Fall 2008

On Henry Mall

Chancellor Biddy Martin. Jeff Miller/UW Communications

First, the name.

To her friends, colleagues, students and just about anyone else she meets, incoming UW – Madison Chancellor Carolyn A. Martin is simply Biddy, a nickname that traces from her earliest days, when her family called her the “biddy baby.”

But the colorful appellation is not the only thing Martin has carried from her youth. Growing up in a then-rural area outside Lynchburg, Va., where college often seemed a dream for someone else, Martin acquired a thirst for knowledge that led her to pursue a doctorate in German literature at UW – Madison in the early 1980s. Finding her calling in academia, she went on to Cornell University, where she rose through the academic ranks to become provost in 2000.

It was with considerable fondness that Martin accepted the chance to return to her academic roots. “It feels wonderful,” she said in a phone interview shortly before moving to Madison. “I loved it when I was there, and I’m really looking forward to returning.” (To read the full interview, go to

Martin’s new role may feel familiar for other reasons, as well. Like UW – Madison, Cornell is a land-grant institution renowned for its strength in agricultural and life sciences. As provost, Martin helped modernize the university’s land-grant mission by encouraging interdisciplinary research and fostering collaborations with government and industry to work on economic development issues. She also spearheaded Cornell’s recent campaign to guarantee financial aid to families earning less than $75,000 a year, a program that aims to ensure students can graduate free from the burden of loan debt.

“Biddy has been an extremely successful provost at an outstanding, complex university much like ours,” says CALS Dean Molly Jahn, a former Cornell professor herself who came to know Martin when she was provost. “She has a real passion for our land-grant mission, and I think she will be an energetic and visionary leader.”

In UW – Madison’s broad array of biological sciences, Martin says she sees a potent mix of talent ideally suited for taking on issues such as alternative energy and environmental protection.

“UW – Madison has an enormous advantage when it comes to addressing the types of problems that we will likely see in the next several decades,” she says, “and that’s because of the scope and the range of disciplines that are represented at a university of Wisconsin’s size and the quality of the faculty and students of a university of this stature.”

Martin says she will be “a champion and a cheerleader” for those efforts by creating an environment that encourages innovation and achievement. She says the ingredients are in ample supply—talented faculty, enthusiastic students, and the spirit to work across boundaries and solve problems. “When all of those factors come together, and when the work of administrators can integrate those elements well,” she says, “it’s a wonderfully combustible mix.”

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