ronald G. Ehrenberg, who worked with Ms. Martin when she was provost at Cornell University, said he was not surprised the Amherst position would appeal to her.

"In the current environment, being the president of a public university is not that fun," said Mr. Ehrenberg, who is director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute and a professor of industrial and labor relations and economics. "It may be they just saw her as a target of opportunity."

Whether the job is fun or not, public research institutions like Madison won't struggle to find leaders, said Paul E. Lingenfelter, president of State Higher Education Executive Officers, an organization whose members include the heads of coordinating and governing boards.

"My guess is there'll be no shortage of candidates for that job," he said. "They are challenging roles. People seek them sometimes because they like the challenge and they believe in the mission. Sometimes they get tired, and that happens in just about every job."

While Ms. Martin's tenure at Madison was relatively short for a chancellor, public flagships have been prone to turnover at the top in recent years. A Chronicle examination of leadership changes at 50 flagship campuses between 2002 and 2010 found that four out of five had had more than one permanent chief during that period.

On average, college presidents over all had served for 8.5 years in 2006, according to the American Council on Education's survey, which was released in 2007.

Alex Richards contributed to this article.