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In the 
Driver's Seat: Darlene Ballweg


Meeting the Challenge

A Life of Spice: Huma Siddiqui

The Guardian: Eileen Mershart

Moving Forward

Finding her Voice: Jean Feraca

Generation Molly

The Joy of Being Mona Melms



Shana Martin is Relentless


Deneen Carmichael: Moving forward
Jenny Wimmer: Racing toward
 a goal

Chris Hansen: Embarking on a mission
 A Kindred Spirit: Asia Voight
 As Real As It Gets: Diana Henry
Moving on up: Lisa Madson

 Jennifer Engel Moves Mind, Body And Spirit
The Chancellor is in: Biddy Martin


 

 

The Chancellor is in

Embarking on her second school year at UW-Madison, Chancellor Biddy Martin is confidently blazing her own trail

By Ellen Williams-Masson
Photographed by Shanna Wolf

 

Her Southern drawl may have faded, but growing up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains made an indelible impression on Carolyn “Biddy” Martin.

You can almost feel the warmth of the Virginia sun as she describes her childhood filled with barefoot summers at the lake, sandlot games with her brothers and their friends, and long pony rides silhouetted against the panoramic backdrop of fall color splashed across the mountainside.

Raised in a close-knit family, Martin knows the value of parents who want what’s best for their children. She was also steeped in Southern tradition, a culture that a half-century ago peppered their children’s coming of age with the explicit message that higher education was wasted on the weaker sex.

 

As the second female (after Donna Shalala) and first openly gay chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Martin has traveled a winding path of self-discovery she says she never envisioned as a young girl.

“Growing up in the South, at least in the particular area and family I grew up in, presented lots of challenges when it came to assumptions about what girls and women could do and ought to do. I did not have extremely high expectations for myself,” Martin says. “It took me a very long time before I was really conscious of the fact that I was going to pursue my studies, and even leave home and leave the state for study and career.”

The child who thought she’d never leave home did—traveling the United States and beyond. The child who was told that girls don’t need to go to college did—turning academics into a career.

After earning a Ph.D. in German literature from UW-Madison, Martin found her way to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where she became a professor of German studies and women’s studies before working her way through the ranks to the position of provost. She held that title for eight years before returning to UW-Madison in 2008 to take the helm of the UW System’s flagship university.

As she embarks on her second year leading UW-Madison, Martin says, “The difference between how I grew up and what is possible now, at least in a place like this, is almost unbelievable.”

 

Martin grew up cavorting through the natural beauty of Timberlake, Va., the middle child of Ed and Carolyn Martin.

All the Martin women shared a common name—Carolyn—and a penchant for nicknames beginning with the letter “B.” Martin’s grandmother was known as “Buck,” and her mother answered to “Boolie.” As the youngest chick in the nest at the time, Martin became known as “the biddy baby” to differentiate her from her brother Eddie, who was only 13 months older. The nickname stuck.

Although her formative years were sprinkled with messages about women as the weaker sex, Martin says their impact was negated in some respects by her family’s great passion for athletics.

“I came from a family where the expectations of what girls would do were not high,” she says. “On the other hand, it was also a family that valued competition and winning, and excellence at whatever we did. I think I did benefit from the way my family was, and that, in a sense, counteracted the kinds of things they actually said.”

Martin was a record-holding scorer on the girls’ basketball team and graduated valedictorian of Brookville High School in Lynchburg, Va. Nonetheless, she may have never gotten beyond the local teachers’ college without the intervention of her math teacher, who was also the school’s guidance counselor.

“It wasn’t clear to my parents that they could afford to have me in college while my brother was in college,’ Martin says. “They thought it was more important for him to go. They weren’t convinced that girls needed a college education. [The counselor] encouraged me, and also encouraged them to think that I ought to have the opportunity to go to a good college.”

Although neither of her parents went to college, Martin describes her mother as “one of the smartest, strongest people I have ever met.” Traits that obviously rubbed off on her only daughter, as Martin, despite her families’ concerns, headed to college.

“Her family definitely did not want her to leave the South,” says Gabi Strauch, an associate professor in German at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a friend of Martin’s since graduate school. “We would laugh about the fact that she went to the College of William & Mary [in Williamsburg, Va.], which was like she was betraying her tribe because she went to what was considered the North.”

After graduating from the College of William & Mary with a degree in English literature in 1973, Martin earned a master’s degree in German literature from Middlebury College in Vermont. Her studies took her to Johannes-Gutenberg Universität in Mainz, then a part of West Germany.

In 1985, Martin graduated with a doctorate in German literature, summa cum laude, from UW-Madison. Whereas it is common for graduate students to work as teaching assistants, Martin was also a lecturer in women’s studies her last three years at UW. The intersections of German studies and gender studies fascinated her, and she has published many related books and articles.

It must have been this passion for learning, for constantly finding the intersections and relationships among different subjects and people, that led Martin down her career path in academics. But why she chose to go into administration has been a topic of discussion among friends and colleagues.

Speculating why Martin finds administrative roles appealing, Julie D’Acci, chair of the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at UW-Madison, and a friend since their graduate school days, says it may be because she is able to “affect social justice.”

“Her social justice, like her intelligence, is very organic. It’s just who she is,” D’Acci says. “The sense of joy that she gets from people and from life really contributes to her leadership because she can form immediate and warm relationships with people.”

When asked herself why she chose administration over the lecture hall, Martin has a ready answer.

“I have often said that it’s like going back to college,” she says. “I am not only exposed to, but responsible for, interacting with a full range of disciplines and learning about things that I have had no opportunity to think about since I was a college student.”

In fact, before becoming provost at Cornell, Martin chaired the German Studies Department and then was a senior associate dean

of the College of Arts and Sciences. Her first interdepartmentalinitiative was restructuring and reshaping the biological sciences.

