Coming to the end of 2020 (I won’t miss this year!)

When we launched our current alumni fundraising campaign, we chose the theme of “All Ways Forward”—both catchy and emblematic of our state’s motto, Forward.

For the past nine months, figuring out how to move forward has been particularly challenging. At times, we’ve had real disagreement on campus about which direction would even lead us forward.

It’s been hard work redesigning campus activities, setting up testing and public health protocols that none of us even dreamed about a year ago, and figuring out how to move forward when none of our favorite and most celebratory events … Convocation, Commencement, concerts and plays, conferences and student gatherings, tailgates and games …could even take place.

Like many of you, I won’t be sad to see the end of 2020.

Many in our community have faced great personal challenges since March, homeschooling children, dealing with isolated elderly parents, or coping with too many months of staying home and communicating only by Zoom. It has been a particularly difficult year for our communities of color, given the energy required to cope with the events of this past year and the resulting protests for greater racial and social justice across American institutions. And all of us have been caught in the midst of a very divisive national political climate. We especially think about those who have been directly affected by COVID-19, dealing with illness or loss among family members.

Despite these difficulties, there is good news as well over this fall. Our university does continue to move forward on a number of fronts. For instance:

• This last spring we posted the highest graduation rates ever (88.5% 6-year graduation rate), and the shortest time to graduation (3.92 years, or 29 days short of four calendar years). This means our curriculum, our advising and our financial aid is allowing students to complete their studies sooner and with less debt.
• This fall we welcomed the most diverse freshmen class in our history and increased our faculty of color. We know there is ongoing work to do in this area.
• Right now, our applications, compared to this same time last year, are up. This may simply be because more high school seniors are applying sooner, given the absence of other senior year activities. But we clearly continue to be a much-sought-after school among students around the state, the country and the world.
• With increased scholarship dollars, our ability to help defray costs for low-income students continues to grow. This fall, we had 2,534 students in either Bucky’s Tuition Promise or Badger Promise. Both of these programs guarantee scholarships to cover the full cost of tuition and fees through four years of college.
• Despite the pandemic, almost all of our research facilities are open and an astounding amount of research, including a significant amount on COVID-19 itself (we currently have 67 new COVID-19 related grants totaling $45.8 million), is under way across campus.
• And we launched our first online undergraduate degree program (in personal finance, out of the School of Human Ecology), as a pilot for additional programs in the future.

I am grateful for the resilience and innovation of our faculty, graduate student employees and staff in delivering education under very difficult circumstances this fall. And I thank the students who adjusted to those changes in the learning and social environment. I am also grateful to our Badger families who helped their students get through this fall. Our recent undergraduate student survey indicates how much our students appreciated the in-person classes that were possible this fall, and I thank the instructors who were willing to teach in-person.

Above all, thanks to all of our essential staff who came to campus to maintain our residence halls, prepare food, keep our spaces clean and care for research animals.

I recognize that the challenges have not gone away. Illness remains a concern until a vaccine is more broadly available. Many of you will spend holidays without the usual family members in attendance. All of our employees will have additional furlough days this winter and spring. Mental health concerns are real. People are tired – we all feel it and want this to be over.

I can only offer my unending gratitude for all that our campus community is doing and tell all of you that this will come to an end. In the months ahead we will learn more about vaccine availability and do everything we can to provide vaccination to as many people as possible on campus. I am cautiously hopeful that much of campus will be able to engage in a more normal semester next fall.

We will soon be announcing details of the expanded testing plans we have for the campus in spring semester. We have learned much over the last several months, and we want to ensure that campus is even safer in Spring 2021.

I hope everyone is able to take time off during the holidays. Relax. Escape online meetings. Enjoy time with your immediate family. Find joy in little things.

I’ll see you all (virtually) back at work in 2021. May it be a better year. All ways forward!

Note: Hear more from Chancellor Blank in her interview with Wisconsin Public Radio’s The Morning Show.