Monday, September 10, 2007

Why Was Provost Madeline Wake Fired?

One thing we have to admit right up front: we don’t actually know.

We do know perfectly well about a long list of mistakes and blunders Wake made, and about the view among faculty that she simply wasn’t “up to” the task of running the academic side of a major university. But what actually provoked Fr. Wild (with perhaps some prodding from trustees and donors) to actually let her go? We can’t be sure, but we know the sources of discontent were multiple and deep.

A Nursing Dean as Provost

Particularly among the Arts & Science faculty, it’s believed that Wake suffers from the lack of a background in the humanities, social sciences or natural sciences.

If this sounds like an irrational prejudice, the reality is that Wake has given a lot of evidence that she doesn’t “get it” where a liberal education (the sort that any Jesuit university aims to provide) is concerned.

Consider, for example, a comment she made at a March 7, 2003 meeting of the Core Curriculum Review Committee. In the words of the person writing the minutes:
Provost Wake stated that as faculty member of the core curriculum committee in 1993, she experienced tension between Liberal Arts and Professional Education. With Phil & Theo, baccalaureate graduates aren’t prepared to continue doing work in those areas, but in clinic lab science and business graduates have a profession upon graduating.

The honing of professional knowledge, skills and dispositions is mandatory.
These minutes were circulated by faculty members who noticed this passage, and took severe exception. You don’t dis philosophy and theology in a Jesuit university!

Other faculty point to the lack of people with mainstream academic credentials on Wake’s staff, and even her own somewhat suspect “Ph.D. with a major in urban education and a minor in nursing” from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Worse, Wake seems to be an enthusiastic supporter of something called “outcomes assessment.” The notion behind “outcomes assessment” is that a university has to be able to prove that its students learn something. The fact that they write papers and exams that get passing grades is not considered enough proof. After all, faculty already grade students, so there is no bureaucratic busy-work involved in that. So you have to invent a procedure that does keep some bureaucrats busy.

The policy has been vastly unpopular with the faculty, with our own Op-Ed in the Tribune in the fall of 2002, and our colleague Lowell Barrington’s essay in Academe being only the tip of the iceberg.

Supposedly, this policy has been forced on Marquette by the North Central Association, which could theoretically withhold accreditation if the University fails to jump through its hoops. (In reality, any institution of Marquette’s standing that faced down the bureaucrats would probably win.)

The problem is that Wake seemed to like and enthusiastically support the idea.

Perhaps this was a product of her nursing background. After all, you can in fact make a list of things that a well-trained RN should be able to do, and you can meaningfully test to see whether they can do those things.

In the liberal arts, quite obviously, it doesn’t work out nearly so neatly.

Worse than that, the initial attempt at assessment was blundered. Not only was it a bad idea to begin with, the North Central Association came in and said, in effect, “you’ve been doing it all wrong!”

Not “The Decider”

One chronic problem is Wake’s inability to make decisions. Issues seem to sit on her desk for weeks or months.

One example affects the Political Science department right now. We last year got approval to hire a faculty member specializing in national security. As one of our colleagues pointed out, America is at war right now, and we have a lot of ROTC students champing at the bit to take a political science course in the subject.

We interviewed job candidates last year, and failed to find one with whom we were sufficiently impressed. We decided not to hire anybody, but rather to come back and try again this year.

But we have yet to get approval to hire for that position this year. Like a lot of things, the issue sits on Wake’s desk. And it’s getting late. To recruit effectively, we need to get a notice of the job opening to the American Political Science Association (which will make it known to literally everybody in the country seeking a job in the field).

The perverse incentives this sort of behavior creates are obvious. Rather than holding out for somebody “really good,” departments would be well-advised to hire whoever is available. If you fail to hire you may lose the position.

Other Issues

A variety of other issues, some of them small considered in isolation, but which in the aggregate produced an image of fecklessness may have played a part. There was, for example, a mistake last year in the amount of financial aid offered to entering freshmen – a million dollars more than had been budgeted was offered. The incident resulted in Financial Aid Director Daniel Goyette leaving the university, but the general view is that Wake was at least somewhat at fault.

Wake cancelled the South Africa program, and then, in response to the uproar the decision created, ordered it reinstated.

And this happened after Marquette announced the success of a 300+ million dollar fundraising effort. What, after all, is the purpose of raising all that money if it doesn’t allow you to maintain popular and worthwhile programs?

Wake (and her staff) have a history of sending out ill-advised e-mails to faculty. One, in 2004, advised faculty to schedule a quiz or assignment on St. Patrick’s day to discourage student drinking. Further, faculty were told to promote the cause by “Not making jokes about drinking on St. Patrick’s Day.”

In January 2003, a memo went out signed by both Wake and Senior Vice President Greg Kliebhan telling faculty not to give any information about “a myriad of topics, e.g., your job, your co-workers, financial or other data, University policy” without checking with University administrators.

The policy had to be “clarified” within 24 hours of being issued.

Wake and the “Business Side” of the University

Most of this probably has only a tangential connection with Wake’s firing, although the cumulative effect of a constant series of blunders and a continual image of ineptness could have been important.

But the key factor in Wake’s firing may have been the discontent of people on the “business side” of the University, and particularly Greg Kliebhan, the fellow who heads that part of the Marquette bureaucracy.

Now, a key point: it is the job of the Provost to do battle with people on the business side of the University administration. Since the culture of the institution was changed by late and unlamented President Albert J. DiUlio, the business side of the University has been highly bureaucratic, rigid and quite frequently arrogant toward the “academic side.”

But if it is the Provost’s job to do battle with the business side bureaucrats, it is also the Provost’s job to win those battles. Wake never fought those battles particularly well, but it appears she has lost out anyway.

Coming to a Climax

As recently as a few weeks ago, Marquette President Fr. Robert Wild appeared to firmly support Wake. But discontent bubbled up, reaching top university officials, donors and trustees. Apparently, Wild finally decided he had to move.

The fact that the University is embarking on a new major fundraising effort may have contributed. Wake simply did not seem effective as the public face of Marquette – as somebody who could sell a vision to people who might write very large checks.

So the ax fell.

A Final Irony

What is so unfortunate about all this is that Madeline Wake is a very nice person, and she cares about Marquette. She has served the University for 30 years. In the long historical perspective, her 25 years in the Nursing School count for a lot more than her five unfortunate years as Provost.

We blame Wild, who promoted her to Provost, more than we blame Wake.

And we wish her well.

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