Investing in the University of Wisconsin-Madison

In my annual address to the Regents today, I discussed five goals – areas where we are working to expand our programs and reputation — and talked about the resources and strategies needed to meet those goals.

None of this should be news to those on campus who’ve been paying attention.  They are all areas where we’ve already made significant strides, thanks to the hard work of our faculty and staff.  But more work remains, both to maintain our accomplishments and to move forward.

Here are the goals I shared with the Regents, and a few thoughts on how we achieve them.

Goal #1: Maintain and Further Strengthen Educational Outcomes

In the past few years, we have decreased time-to-degree, increased our six-year graduation rate, shrunk the graduation gap between all students and students from underrepresented groups, and decreased the number of undergraduates taking on student debt.

This would be extraordinary at any time – but it’s particularly notable that we accomplished these things while also conferring a record number of degrees, expanding the size of the freshman class, and absorbing budget cuts.

Reasons for our success include improved advising as well as the expansion of summer term, which gives students more flexibility to complete their degrees.  Here are a few additional programs we are working on:

  • Early-start programs to help freshmen get a jump start on their degree;
  • Gap year programs to give students the option of delaying their start here at UW in order to spend a year abroad that we help them arrange;
  • Online degree programs, which expand access and allow us to bring a UW-Madison degree within reach for more non-traditional undergraduates.

I want to see us create and expand all of these initiatives.  By 2020, my hope is to have at least one fully online undergraduate degree program available.

Goal #2: Grow Accessibility

We need to make sure that every student who can qualify for admission at UW-Madison can afford to come.

We’ve made important progress toward this goal over the last two years with Badger Promise and Bucky’s Tuition Promise, both of which provide tuition funding for our middle-and-lower income students and simplify the process so that families know up front what they can expect from us.

This academic year was the first for Bucky’s Tuition Promise, a program that promises students up front that — if they are admitted to UW-Madison and if their family income is in the bottom half of the Wisconsin income distribution (below $58,000) — we will put together a funding package that guarantees coverage of tuition and fees for four years.  We already have nearly 800 students from 65 Wisconsin counties in the program – or about 17% of the freshman class.

But we still have substantial unmet need.

Part of the solution is more fundraising.  Over the past 10 years, our friends and alumni have enabled us to more than triple the number of scholarship dollars we provide to students.  But as we’ve expanded our commitment, the federal and state governments have decreased theirs.  They need to re-invest in our students, and we’re working hard to make that case both in Madison and in Washington.

Goal #3: Grow research strength

Over the last 10 years, our research expenditures have lagged our peers.  We’ve turned this around in the past two years, but expanding our research enterprise and maintaining this university as a top research center will be neither quick nor easy.

We need to continue to build our federal grants – which will require an investment in faculty, staff, and facilities – and continue to grow appropriate industry partnerships.

To accomplish these first three goals, we need to build a foundation that makes them possible.  These last two goals are about building that foundation.

Goal #4: Maintain and grow faculty strength

As I told the Regents, the reputation and the quality of a university rests on its faculty.  We’ve started a couple of new programs that are going to help us build long-term faculty strength:

  • The Cluster Hire Program, which we began a year ago to grow faculty strength in areas of key scientific and academic interest, and
  • The TOP (Targets of Opportunity) Program, which gives schools and colleges new resources from the central campus to recruit people from groups who are underrepresented in their departments.

In the Cluster Hire Program, we created 10 new clusters in the first two rounds, and are currently hiring for those as we review proposals from round three.  We also have more than two dozen TOP Program recruitments underway in departments across the campus.

One of our biggest ongoing challenges to building faculty strength on this campus is competitive pay.  Our full professors make 10.4% less than the median of our peers, and we are at the bottom of our salary peer group.

The Board of Regents has asked for 3% pay increases in each year of the coming biennium.  We’ll see what the Governor and the legislature propose.  But a 3% annual increase is about what our peers will do also, so it will not help catch us up.  At some point, we are going to have to find funds for a larger catch-up program for faculty across the System.

Goal #5: Strengthen financial stability

To make any of the investments that we need, we have to have a reliable pool of investment dollars each year.

We’ve come through a very challenging period with deep cuts to the state budget combined with a tuition freeze.   In the 2013-15 and the 2015-17 budget cycles we clearly fell behind our competitors.  During that time, we worked on a variety of fronts to become more entrepreneurial in order to generate our own investment income to fund the things this university must do to retain its excellence.  This work has been paying off in the past two years.

Many of our newest investments have been funded from the dollars we have generated by expanding programs such as the summer semester, increasing out-of-state tuition, and running a high-energy fundraising campaign among our alumni (now 90% of the way to its $3.2 billion goal).

But we’re still playing catch-up.  Our peer schools were growing their revenues in a period when ours were declining.  It’s going to take time and effort to regain lost ground.  The state has an important role to play, which is why we’re spending substantial time in the state Capitol these days making a case for state reinvestment in the university.

The Bottom Line

The key to a strong future for UW-Madison is investing in the right areas.  For too many years we were essentially standing still, if not moving backwards, because of reduced budgets.  We’ve turned that around, thanks to the state, our alumni, and the very good work of our faculty and staff.

If we are to maintain our reputation and our quality, we need to invest – and make sure those investments are strategic and well-targeted.

How important is this?  Let me quote one of my favorite U.S. political figures, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  He said:

“If you want to create a great city [and I would say a great state as well]

First, create a great university….

Then wait 100 years.”

The State of Wisconsin has been supporting us for 171 years.  We are one of the important engines of the state’s economy and have educated many of its leading citizens over the years.  The University of Wisconsin in Madison has long been one of the great public universities in the country.  It’s up to all of us to make sure that reputation continues.

Download a PDF of Chancellor Blank’s presentation