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Badger at Heart

Incoming UW-Madison Chancellor Carolyn A. “Biddy” Martin is no stranger to the university, having earned her Ph.D. in German literature at UW-Madison in 1985. Now, after a distinguished career at Cornell University, including eight years as provost, Martin is returning to UW-Madison as its 28th leader. In early August, as she prepared to make her way to Madison, she took time to talk to Michael Penn, of the CALS Communication Program, about her reflections of her alma mater and her goals for the university’s future.

Q: How does it feel to be coming back to UW-Madison?
A: Oh, that’s a great question. It feels wonderful. I’m really eager to get there and get started at the job, but also just to be back in Madison and in Wisconsin. I loved it when I was there, and I’m really looking forward to returning.

Q: Have you maintained connections with Wisconsin since you finishing your doctorate?
A: Yes, I have friends and former teachers who are now colleagues from my days in Madison as a graduate student. I’m really eager to have another opportunity to spend time with them.

Q: I understand that growing up your family followed Vince Lombardi’s Packers teams.
A: (laughs) Yes, both of my brothers-and therefore I, too-were great Packer fans.

Q: Have you developed an opinion on the Brett Farve situation yet?
A: (laughs) It’s very hard to tell from a far.

Q: Because that’s probably one of the first things you’ll be asked about when you get to Wisconsin.
A: Well, I think my opinions on football will certainly be one of my biggest contributions. (laughs)

Q: On a more serious note, I know that your background is in the humanities, and you have a great intellectual record in your field. But you also helped to lead a university in Cornell that has a very strong land-grant tradition. Can you talk about your view of the mission of land-grant universities?
A: I’d be happy to. One of the things that I got interested in doing right away after becoming provost at Cornell was to help lead an effort to rethink our land-grant mission. Then-President Hunter Rawlings and I established several committees to think about what the land-grant mission should be in the 21st century, and those discussions and that report helped me develop my own sense of the importance and the potential of the land-grant mission-both in its traditional forms, but also in the ways in which it could be modernized. We saw that the land-grant mission was already expanding to include, for example, much closer ties to business and industry and many more direct forms of economic development, whether through technology transfer or other routes.

Of course, Wisconsin has an equally long tradition, from even before the formulation of the Wisconsin Idea right up until the present. UW-Madison and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences have a well-deserved reputation for their contributions and some very innovative programs, and I will be a champion and a cheerleader for the Wisconsin Idea and all of the forms that it takes.

And I include among those forms not only the things that people more conventionally associate with land-grant missions-the direct application of the fruits of research and education through extension programs and other kinds of outreach. I also associate the liberal arts and the whole of the university’s contributions to the state as part of that mission, as well. There are a great many ways that we contribute to the lives of people in the state and around the world.

Q: As you’ve looked at UW-Madison, do you see that same kind of modernization happening here?
A: I do. Of course, given that I’m not only new, but not even yet on campus, my review has been less in-depth than it will be. But given my studies so far of what the university is doing, I would say that modernization of the land-grant mission is well underway and is thriving. Some of the examples are going to be obvious to your readers, but let me emphasize that UW-Madison and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences are known for the high quality of their faculties and the basic and applied research they have done over time and continue to do. The college has extended its research into the state in support of the dairy industry, crop development, food security, environmental preservation, pest management and in many other ways for a very long time, not only in the state, but throughout the world. Now, the university is producing advances in genetics and genomics that can do even more to help solve critical problems in agriculture, advance the search for alternative energy sources and create greener environments. All of these translations of critical research are a hallmark of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. I am very excited about the kinds of work that have marked the college and the university. When we consider what is possible when universities find ways to translate their discoveries into solutions for our most urgent problems, then the well-being of our flagship campus becomes imperative for us all.

Q: You have said that universities have never been more important to society than they are right now. Why do you see this as the case?
A: I think it’s because of the extraordinarily rapid advances in technology and changes in the foundations of the global economy. Those changes make it imperative that we offer our young people the kind of education that will prepare them for the kinds of jobs and careers that are available now, which are increasingly different from what those of us in my generation foresaw as possible career paths. And we don’t simply want to prepare students for jobs-we want to prepare them to be leaders and informed citizens as this transformation occurs. We want them to help define the way these changes shape our society and our environment.

