Biddy Martin’s Unconstitutional Legacy

by David French

The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting that Carolyin (Biddy) Martin, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is stepping down after a short, three-year term. The Chronicle’s article highlights her apparent love/hate relationship with Governor Walker and her contentious plan (supported by Governor Walker) to split the university from the state system. In an era of draconian budget cuts, she leaves for Amherst College, a tiny, much more financially stable private college in Massachusetts.

Left out of the article, however, is the story of Martin’s very costly crusade against the University of Wisconsin’s Roman Catholic Foundation (now known as “Badger Catholic”). After years of giving far-left student groups hundreds of thousands of dollars per year of student fees to pursue public advocacy, the university (despite previous litigation and a binding settlement agreement) imposed onerous restrictions on Badger Catholic’s fee requests, breached its previous settlement agreements, and continued to insist — in a case that went all the way to an appeal to the Supreme Court — that it could treat religious student groups differently from other groups in its fee disbursements.  

Yet that’s only part of the story. To pursue its argument (an argument that had already rejected in not one, but two previous Supreme Court cases), it hired one of the state’s highest-priced law firms — in spite of the availability of lower-cost representation from the attorney general’s office. The resulting loss not only cost the university hundreds of thousands of dollars in their own legal fees but also resulted in a fee petition from Badger Catholic that exceeds half a million dollars.  

In an era of budget cuts, is it wise to spend perhaps as much as a million dollars fighting to keep religious student groups in second-class-citizen status? Could such a grotesque waste have contributed to the tension between the chancellor and her board? In recent years we’ve now seen two prominent university presidents step down shortly after losing expensive, prominent First Amendment cases.

I can think of few more fruitless wastes of taxpayer funds than spending money to deprive students of their fundamental, constitutional rights. Has this waste factored into recent presidential turnover? I don’t know if it did, but I do know that it should.