Photo: Becky Blank for blog page

Blank’s Slate

A Blog by UW-Madison Chancellor Becky Blank


Happy holidays

Warm thoughts for the holidays and best wishes for a very happy new year from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Responding to Ferguson and Staten Island

The recent grand jury verdicts in Ferguson, Missouri, and in Staten Island have raised questions and concerns among many in the University of Wisconsin-Madison community, as they have nationwide.

It is easy for some of us to think briefly about these incidents and move on. That is not the case for others on this campus, who encounter subtle and less subtle examples of intolerance on a regular basis. Continue reading

Trying to break the cycle of poverty

I know this is a busy time as many on campus get ready for the last week of classes and finals week, but I wanted to post a quick note here about a United Way initiative I’m co-chairing with former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray. It’s called the Delegation to Create Economic Stability for Young Families. Over the next 11 months this group of 40 community leaders will study poverty in Dane County and recommend actions for the United Way that can help young families. This is an important issue in our community; poverty rates are particularly high among African American and Hispanic single mothers and their children. I am honored to be working with the United Way on this project and expect learn to a great deal about the Madison community at the same time that I hope I can be a useful part of the process.

If you want to know more about this effort, click on the United Way press release.

Thank you!

You may have heard about the incredible gift that we announced this past weekend, from John and Tashia Morgridge. Maybe it’s the amount that got your attention: $100 million. That’s the largest single gift from individual donors that we’ve ever received, and comes on top of a number of other gifts from the Morgridges in years past.

But it’s not just the amount that should catch your attention. This is a unique gift. It’s not for buildings. It’s not for naming rights to a college or center. It’s all designated as matching money to help fund faculty chairs. That means that anyone who wants to endow a named faculty chair need pay only half the usual endowment level and the Morgridge gift will match and endow the other half. And the name on the chair will be whatever name is selected by that donor. The Morgridge name will not be on any of these chairs.

This is a very Wisconsin gift, and a gift that reflects the values the Morgridges have always demonstrated. It’s not about them. It’s about making UW a better place and about inspiring other alums to give back.

What’s the effect of this gift? It’s transformative. The current levels established to endow named faculty awards are $1 million for a professorship, $2 million for a chair, and $3 million for a distinguished chair. We currently have 34 faculty awards that are funded at or above $2 million in endowment — FAR less than many of our peers — and another 102 chairs that are funded below $2 million. Most of these were given by generous alums at a time when the “price” of endowing a chair was less.

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Budget in Brief offers transparent view of UW–Madison budget

As I’ve written in a previous blog, there is no more important item on my agenda than the next biennial state budget. One of the tools I hope will help legislators, alumni and other stakeholders to understand UW–Madison’s budget is the Budget in Brief document. The goal of the document is to explain in plain language and charts where the university’s money comes from, and how it is spent. It’s important that we be as transparent as possible about our current budget and our financial needs.

Last week, I did an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about our budget circumstances. Please give it a read and take some time to review the Budget in Brief. We all must be ready to make the case for why investment in higher education is essential for Wisconsin.

A new budget model: More flexibility and transparency

I held a conversation with each of the deans before I started in this job and heard from almost every one of them that the budget model at UW-Madison no longer worked effectively. I and others across campus have spent quite a bit of time over this past year reviewing the current model and thinking about improvements.

Let me start by being clear about what is meant by “budget model.” I’m primarily talking about the ways in which the money in what we call Fund 101 is distributed from Bascom Hall to all of the schools and colleges. Fund 101 is composed of the state and tuition dollars we receive to support our core missions. This budget review also includes a discussion of the formula by which UW-Madison’s indirect federal research funds are distributed to schools and colleges.

Deans have always had substantial discretion in how they distribute money within their units, and the changes we are discussing will not change the ability of deans to spend their dollars in the ways they find most effective.

UW–Madison has used the same approach to budgeting since the UW System merger in 1972-73. The best description of that model: Each school and college gets what it got last year, unless they can convince the provost that they require additional money for a specific need. In particular, there has been no assurance that budget changes would occur as activity levels changed. And there’s little transparency about how dollars are distributed or why.

Much has changed since we adopted the current model more than 40 years ago, not the least of which is that the share of revenue the state provides to UW–Madison has shrunk ­­from 43 percent of the university’s overall revenue to 17 percent. At the same time, tuition as a share of the university’s total revenue has risen from 11 percent to roughly 17 percent.

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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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