School scribes swept up in university spending controversy

University of Madison-Wisconsin speechwriter gets raise, and draws attention to her, and to all university scribes.

As the cost of a college education rises, university costs are being scrutinized. And whenever bureaucracies are criticized, the leader’s speechwriter is the easiest symbol of excess.

University speechwriters, look out.

University of Wisconsin-Madison speechwriter Amanda Todd got a 29 percent raise, from $73,500 to $95,000, as Chancellor Rebecca Blank lured her prize scribe back from a job she’d been offered at the State Supreme Court.

Republican lawmakers pounced, noting that the UW System is seeking $132.9 million more in taxpayer funds over the next two years, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel covered the controversy in a detailed story about what former Republican gubernatorial state personnel office director Peter Fox called “a remarkable increase” for the speechwriter. “Amanda is a wonderful journalist,” he told the Journal-Sentinel. “She is a wonderful writer. She is a wonderful person. What’s unusual here is a bidding war between the heads of two state agencies.”

The article points out that the explicit speechwriting position is relatively new for UW-Madison, and that the president of the UW System doesn’t have a full-time speechwriter, and neither does Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The paper also noted that “at least a few other Big Ten universities have full-time speechwriters,” and specified that the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities speechwriter makes $80,000, while the scribe for the University of Michigan pulls down $130,000.

Todd’s supervisor (and UW-Madison’s spokesman) John Lucas defended Todd’s raise by saying the university “wanted to work as much as we could to retain” the speechwriter, whose status reflects “the chancellor’s major focus on outreach to audiences around the state of Wisconsin,” Lucas told the paper. “In consultation with the chancellor, Amanda helps prepare remarks, briefings and background for numerous public events every month.” He added that, whether the communication staffers are called speechwriters or not, “somebody is writing speeches for chancellors and presidents. It’s just a matter of whether they blend it with another role.”

Universities are dogged by controversy everywhere they turn, and the last thing they need is a crisis surrounding the university speechwriter.

It seems to me that university presidents who want to hold onto their speechwriters—and under all this pressure, they need their dedicated communication help far more urgently than ever—have two essential choices:

• They can increasingly going to go back to hiding the speechwriter behind a less inflammatory title, like the euphemistic old, “special assistant.” And they can hope no one notices.

• Or they can describe the role a little more broadly than just “speechwriter”—”assistant for presidential communication,” for instance—and then defend it as UW-Madison’s John Lucas does: full-throatedly.

Speechwriters, special assistants and others who support university presidents and chancellors in their communication: What do you think? —DM

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