As thousands of new Badgers move into our community and prepare for the semester ahead, they’re learning everything from the location of dining facilities to the right way to “Jump Around.”

I hope they’re also learning something about our values, traditions and expectations at UW.  As we integrate our newest members into campus, this also provides a chance for us to reaffirm to our continuing students, faculty and staff what it means to be a Badger and live together as a campus community.

It’s my belief—one that I hope you share—that everyone here deserves to feel valued and free from harassment and intimidation. Only when our faculty, staff and students feel at home here can we effectively achieve our three-part mission of education, research and outreach. By definition, learning and research are challenging enterprises.  In order to take the intellectual risks required in a top-flight university, an individual has to believe they are part of a community that will support them in these efforts.

Those returning to campus will remember a series of ugly incidents this spring that caused many to question our community and its commitment to inclusion. At that time, I pledged a series of actions to improve our community in both small and significant ways.

Our efforts were informed by what we see playing out across our nation and world and the conviction that we can do better. In the 21st century, one of the fundamental skills that a college-educated person must have is the ability to live and work effectively in diverse communities.  This is central to our educational mission, preparing the next generation of leaders in fields such as business, public service and science.

I am confident we can be a diverse and inclusive community while also preserving our commitment to free speech and encouraging UW-Madison’s long tradition of fierce intellectual sifting and winnowing.  This is easier when we treat those who present diverse perspectives with respect.

As we begin the semester, I want to tell you about some of the work our faculty, staff and students have been engaged in over the summer.  Here are only a few of things that we’re doing to be a more welcoming and inclusive campus:

  • The Our Wisconsin community building program will bring together up to 1,000 new students from several residence halls this fall as a pilot program to engage in constructive dialogue about community, difference, and techniques to resolve conflict in a civil manner.
  • Working with students, we are creating a Black Cultural Center in the Red Gym, a location that allows for natural connections and synergy with the Multicultural Student Center.
  • Following requests from our campus governance bodies, I am asking deans, department chairs, research center directors, and other unit leaders to engage their faculty and staff in some form of inclusion and diversity dialogue and training during this academic year. The deans engaged in a day of diversity training earlier this year and over the summer I and the executive team spent a day together with a facilitator in dialogue around inclusion and community building.
  • I have also convened an advisory group of community leaders from across Madison to create better linkages to the community around us.
  • I’m particularly excited about the more than 100 ideas for improving campus climate that were submitted in response to our call for proposals last spring. A committee of faculty, staff and students went through these and recommended a group for immediate action and we are moving forward with these.

This is only a short list of examples. To learn more about how we are engaging with students, the curriculum, and with faculty and staff please go to campusclimate.wisc.edu where we’ll continue to provide updates on progress throughout the coming year.  A short description of all our current efforts can be found here.

We are a huge campus with 43,000 students and 22,000 faculty and staff. That’s bigger than the city of Janesville.  In a campus this size, no matter what programs we adopt, we are not likely to entirely stop hostile or intimidating behavior from some people toward others.  But we can make it clear that this behavior is inappropriate and unacceptable.  We can encourage community members to stand up for each other and to call out hostile behavior when they see others engaging in it.

This fall is likely to bring a continuation of the lively conversation on campus over these issues.  After this summer’s difficult series of violent events, most recently involving unrest in Milwaukee, many in our campus community will be angry at the lack of change that they perceive in the country and in this institution; others will disagree with the approaches and actions being taken. No matter what we do, for some it will not be enough; for others it will seem too much.

As difficult as some of the discussions and arguments might be, it is our responsibility to engage in these debates.  We are a university that has long been at the forefront of research and education on change in our society. I encourage all of our community to be engaged in these issues, helping us be the welcoming community to which we aspire.