Thursday, March 7, 2013

In Support of Michael Schill, Candidate for Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison

I am not a nervous person, but I was sweating a bit as I waited more than an hour in line today to meet Michael Schill, candidate for chancellor of UW-Madison.  Next year will be my 10th at this university, and I have come to love it deeply, and feel strongly about the important role the chancellor plays in the direction it takes.  And thus, it was with some trepidation that I shook hands with Michael, because my instinct is that he's an excellent pick for Chancellor, and thus an important person in our future.

As readers know, I profiled two other chancellor candidates shortly after they were announced and declined to endorse them.  It didn't take long to figure out they weren't a match.  I haven't yet weighed in on Rebecca Blank, and feel I can't do so until I meet her next week-- she made several comments during her last visit that make me hesitate, and I want to see what she thinks after her Washington experiences.

But reading Schill's work and talking with colleagues about him convinced me that he was very promising, and having now met and chatted with him, that sense is much stronger.  Here are the main reasons why:

1. Schill understands UW-Madison's greatest assets and biggest weaknesses.  As his very well-written personal statement demonstrates, we stand out for our commitment to service and social justice, and the way we make our decisions--thoughtfully, through shared governance proceses.  At the same time, we are substantially hindered by insufficient diversity, declining accessibility, and frequent misuse and misunderstandings around transparency and accountability.  To excel at the things we want to do, including conducting pathbreaking research and improving our teaching, we must address those problems.  As they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step, and Schill can take us down that road.

2. Schill genuinely likes to talk, and seems to really enjoy listening too. Body language conveys a lot, and Schill's speaks of openness, assertiveness and sincerity.  After more than hour of close observation from only a dozen feet away, I can assess this quite well.  His reception line went very slowly because he refused to brush anyone off or move them along, despite the efforts of his hosts.  He made excellent eye contact, leaned forward when speaking, was evidently comfortable with physical contact (I witnessed several hugs, real handshakes, and he even challenged me to a race), doesn't wear his ego on his sleeve, and displayed a range of emotions.  Let's just say,  I've seen chancellors smile before but their eyes usually wandered over my shoulder.  Schill has a background in activism, and this talent displays it.  Of course, I suspect he is shrewd as well-- he knows that people like to be listened to, and he does so to maximum advantage.

3. Voicing strong concern for affordability, Schill told me that we must "keep tuition low, and aid high," restraining ourselves to increases solely to keep up with inflation. He did not speak of competitive pricing, and or peer comparisons.  Now, perhaps this is just because he's speaking to me, and he's read the blog. But I checked on this, and what colleagues of his told me is that "He's too smart to think pricing high is smart, and far too smart to believe in 'disruptive' innovation." I asked him for his thoughts on test-optional admissions and he was able to discuss that literature with me, bringing up his teaching on higher education at UCLA in a manner that was quite impressive. In his view, the Supreme Court will rule against Texas in a narrowly tailored decision.

4. Schill is a candidate for chancellor with a very serious and impressive set of publications and books that merit tenure (so is Blank, by the way). He's written on low-income housing, immigration and race, and co-authored with smart people I like and trust, such as Amy Ellen Schwartz of NYU and Colin Chellman of CUNY.  I especially liked what I read in Housing and Community Development in New York City: Facing the Future regarding the reasons why efforts to improve low-income housing have failed; he attends to politics and structure in insightful ways.

Of course, no one's perfect and I do have a few qualms about Schill's background. For example, he's had a lot of funding from big banks, such as JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup.  He's spent most of his time as an adult in very elite settings-- UCLA may be public but it's no exception. And while he's a first generation student, as we saw with Biddy Martin, being one doesn't mean you fully understand what's required to serve them.

But overall, I am supportive of Michael Schill's candidacy for chancellor. He's bright, calm, thoughtful, and exceedingly well-liked by those who work with him. I'd enjoy getting to know him better.

ps. A final note, for the students-- a bit of street cred-- Michael's done the Daily Show!