Amy Villarejo, chair of the Department of Theater, Film and Dance at Cornell, was impressed by Martin’s eagerness to immerse herself in an “area of scholarship about which she knew nothing,” and learn it well enough to be able to make hard decisions about the distribution of not only people and facilities, but resources.

“This is a very baroque, complicated administrative place with a lot of history and scattered empires,” Villarejo adds. “It was astonishing to everyone that this German studies scholar could not only absorb [the sciences] and make the right decisions about it, but would leap into it with real pleasure and get the right thing done.”

Finding “the right thing” for UW-Madison is a journey that Martin welcomes.

 

 

Reinvigorating the Wisconsin Idea, the century-old philosophy that the scope of the university should encompass and benefit all people within the state, is one of Martin’s top priorities in her role as chancellor. She also seeks to increase the affordability of undergraduate education, to sustain and enhance key research strengths, and to increase racial, ethnic and economic diversity on campus.

Martin acknowledges that her goals are lofty, and that “combining
preeminence with public purpose” will take ingenuity, especially when battling economic headwinds like the budget cuts of recent years. But she is not without a plan. 

“I certainly had heard that there was a lot of acrimony [between the university and legislators], but what I have actually found is enormous pride in UW-Madison, both around the state and among state leaders,” Martin says. “Of course, people have opinions about what kinds of things we might be doing differently or doing better, and I have had some interesting discussions with people about that.”

Strengthening and building relationships both inside and outside the university is a key strategy for Martin, an enthusiastic team-builder. In fact, Martin has expended much effort in her first year on the job meeting students, faculty, staff and state leaders to simply hear them out.

“She doesn’t lead from the top down,” says D’Acci. “She really goes out and acts in a collective way. She really believes that the university is a place of all people, not just someone governing from the top.”

Martin spent a significant amount of time at the Capitol in her first six months on the job, meeting with legislators to “learn what interests them, and what, if anything, the university could do to be helpful” in building partnerships around the state. And while launching the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates—a supplemental tuition charge that will restore faculty for high-demand courses and increase need-based financial aid—this past spring, Martin held campus-wide forums to listen to the concerns of students, faculty and staff in a strategy that D’Acci calls “gathering knowledge from the bottom up.”

Martin’s eight-year tenure as provost at Cornell—a record on the New York campus—was, as she says, “great background experience” for her current responsibilities as chancellor.

“Cornell had several presidents while I was provost, so I had the opportunity to watch very different styles of leadership, and to learn that different styles can work, but also that it is important to be oneself.”

Martin blazed an indelible trail at Cornell, leaving behind a legacy
of leadership for those in her wake. Kent Fuchs, who replaced Martin as provost, jokes that he is “trying to create [his] own shoes” to walk in, because Martin’s would be so tough to fill.

“Biddy was well-loved here,” he says. “She has that ability to empower others to make tough, hard decisions. It’s not just that she isn’t willing to do that [herself]—which she is—but that she has the ability to encourage and inspire others to engage in decisions that aren’t easy when you are facing budget challenges as all our universities are.”

 

 

While it was her ability to encourage and inspire, coupled with her extensive academic credentials that landed Martin the position of chancellor, she made a splash in both local and national press for her personal life: Martin is openly gay.

While proud that she, as a gay woman, was able to ascend to the position of chancellor, Martin says the focus should be on the mission of the university, and not on her personally.

“I am chancellor, and I am gay. I don’t know that there is a strong relationship between the two, particularly, except in so far as I am just who I am,” Martin says. “I think of myself, given the 24/7 nature of the job, primarily as ‘chancellor,’ and as somebody who wants to fulfill well all the responsibilities that [the job] entails.”

As a public figure, though, Martin knows that some will look up to her as a role model, but she remains steadfast in her conviction that her sexuality “doesn’t have anything to do with the job, one way or the other.”

Martin’s nephew, Sid Martin, is positive the Badger community will embrace his aunt, especially, he says, “once people know she will not come in with any sort of agenda other than making Wisconsin the best school it can be.”

Strauch seconds his opinion, saying she admires Martin’s “incredible academic, intellectual, and now administrative journey” while maintaining her integrity. “She has been true to herself and her ideals—she hasn’t sold out to be in a powerful position,” Strauch adds.

 

 

Broadening her horizons without losing sight of the people she cared about was difficult for Martin, who regrets that none of her immediate family survived to see her become chancellor.

Martin’s father died of lung cancer in 1983, as did her mother, in 2007. Her elder brother, Eddie, died unexpectedly of a congenital heart problem in 2001 and her younger brother, Carter, was drowned in the line of duty as a fireman rescuing stranded motorists during flooding in 1995.

Martin has remained close to her brothers’ three children, Sid, Scott and Katelyn, and even has her grandnieces and grandnephews seeing red—Bucky red. Her 10-year-old grandnephew, Win, texts his aunt, while she sits courtside at Badger basketball games, to comment on games he’s watching at home in Virginia.

Sid says their family has always admired Biddy, and have grown even closer with the loss of so many family members.

“Biddy has always had a big heart, and I think she is a great judge of character,” Sid says. “I love having conversations and debates with her. If you were to grade us, I am a little big more conservative than she is, to put it mildly, on big issues. But for the issues that are near and dear to her heart, I have certainly come around…and am much more sensitive to the things she has had to deal with her whole life.”

It has been a long climb from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the pinnacle of the chancellor’s office, and one of Martin’s greatest passions is ensuring that “cost won’t be a barrier” for students aspiring to higher education.

“I’ve had the good fortune to have had opportunities that changed my expectations of what it was possible to do with my life, and I feel really blessed for that reason,” Martin says. “Education is a huge part of that—I know firsthand what a difference it makes to be able to go to college.”

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