Q: You also mentioned that the modern land-grant mission is encompassing more connections with business and industry. What do you see as the optimal working relationship between UW-Madison and the state’s industries?
A: I think the optimal relationship is one that is mutually beneficial, where each side understands and appreciates not only what we can do together, but also how our institutions differ. Universities can work very well with business and industry, and we’ve seen the tremendous benefits of successful collaborations over the past few decades. I think that’s all for the good. At the same time, it’s important for the university to maintain the values and principles that are essential to its well-being, and those include freedom of inquiry, openness and a willingness to share the results of our research with the broader public.

Q: At Cornell, you were an advocate of interdisciplinary work and particularly in the life sciences, it seems that problems increasingly require multiple areas of expertise. How do you see encouraging this kind of cross-discipline interaction at UW-Madison?
A: UW-Madison has a well-deserved reputation for interdisciplinary work in the sciences and also in other disciplines. That’s crucial. It’s always been critical, and it’s becoming more and more central as developments in the life sciences, physical, computational and engineering sciences blur the boundaries between and among disciplines.

I would say that UW-Madison has an enormous advantage over most universities when it comes to addressing the types of problems that we will likely see in the next several decades, and that’s because of excellence in such a broad range of disciplines, a tradition of interdisciplinary research and teaching, and facilities that foster interaction across conventional boundaries. If you look at the study of genetics, for example, UW-Madison has the advantage of being able to offer research and teaching on an extraordinary range of organisms, which is invaluable for comparative studies of genomes. Comparative study holds the key to transformative discoveries. There is tremendous potential for exciting science and revolutionary applications when a university has the breadth and depth that Wisconsin has.

Q: So our size can be to an advantage in that respect?
A: Yes, definitely, given its diversity. Size has to be accompanied by diversity and also by quality. The university needs outstanding researchers and teachers in order to have the quality of research that’s being produced here. When breadth, depth, quality and passion come together, and when the work of administrators can help integrate those elements, well, it’s a wonderfully combustible mix.

Q: That’s certainly one of the things that we try to promote about ourselves, that we offer a very strong research-based education. How do you see a strong research program integrating with and complementing education and the other parts of our mission?
A: The obvious advantage of great research universities for students is that they are being taught by the people who doing original research and coming up with the knowledge that makes its way into the classroom. They don’t just know about it-they are actually producing the research that students are going to be studying. Students can not only learn much more from this kind of interaction, but they develop their own passion for original research and discovery when their teachers convey their enthusiasm for original work.

But making research universities work as well as they have the potential to work for students means drawing more undergraduate students into research-that is, enabling more undergraduates to work in labs, in the field, with faculty and graduate students. We need to draw students into the process of discovery, allowing them to benefit not only from the methods by which scholars and scientists develop their ideas, but also letting them have hands-on experiences of what it feels like to do original research. I think it is critical to developing the kinds of graduates that the country really needs-people who are interested and curious, who have an entrepreneurial sense of what’s possible, and who are passionate about making their own discoveries and developing their own ideas.

Q: You were involved in a major reorganization of the biological sciences at Cornell. Can explain what motivated that change?
A: I think there were two important factors that led to the change and have made the change successful. First, the life sciences at Cornell were organized in a way that divided basic biology from what had been considered the more applied fields. And this became a constraint, because as you know, the development of the life sciences in the age of genomics took a turn that changed the boundaries between basic and applied sciences. And so, for example, at Cornell many of the plant sciences departments-including the plant breeding department, where your dean excelled as a researcher-fell outside of this organization of basic biology. Meanwhile, some of the most surprising discoveries and developments in the life sciences were being made by plant scientists, plant breeders and faculty in other fields that fell outside of what had been considered “basic.” It became clear that the organization of the life sciences was not keeping pace with where the science was, and that of course was a problem.

The other way in which the structure was failing to keep pace concerned the increasing connections between the physical and computational sciences and the life sciences. The structure that divided the basic biologists from some of the more applied biology fields also tended to separate them from potential collaborators in the physical sciences and the computational sciences. To take advantage of where the science was headed, it was important to organize things in a way that gave faculty and students access to the interdisciplinary nature of the life sciences.

