Neither man set out to be an educational leader. One did research and taught electrical engineering. The other coached high school football.
Circumstances, opportunities, new interests and inspiration led both from their roots in Evansville, Ind., and Charleston, Ark., to two of the most visible education posts in Madison — chancellor of the state’s flagship university and superintendent of the state’s second- largest public school district.
As leaders, neither shied away from controversy. And, as they stepped down from those posts in mid-2008, accolades far outnumbered criticisms.
Now, John Wiley and Art Rainwater — the former UW-Madison chancellor and Madison Metropolitan School District superintendent, respectively — are sharing their experience and knowledge with current and future leaders through the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA).
“One of our strengths has been our close ties to the fields of practice,” says Paul Bredeson, professor and chair of ELPA. The department has a long history of working with professional associations, school districts and leaders, and in bringing seasoned leaders to campus to teach and help shape research.
“People like Art and John help us think about what we’re working on,” Bredeson adds.
“After 43 years of experience, I think I can provide a practitioner’s view of leadership in K-12 education,” says Rainwater. “I’ve been in a position to implement and lead school change. I want to return some of that knowledge.”
“I’ve got a pretty good overview of administrative positions in the academic setting,” says Wiley, whose résumé includes department chair, associate dean, dean, provost and chancellor.
From engineering to education
Years after administrative roles at UW-Madison pulled him away from teaching and research, Wiley wryly says that the College of Engineering doesn’t want him back, but the School of Education has been willing to take him.
The emeritus chancellor’s campus commitments also include serving as interim director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and in appointments at the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE).
ELPA has tapped Wiley in the past to lecture on issues in higher education. Whenever he speaks, he invites questions, which run the gamut, but frequently include ones about the relationship with the legislature and finance.
“People are curious how a person ends up a chancellor or provost,” he says. “Bad luck,” he jokes. He then explains, “It’s incremental… and at some point, irreversible.”
He describes his own rise through the administrative ranks as a reluctant one. Like many faculty members, he took his turn serving as department chair and associate dean, both part-time commitments that allowed him to continue his teaching and research.
Nominated by a colleague as a candidate for dean of the Graduate School, Wiley used the opportunity to air his criticisms of the Graduate School. He had hoped to be passed over for the full-time post, but then-Chancellor Donna Shalala insisted that Wiley take it.
It introduced Wiley to the scope of activities across campus. He says he would have been perfectly content to remain in this position and rise no further.
But David Ward, who stepped up from provost to chancellor when Shalala left, had a tough time finding someone to succeed him in the university’s second-highest post. He convinced Wiley to serve as interim provost, and then later dropped the “interim” part.
By the time Ward retired, Wiley had recognized that his transition from engineering professor to campus administrator had become irreversible, and that factored into his decision to seek the chancellor’s job.
Interest in learning blossoms
Initially, all Rainwater wanted to do was coach football. Teaching in the classroom was something he had to do to coach. But over time, working in schools in Arkansas, Texas and Alabama, his interests evolved.
“The more I was involved with kids as a coach, the more conscious I became about what was going on in the classroom,” he says. “We’re learning more and more every day about how children learn. The classroom grew more important.”
He credits a professor in Texas for inspiring him toward instructional leadership and a Catholic high school principal in Dallas for recognizing his potential.
“Brother Adrian saw in me an administrator,” he says. “He gave me opportunities to explore what I knew about learning.”
His career path led to Kansas City, Missouri, where he designed and led one of the district’s first magnet public high schools. He rose to the district’s second-highest position, which made him responsible for the district’s desegregation initiatives.
“I learned a lot about constitutional law,” he says.
Rainwater came to the Madison Metropolitan School District in 1994 as Cheryl Wilhoyte’s deputy superintendent, and then succeeded Wilhoyte when she left in 1998.
“I’m very much data and research oriented,” he says, citing that as a major reason the Madison district hired him.
For his part, he welcomed the opportunity to work in a district so closely associated with a leading university for education research, and enjoyed having access to scholars on the cutting edge of education research.
Since retiring as Madison’s superintendent, his association with the university has become even closer. In his ELPA role, he says, “I’ll do whatever they need me to do.”
That includes teaching, giving guest lectures, advising students, and consulting with colleagues in the department and in the field. He has spoken on school finance, district-wide planning and professional development as tools for school improvement.
Rainwater also will help ELPA maintain strong relationships with professional associations, school districts and other school leaders, says Bredeson, who points out that Rainwater isn’t the first former superintendent in ELPA.
James Shaw, Wisconsin’s 2001 Superintendent of the Year, joined the department in 2003 as a clinical professor, after serving 10 years as superintendent of the Menomonee Falls School District. Shaw left in 2008 to become superintendent of the Racine Unified School District.
Part of Rainwater’s UW-Madison appointment is with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), which involves working with the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN).
He was one of the founders of MSAN, a national coalition of two dozen multiracial districts seeking solutions to disparities in achievement. The network moved its base to UW-Madison to tap into WCER’s research capacity.
He also wants to work with WCER’s Value-Added Research Center, which has been helping school districts such as Milwaukee and Chicago improve their collection and use of data for school improvement.
New way to have an impact
“I’m looking forward to getting back to the classroom and interacting with students,” Wiley says.
He points out that it won’t be quite the same as teaching undergraduates, since ELPA is a graduate department that attracts a large number of practitioners. But he says that teaching students who are bound for top positions in higher education will give him “a leverage point for having an impact over our educational system.”
“John Wiley brings a wealth of executive leadership experience at a Research One institution,” Bredeson says. He says Wiley has thought a great deal about how organizations work and can provide valuable input into ELPA’s research agenda.
For his first ELPA course this spring, Wiley plans to teach about accreditation — which he calls “inherently a very boring topic, but critically important.” It’s also timely, he says, since UW-Madison currently is undergoing its 10-year re-accreditation.
Wiley — who has been serving on and currently chairs the board of directors of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation — describes accreditation as “peer regulation,” a complicated process that has flaws, but mostly works.
Without such a system, he says higher education would be governed by a Ministry of Education, which he sees as a significant weakness in the educational systems of other countries.
“I also have a personal interest in higher education finance, which is a complete mess nationwide,” Wiley says.