Photo: Becky Blank for blog page

Blank’s Slate

A Blog by UW-Madison Chancellor Becky Blank


This year’s most important topic: Budgets

BascHill_Wban_capit06_7792It’s a biennial budget year here in Wisconsin and as soon as the November elections are over, the 2015-17 state budget will be the focus of much of the work of our elected state leaders. As I said this week during my State of the University speech to the Faculty Senate, this upcoming budget will be particularly important for us at UW-Madison, given that we received substantial cuts in the budget two years ago. I want to describe the challenges facing us and what we’re doing to prepare for them.

The higher education system in this state is central to its long-term economic competitiveness and growth. Having a world-class educational and research institution in UW-Madison gives this state a big advantage in attracting high-tech and growing industries to this state. Maintaining the excellence of our university and our overall Wisconsin system should be a high priority for anybody who cares about future job growth.

It’s no secret that the UW System and, in turn, UW–Madison received some major cuts in the current budget enacted in the spring of 2013. Over the past year we were able to absorb the impact of these cuts by spending down our fund balances to fund programs and services across campus, as the state legislature directed.

However, we can’t continue to fill the budget gaps with fund balances. At the end of this fiscal year, our tuition fund balances will have declined almost by half, from 14 percent to 8 percent. I cannot in good conscience draw them any lower, given the need to keep some funds on hand to deal with the uncertainties we face as a large and complex institution.

In fact, most of our fund balances are already fully committed to approved programs or facilities, but just haven’t been spent yet. We have little that can be labeled as true reserves. That means that the university has very few discretionary dollars available to meet unanticipated needs that might arise on campus this year.

If we do not receive an increase in our educational funding, we will have to implement substantial cuts. With no change in the budget, we will need to cut a little more than 4 percent from all of our state and tuition-funded programs.

The 2015-17 biennial budget request made by UW System President Ray Cross and the Board of Regents proposes to avoid many of these cuts and would help put the higher education system on a firmer economic footing.

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Diversity: A campus priority

One of the most important things that happens when you go away to college is that you meet and get to know people whose experiences are very different from your own. You get to live with, work with, and be taught by people from different communities, different ethnic and racial backgrounds, different religions, different sexual orientations, different talents, different politics, and who make different assumptions about their life.

Being able to comfortably interact with diverse groups of people is integral to the educational experience and it prepares us for the rest of our professional and personal lives. Almost any future job in this global economy will require an ability to work effectively with all types of people.

Like many others who grew up in the upper Midwest, I didn’t meet a lot of people from different cultures or backgrounds before I went to college. My parents used to invite foreign graduate students over to Thanksgiving dinner and I thought that was the height of exotic. As I’ve sometimes joked, growing up in Minnesota, I thought diversity meant including non-Lutherans. Fortunately, both in college and afterwards, I had the opportunity to become friends with people from all parts of this country and from all over the world. That’s taught me a lot about how to work in a large and diverse organization, and it’s made me more thoughtful and aware of my own assumptions about life.

In short, a diverse community is deeply important to the educational mission of this institution. To remain a preeminent world-class university, we must continue to find new ways to learn from and about each other.

This past spring, our four major governance groups all vetted our newest Diversity Framework, “Forward Together.” The document was written by a committee of faculty, students, staff and community members. It has been thoughtfully constructed and contains a series of recommendations for our campus.

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Welcome back to Fall 2014

One of the things I love most about working on a campus is the bustle of activity that comes each year when students return in the fall. Nothing equals the rush of energy, anticipation, and enthusiasm that accompanies the beginning of an academic year.

In this post, I want to take a few moments to look back, but then, turn toward the future to a year that I believe is full of promise for UW.

My own summer has been bookended by two moves. My husband Hanns and daughter Emily officially moved here in mid-June after Emily finished her final year of high school, so I’m happily done with commuting back to Washington, D.C. But we’re now preparing to drive Emily to her first year of college. In between, it’s been a busy summer here in Bascom, but I did have time to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge in support of UW’s groundbreaking ALS research. I hope your own summer was equally productive and also relaxing.

Much of my first year on this job was spent meeting with and listening to faculty, staff, and students on campus, key leaders around the state, and alumni. A number of new initiatives moved forward over this past year, such as our new federal relations office in D.C., changes in commencement, and progress toward a new budget model (read a description of some of last year’s activities). It’s good to be starting my second year on the job, and I look forward to working with many of you on the challenges and opportunities ahead of us.  Continue reading

Is an English professor a scientist?

At a Faculty Senate meeting last April, in a discussion about the reorganization of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education position, I said something about the VCRGE working with scientists across campus. One of the Senate members responded immediately, saying that the VCR “needs to serve all faculty, not just scientists.”

