Looking back at Fall 2021

Among the many pieces of advice we received at the start of this semester, one of my favorites came from the child of one of our staff members who quoted a line from the children’s classic Pooh’s Little Instruction Book. It goes like this:

Always watch where you are going. Otherwise, you may step on a piece of the forest that was left out by mistake.

These last 21 months have tested our ability to keep the university moving forward while trying not to step on anything by mistake. We have succeeded for a lot of reasons – careful planning, the willingness of our students and staff to follow health protocols, the dedication of our faculty and instructors, and our high vaccination rate. And driving all of these things is what one of our students recently called our “vibe of caring.”

As this semester comes to an end, I am reflecting on how thankful I am to be part of a community that cares for and takes care of one another.

When we began planning for fall 2021, we were confident that we could bring back many of the events and traditions that make UW-Madison so special. We heard from students and families that they wanted as many in-person learning options as possible. But we also knew that the success of the semester would depend upon things we couldn’t entirely control, such as the students’ willingness to wear face coverings and how many of us would get vaccinated absent a mandate.

You probably already know that our vaccination rates are among the highest in the country. The Washington Post recently singled out Dane County as one of the most highly vaccinated counties in the U.S., and the university has contributed to that. At the same time, we’ve kept infection rates low.

But we’ve got much more to be proud of than just fighting COVID.

Fall 2021 is a semester in which we welcomed the largest and most diverse freshman class in our history, selected from a record number of applicants. Our measures of student quality continue to grow as well, with a five-year trend of more national merit finalists selecting UW-Madison. We remain a top destination for the best students in Wisconsin, and around the country and world.

Despite the stresses of the pandemic, our educational outcomes have also continued to improve. Our six-year graduation rate, over 89%, is the highest ever and places us in top 10 among U.S. publics. And we have once again set a new record for average time-to-degree – 3.89 years – 40 days less than four years.

The graduation gap between white and historically underrepresented students has been cut nearly in half over the last 10 years (now a 7-point difference).

We have expanded institutional scholarship aid – from $25 million in 2007 to almost $100 million this year. Related to this, more than half of our undergraduates (57%) graduated with no student loan debt in 2020. Nationally, fewer than one-third of students do.

And this month, we wrap up the most successful fundraising campaign in our history – the All Ways Forward campaign has raised more than $4 billion for education, research, and outreach on this campus. Much of that money is designated through gift agreements to specific scholarships, faculty positions, or programs, all of which will help provide a margin of excellence to sustain the quality of this great university.

I am proud of all of these accomplishments, but the story of this semester is best understood by looking at our students’ achievements, such as

• Lexi Luo, a biochemistry and statistics major, and Hawra Lajawad, a chemical engineering and biochemistry major, were just named finalists for the Rhodes Scholarship.

• Lydia Nyachieo, a senior majoring in international studies and philosophy, with certificates in African studies and French, was named a 2022 Marshall Scholar. Nyachieo intends to use the scholarship to earn a master’s degree in international development through the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester.

• A team of students from the College of Engineering and the Wisconsin Energy Institute was just named a first-place winner in a competition by the Musk Foundation to find new ways to address climate change. The team will receive $250,000 — the largest available award in the student competition — to fund further work on their plan to take carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, out of the air and seal it away where it can’t contribute to rising global temperatures.

None of these accomplishments would be possible without the extraordinary commitment of our faculty and staff. Thank you all for the outstanding work you did this semester.

May this winter break be a time of joy shared with family and friends, and also a time to rest and renew. As Pooh Bear once advised, “When all else fails, take a nap.”