May 31 is my last day in the office here at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I admit to feeling a bit wistful as I realize how many friends and colleagues will no longer be a regular part of my life. I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people who have taken time to stop me on campus or in town, or to send an email, thanking me for my service to the university.
Thank you for all the gracious words you have shared with me. But more importantly, thank you for what you have done to help this university move forward.
While there have been some hard days on this job, there have been many more good memories. No other job in the world would let me lead an institution with its own marching band, sailing club, mascot (I’m going to miss Bucky), and ice cream flavors. In no other job do you get to address 50,000 people in Camp Randall on graduation day when they are all in a happy mood and can’t wait to hear what you have to say. And there is no other spot on any college campus in the country as much fun as the Terrace, drawing in not just the campus community, but people from all around the region for good food, good music, and an unbeatable view.
I have been regularly asked what I think my legacy is here at UW. If you’ll indulge me for a bit, let me list what I think were the most important changes of the past nine years. But let me be clear that this is not MY legacy, but OUR legacy. All of these things took the effort and involvement of staff and faculty across campus. I want to do a special shout-out to my Executive Team, the deans and other unit leaders. I’ve had the privilege of working with a great group of leaders.
Here are a few of the things we’ve accomplished:
• Most important, UW is on a much more stable financial footing than it was when I arrived, with investment resources that have allowed us to fund new initiatives and further advance our mission across campus. This didn’t happen by accident but is the result of a multi-pronged effort to be entrepreneurial and generate our own investment income when it became clear the state would not do so. We’ve expanded summer programs, increased class size, raised out-of-state tuition, grown research dollars, and received many generous donations from alumni and friends. As a result, we’ve brought our faculty salaries up substantially, made big increases in our graduate student stipends, greatly increased our scholarship dollars, invested in IT infrastructure, and done more for campus maintenance. (This coming year, now that we have benchmarks for all staff salaries, we’ll be putting extra money into salary changes for staff based on compression, parity, equity and merit.)
• UW has steadily improved as an educational institution. We’re now one of the top 10 public universities in our graduation rates. We’ve substantially decreased the graduate gap for low income and underrepresented groups. We’ve steadily increased the share of undergraduates who leave with ZERO debt – it’s just under 60% of the class. And our advising and career counseling has steadily improved. It’s not surprising that applications to UW-Madison have doubled in the nine years that I’ve been here.
• UW has expanded its research enterprise. When I arrived, research dollars were declining at a time when they were growing at other top universities – which, not surprisingly, led us to slip in the research rankings. We’ve stabilized that, with research dollars growing 17% over the past five years. We brought in almost $1.5 billion in research awards last year. While there is always more to do, we have improved administrative support for those competing for outside funding. And our partner organization WARF has also increased its dollar support to us, allowing us to deepen our funding for new projects and new faculty start-up packages.
• After almost 30 years of declining or flat faculty numbers, we’ve increased faculty size. The Cluster Hire program has strengthened a number of areas of research excellence, while the TOP program has helped diversify our faculty. This increase was made possible by more investment dollars in key areas of research and teaching and also reflects the increase in the undergraduate student body.
• A key effort has been our All Ways Forward fundraising campaign, aimed at alumni and friends. This campaign has helped us deepen our scholarship pool, fund named faculty positions across the university to help attract and retain top faculty, and subsidize the cost of some key building projects on campus. We aimed at raising $3.2 billion when we started in 2015. We ended the campaign with $4.2 billion. Thanks to the WFAA for being such great partners in this effort.
• We’ve expanded access to the university. Most notably, Bucky’s Tuition Promise has guaranteed that all low-income Wisconsin students who qualify for admission can come here tuition-free. But we’ve deepened scholarships and educational opportunities for many others as well. Our professional masters’ programs have expanded, providing a UW education to early and mid-career students. And we’re growing our online presence, both with summer online courses for our regular students and by starting a few online undergraduate degree programs for older workers who want to finish their degree but are not going to be residential students in Madison.
• Our service to the state is stronger than ever, reflecting our commitment to the Wisconsin Idea. In the early 1970s, the Extension program and Wisconsin Public TV and Radio were pulled out of Madison (which pioneered these programs more than 100 years ago.) Five years ago, these programs again became part of UW-Madison. It took work to reintegrate them into campus, but it’s been worth it. Our campus enriches these programs, and these programs help our campus reach out to serve the entire state even better.
• Our campus has worked in a sustained way to be more diverse and inclusive of all community members. Our student body and our faculty have become more diverse (and additional focus will be required to increase diversity among staff.) The schools and colleges are implementing diversity plans, working with departments and units on building hiring pipelines, developing training, and initiating sometimes difficult conversations. The School of Education is providing training to help faculty teach in more diverse classrooms. Conversations about living in a diverse community are now a regular part of our freshman orientation. Our Public History project is presenting stories from UW’s past that have gone untold, focusing on the experiences of more marginalized groups. We have more work to do, but many people are committed to keeping us focused on these issues.
I could keep going but suffice it to say that lots of good things have been happening on campus over the past decade.
There are plenty of ongoing challenges that the new chancellor will need to deal with, working closely with all of you. Most important will be breaking the logjam in funding and approvals that prevent us from modernizing and updating our facilities as our needs change. We need stronger partnerships with UW System and policymakers to promote flexibilities, particularly around facilities projects, so that problems are addressed quickly and at a lower cost.
UW-Madison also needs to negotiate greater leeway around in-state tuition. We’ve had a decade (yes that’s TEN YEARS) of an in-state tuition freeze. Unfortunately, our costs have not been frozen. It’s time our in-state tuition was set at a level similar to that of Minnesota, Illinois, or Michigan – with plenty of financial aid to lower and middle-income students. This will help provide revenue needed to maintain high quality educational programs for all our students.
And we will continue to need to persuade the legislature, the governor, and the citizens of this state, of the value of UW-Madison to the economy and the civic well-being of the state. We need the state to invest in us as a way to invest in the future of the entire state. UW-Madison is the source of this state’s most skilled workers and entrepreneurs and our research powerhouse is a key reason that businesses seek to locate or grow in Wisconsin.
I do not want to end with complaints. I thought you might enjoy excerpts from a few of my most memorable phone calls during my time at UW. These were usually calls that came in on evenings or weekends, just as I was ready to relax and forget about work. Here’s my recollection of three of them:
• “The pool at the SERF has sprung a leak. We seem to have lost thousands of gallons of water. Unfortunately, we aren’t quite sure where it’s gone. We’re a little worried that a big sinkhole could open up on Dayton Street at any time. But don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.”
• “There’s a new PCR test for COVID that doesn’t require a nose swab. People just have to drool into a test tube. Everybody will love it!”
• “We just learned that the pipes burst on the top floor of <you name the building>. Unfortunately, this happened Friday night and we didn’t discover it until Monday morning. We’re going to have to relocate everybody in the building and move all of the classes. But don’t worry. We can probably get this fixed up in six months to a year.”
Don’t worry. The good news is that all of these were handled by our excellent staff.
It’s been an honor every day that I’ve served as Chancellor at this university. Thank you for being such great partners and colleagues in this work.
Wisconsin is one of the great public universities. I know you will give the new Chancellor the same level of support and friendship that you’ve given me. And I am confident that all of you will do what is necessary to grow and change in a way that maintains the excellence of this institution.
I have come to love this campus, as I know you do. I look forward to watching it continue to move forward.