That comment surprised me because I thought I was talking about all faculty when I used the word “scientist.” I opened my mouth to argue with him, then realized that the Senate meeting wasn’t the time or place. So I’m going to use this blog to pose the question, “Who is a scientist?”

I have always used the word “scientist” as a reference to academic researchers, not just those in the biological or physical sciences. I admit that this could be because I was trained as an economist; in every economics department where I’ve been active, my colleagues always insisted that they were scientists as much as any physicist or botanist.

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Campus safety, sexual assault and high-risk drinking

It’s SOAR (Student Orientation, Advising and Registration) season here on campus and every day, I see groups of incoming students and their parents receiving an orientation to campus and to student life at UW-Madison.

Although I’ve been working on university campuses for many years, this summer I will also be the parent of a college student. I’m dropping my daughter off at Northwestern in September. I’m afraid this will remind me of the first day of kindergarten, when I left her with a teacher who was clearly far too young and (much to my surprise) found myself crying as I walked out of the building. There is always something of a “leap of faith” when you see your child head off into the next adventure and entrust them to a community of relative strangers, no matter how qualified or experienced. Continue reading

Big Ten presidents and chancellors address student athlete issues, NCAA reform

The following is a statement signed by myself and other leaders of the Big Ten universities regarding NCAA reform and challenges to the current collegiate athletics model.

June 24, 2014

ROSEMONT, Ill. – While testifying last week in the O’Bannon trial in Oakland, Calif., Big Ten Commissioner James E. Delany spoke to the importance of the inextricable link between academics and athletics as part of the collegiate model, and to the value of establishing a 21st century system to meet the educational needs of current and future student-athletes. During his testimony, Delany conveyed sentiments long supported by the conference and its member institutions. Today, the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten schools issue the following statement signed by the leaders of each institution:

As another NCAA season concludes with baseball and softball championships, college athletics is under fire. While football players at Northwestern fight for collective bargaining, former athletes are suing to be compensated for the use of their images.

Football and men’s basketball are at issue. Compensating the student-athletes who compete in these sports will skew the overall academic endeavor – for all students, not just those wearing a school’s colors.

The best solutions rest not with the courts, but with us – presidents of the very universities that promote and respect the values of intercollegiate competition. Writing on behalf of all presidents of the Big Ten Conference, we must address the conflicts that have led us to a moment where the conversation about college sports is about compensation rather than academics.

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A trip up north: My visit to Superior & Ashland

Photo: Bretting Manufacturing

One of the goals during my first year as chancellor was to visit each of the University of Wisconsin System’s 13 four-year campuses. I was on the southern shore of Lake Superior this week, in Superior to visit UW-Superior and then over to Ashland. I lived in Marquette, MI, for 2-1/2 years as a child and have been back along the rocky Lake Superior lakeshore a number of times since. It’s always beautiful up there. But also cold. As we flew into Superior, we could see several hundred yards of ice still present along the Superior shoreline.

I had a good conversation with Chancellor Renee Wachter and received a great tour of the UW–Superior campus. It’s the smallest four-year school in the system, with only about 2,800 students.

As with other trips, the campus visit was only part of my agenda. In Superior I met with local legislators and did interviews with local newspapers in Superior and Ashland.  Local business and community leaders joined me at Bretting Manufacturing in Ashland for a roundtable discussion focusing on the economic challenges facing the region. Bretting is a fascinating company, with fourth-generation family owners.  If you need a specific machine, built to specific design, they will make it for you. From Ashland, they do business around the world.

I’ve held discussions about the economy across the state to hear from business people about what we can be doing to work with them and help create more jobs and economic growth. If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I strongly believe that outreach is one of our core missions as a public university – what everybody here calls the Wisconsin Idea.

At UW–Madison we make two contributions that are essential to a 21st century economy: We train highly skilled workers, and we are the primary engine of development, discovery and innovation in this state. For the state economy to succeed we need to be an active partner in economic development, whether through one-on-one partnerships with businesses that want to interact with our researchers, helping startup companies emerge from our labs, or by sharing the expertise of our staff and faculty to promote best practices.

The barriers to economic growth the far northern region of Wisconsin faces are not dissimilar to those of other rural areas. Tourism is an important industry, but is highly seasonal. The biggest concern among those I met with in Ashland was the lack of a four-lane highway, making it a less attractive location for business expansion or start-ups.  They also worried about the problems of attracting skilled workers to the northern edge of the state. I encouraged them to offer internships to UW-Madison students with an interest in their industry. Internship programs offer students real-world experience, while businesses get a connection into upcoming graduates here at Madison. Students who do an internship are far more likely to take a job with a company, which can help attract them to the Ashland area.

