Monday, February 25, 2013

Kim Wilcox: Candidate for UW-Madison Chancellor


There are four candidates for UW-Madison Chancellor. This week I will profile each of them, contributing information gleaned from "off list" discussions and sleuthing. As I noted in my last couple of blogs, unfortunately that sort of due diligence was not undertaken by the search firm.

I'm doing this in the spirit of sifting and winnowing, with an eye towards helping us identify the candidate who best suits UW-Madison with its many strong traditions-- foremost among them our tradition of shared governance. I hope you will join me in that spirit, refraining from engaging in name-calling or sheer speculation, while sharing any useful information you may have, using the comments function on this blog.

Until December 2012, Kim Wilcox was the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Michigan State University, where he also served as a professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, a member of the MSU Foundation board of directors, and on the board of directors of the Spectrum Health – MSU Alliance Corporation. 

Earlier in his career, Wilcox was dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and vice provost for general education coordination at the University of Kansas. He was born in Michigan, and received his bachelor’s degree in audiology and speech sciences from Michigan State University, and his master’s and doctorate from Purdue University, both in speech and hearing science.

This is not Wilcox's first attempt at a chancellor position. Last year, he was up for the position at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, and according to some sources earlier he was considered for a similar job in Minnesota, in a search he pulled out from. It seems he's been looking to leave his current job for awhile.

While also a public university, Michigan State is a very different academic environment from UW-Madison, most critically with regard to its top-down style of governing. The president and provost hold a great deal of power, and make nearly all campus decisions with the deans--and without consultation with the faculty. This sort of background is not an asset when it comes to preparing for the chancellorship of UW-Madison. 

Some colleagues find Wilcox to be the ultimate technocrat, citing his love of metrics and accountability, and noting that under his leadership faculty governance is an "empty enterprise." Others who are more fond of him seem to generally be students and faculty who've known no other approach to decision-making, and are pretty happy to be "allowed a voice" in decisions.

One of the key issues on which people speak most vehemently about Wilcox is in regards to his efforts to restructure academic departments. Here is a video of Wilcox -- around the 6 minute mark, he announces his suggestion for consolidation of some departments within a college, “reducing the number from 13 to 6.”  These efforts mainly focused on the liberal arts, the Classics in particular-- which he apparently proposed eliminating--but I'm also told he would have eliminated Geology if a big donor hasn't intervened.  Commentary on discussion boards tend to center on these issues-- for example see this message board and this reaction to the Classics decision.

When it comes to student enrollment, it has been said that “under Wilcox's direction, MSU has grown its enrollment to more than 49,000 students while raising the academic credentials of the entering class, increasing the percentage of students from underrepresented groups, decreasing the average time to degree, increasing the graduation rate for undergraduates and decreasing the percentage of students graduating with any accumulated debt” However, while an examination of MSU's data digest (h/t to that helpful grad student, you know who are you!) supports most of these claims, it's also worth noting that during Wilcox's tenure, the racial/ethnic gap in graduation rates widened by 40%. The reliance on adjuncts at the university also increased, as did the concentration of racial/ethnic minorities in that group of faculty. Overall, I find little evidence that Wilcox has systematically worked to address issues of achievement gaps at MSU, a major issue on that campus and ours.

To conclude: while I have little doubt that the search and screen committee found much value in Wilcox's portfolio of materials, I have serious concerns about his ability to adapt and thrive in our campus governance system. I am also quite unsure that he will treat the issues of diversity that we face on this campus with the seriousness of purpose that they deserve. For this reason, at this point he is not my choice for chancellor.

Postscript: Wilcox was up for the position of chancellor at the University of Wyoming and did not get it.


Just received this email about Wilcox from MSU colleagues-- seems important enough to share:

There are quite a few serious "negatives" here that anyone who might be in a position to have influence should know about. One point, for example, is the statement Wilcox made to the NYT Education Life section that appeared on Dec. 29, 2009: "Kim Wilcox, the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Michigan State, notes that universities, his included, used to offer majors in elocution and animal husbandry. In a major re-examination of its curriculum, Michigan State has added a dozen or so new programs, including degrees in global studies and, in response to a growing industry in the state, film studies. At the same time, it is abandoning underperformers like classical studies: in the last four years, only 13 students have declared it their major." As if his condescension weren't bad enough, the statement he made here was simply false. We graduated five to six majors per year with an average of 25-26 majors on the books each of the four years he cites. This, with three regular faculty members. The stated reason for cutting programs, especially in our case, was the budget, but, again, the numbers simply weren't there. There were also serious violations of governance and procedures when Classics was eliminated.