Q: From what you have gathered about our organization, do you envision any similar critical look at how things are organized here?
A: Well, that’s an interesting question, and I think the appropriate answer is that it’s too soon for me to tell, because I don’t yet know enough. I think it would be presumptuous of me to assess the situation right now.

What will be important for me to do, working with the provost and the deans, is to think about organizational structure overall and to have us ask ourselves, given the academic priorities we want to set, whether the organization we currently have is best suited to enabling our faculty and students to flourish. I would always want to raise the question, but I have no preconceived notions about whether anything needs to change or should change.

Q: Do you think that successful interdisciplinary relationships can exist in an environment still preserves traditional department structures, or are department structures themselves becoming outmoded?
A: Oh, that, too, is a good question and an interesting one. There are people who think departments that are based on traditional disciplines stand in the way of the best interdisciplinary work, and that is true, in some cases, but I also think what’s optimal is the right balance between traditional disciplines and the interdisciplinary work that happens at the boundaries of the disciplines, work that establishes a new field or discipline altogether.

Getting rid of disciplines is risky business, because basic disciplinary research proceeds in unpredictable ways, in ways that will lead ultimately to the next generation of discoveries we may need in 10 to 20 years. We can’t know now what kinds of tools and knowledge we’re going to need to solve the next urgent problem or to study an interdisciplinary issue that arises years into the future. So I would say it’s important to find the right balance between disciplines and interdisciplinary research, always trying to keep the walls between and among disciplines and colleges as low as possible-creating porous boundaries, but not necessarily trying to rid ourselves of all of our traditional disciplinary organizations.

Q: You’ve talked about the need for strong basic research, and that’s obviously true here. But the reality with basic research is that the benefits may not emerge for years, if ever. How can you convince the public-who are often looking for immediate results from the university-that it’s important to maintain strength in this area?
A: I think it’s important that we make the effort to be clear, to give examples, and to tell stories about how basic research discoveries can lead in unpredictable ways to applications that solve major problems. It’s not accurate or effective to assert that all basic research will yield societal benefits in the short term. People who don’t do research for a career and haven’t grown up inside universities aren’t necessarily in the position to understand the relationship between basic research and the pursuit of answers to our most pressing questions. Sometimes it takes decades for critical discoveries to find their uses and then they turn out to be the key to the next life-altering technology. We have to encourage ourselves and the public to take a long view. If we want to help people gain a greater appreciation of what goes on at universities, I think we need to be very communicative and offer examples.

I often like to tell the story of one of Cornell’s Nobel laureates, who is a remarkably humble guy who made a discovery in low-temperature physics that won him the Nobel Prize. He tells people that he made this discovery while he was looking for something entirely different, that he just stumbled onto this discovery, which over the past 30 years or so has led to a range of applications that have not only advanced science, but helped generate technologies used across the world. Bob Richardson is a good example of why it’s essential to give people the freedom to go where their work leads them, as opposed to limiting ourselves to work that we believe will have an immediate impact.

Q: Shifting focus a bit, you spent a lot of time at Cornell working on financial-aid programs to help students afford the university. Obviously, Cornell’s tuition is a little higher than ours, but do you still see affordability as an issue for UW-Madison? Do you hope to work on similar programs here?
A: Yes, we have to be able to do similar things at UW-Madison. It’s true that tuition is significantly higher at Cornell, but UW tuition can be difficult, nonetheless, for many families to afford. We need to raise money for need-based financial aid so that we can ensure that economic circumstances aren’t a barrier to having qualified students enroll at the University Wisconsin-Madison. That will be a high priority.

Q: As you know, public universities such as ours are facing an increasingly competitive environment for revenue, both on the federal level and within the state budget. Do you see things that you can do to help maintain and build the university’s financial position?
A: Yes. We will need to work on all fronts-to maintain our strong record of federal research funding, to maintain and, where we can, enhance state funding, and also to continue to build sources of private funding. It will be my job to increase philanthropy and other sources of revenue so the state’s world-class flagship university can continue to flourish, even enhance its stature. I will certainly make it my job to find support for the work that our faculty and students do. And it will be a joy to do that, because the work they do is spectacular.