Chancellor Blank, and Wisconsin Alumni Association Chequamegon Bay Chapter’s Badger of the Year for 2014, Carol “Coke” Lindsey, at the Founder’s Day program. Photo courtesy of Rick Olivo, Ashland Daily Press

Chancellor Blank, and Wisconsin Alumni Association Chequamegon Bay Chapter’s Badger of the Year for 2014, Carol “Coke” Lindsey, at the Founder’s Day program. Photo courtesy of Rick Olivo, Ashland Daily Press

My visit ended with a Founders’ Day dinner with a superb group of enthusiastic alumni in Ashland. I also met six high school seniors who will be attending UW–Madison next year with scholarship help provided by the Chequamegon Bay Area Chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association.

My primary resolution after this trip:  Bring my husband back for a long weekend to explore Ashland/Bayfield and the Apostle Islands.  It’s a beautiful area of the state.  But I’m going to wait until the ice is entirely gone from Lake Superior.

High points from this past year

Photo: Bascom Hill

When I accepted the offer to come to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I knew that the chancellor’s job would not be dull.  My idea of a good job is one where I learn something new every day and I haven’t been disappointed.  I’ve loved being at UW, and particularly enjoy the size and scope of this university … and the level of energy generated every day with 43,000 students on campus, along with 22,000 faculty and staff.

I want to thank our students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and friends for being so welcoming to me over these past 10 months since my arrival in Madison. As we reach the end of this academic year, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the high points in 2013-14. I’m proud of all that we have accomplished this year.

No single list can capture the achievements of the past year — there are so many success stories across campus.  But here’s a start:

  • In the fall, we launched Discovery to Product, or D2P, a program to support entrepreneurship and encourage new startups among our faculty, staff and students.  I’ve been amazed and pleased by the interest in tech transfer and in entrepreneurship on campus. UW needs to be a major partner to the state and the region in moving innovative ideas into the marketplace.
  • The university received good news from legislative leaders in April when the HR Design personnel system was approved, giving us the flexibility to attract, develop and retain the best employees. The plan has been long in the works and was put together through an extended collaborative process across campus. The target date for full implementation of the policy is July 1, 2015. I should note that I’ve put a lot of time into becoming acquainted with our state political leadership and appreciate their willingness to let us move forward on this new plan.
  • I’ve also been pleased to collaborate with the shared governance system on campus and have enjoyed working with faculty, staff and students.  We haven’t always agreed, but I hope we’ve worked together respectfully and successfully.  Among the major reports this year were the recently released Diversity Framework; I hope we can use this framework to move forward on these issues in the coming year.  The Budget Model Review Committee also produced a very helpful report, and we’re working with a group of faculty, staff and students to specify a new budget model that should increase transparency in the distribution of funds to schools and colleges.  Continue reading

Award-winning students make us all proud

When I came to Wisconsin, I knew this was a place with first-rate students, but I have to say that the number of accolades our students received this academic year was larger than I expected. UW is truly an academically elite university.

Just how elite? The University of Wisconsin–Madison is one of only four American institutions (including Harvard, Princeton and the Georgia Institute of Technology) that can boast Rhodes, Marshall and Churchill scholars in the same year.

We’ve spent a lot of time cheering our athletic teams for their achievements, and I want to take a few moments to recognize students whose academic success has been exceptional. I am honored to be part of a celebration for these students in a ceremony on May 5.

Every Wisconsin resident should be proud of these achievements because all of the students honored with these prestigious awards hail from the Dairy State. This is clear proof that milk and cheese make you smart.

Senior Drew Birrenkott was awarded a 2014 Rhodes Scholarship, one of the top honors in higher education. He joins an elite group of 32 students from across the nation. Drew, of McFarland, is triple-majoring in political science, biochemistry and biomedical engineering.

Senior Andrew Bulovsky of Lodi won a Marshall Scholarship and will attend the London School of Economics next October. Andrew is one of 34 students nationally to receive the scholarship, which funds up to three years of study at a British university. He’s majoring in political science and communication arts.

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HR Design approval is welcome news for UW–Madison

The employees we have at the University of Wisconsin–Madison are among the best anywhere, whether they provide world-class instruction, perform valuable research, or provide the support for our academic and research missions. Each employee plays an important role, and our university as a whole could not function without the daily contributions of many.

That is why I am grateful to the legislative leaders and members of the Joint Committee on Employment Relations for approving HR Design. The implementation of our own personnel system, to be effective July 1, 2015, gives us important tools that will help UW remain a preeminent university into the 21st century.

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