Reflections on Five Years

I’ll admit to being a little surprised to realize that as of today, July 20, I will have been here at UW–Madison for five years. In addition to having been gifted a beautiful German chocolate cake from Bucky and my friends at University Housing, I’m also finally vested in the Wisconsin state pension plan!

I want to reflect a bit on what I think we’ve accomplished over the past five years, as well as some of the challenges we’ll be facing in the next five. And I use the term “we” very deliberately.  The vice chancellors and their staff are the best senior leadership team I’ve ever worked with; the deans and school and college leadership are strong; and I appreciate the commitment of faculty, staff and students to deal with the issues facing this university. Everything here that gets done is a team effort.

Part of what we’ve all done is to deal — and deal successfully — with problems that have come at us. The university has faced several big challenges in the past five years that seriously threatened its quality and reputation.

The first challenge was a set of budget cuts that reduced our state funding by almost $90 million. About $50 million of those cuts was absorbed by units around the university. It was not an easy task but I think these were implemented in a way that minimized their effects as much as possible. The remaining state cuts were offset by expansion in other revenue sources.

As many of you know, we’ve been working hard to be entrepreneurial, growing revenues to create financial stability regardless of state budget decisions. This includes right-sizing out-of-state tuition, expanding summer and professional master’s programs, success in our fundraising campaign among alumni, and (in the coming years) some modest increases in class size. These efforts have been successful; as noted below, we’ve made real investments in the past two years as a result of these new revenues.

Financially, we are in far better shape than we were five years ago and — even more important — there is a clear strategy to maintain the growth in revenues for future investments.

The second big challenge was the tenure debate that occurred when the state took tenure language out of state law and asked the Board of Regents to adopt a tenure policy instead.  This resulted in high levels of concern and uncertainty among our faculty — remember that lively meeting in June 2015 at Health Sciences, where almost 800 faculty showed up to discuss what was happening? We were at risk of losing a lot of our best teachers and researchers.

In the end, the Regents adopted a set of tenure provisions very similar to our peers. But the negative national publicity, much of it simply incorrect, continues to affect us. For two years afterwards, we had elevated levels of outside raiding on our faculty. I’m pleased that this year our outside offers are closer to their previous levels, and we seem to have put this crisis behind us.

A third challenge in the past five years was not unique to UW, namely the growing on-campus debate about diversity and inclusion. In 2016, we had a series of unconscionable incidents on campus, in which certain groups were targeted. This mandated that we step up our efforts on education and training around diversity across campus.

For example, we’ve implemented extensive conversations among incoming freshmen, expanded our TA training, revised our Ethnic Studies curriculum, and piloted faculty training sessions on dealing with a diverse classroom. Schools and colleges are developing diversity strategies, and individual units across campus have engaged in conversations about inclusion.

As I’ve said many times, embracing diversity isn’t a feel-good activity; it’s an educational necessity for any institution that claims to prepare students for 21st century jobs. We may have made some progress on this front, but this is an area that will need ongoing attention, resources and commitment.

Of course, not everything we’ve done in the past five years was in response to challenges. I feel good about the fact that we have moved the university forward on a number of fronts.  We’ve been proactive about making progress in some important areas:

  • We’ve worked hard to improve undergraduate education at UW. For instance, we’ve continued to improve our academic and career advising and have taken steps to make sure students can succeed and graduate in four years. In the five years since I arrived, our six-year graduation rates have gone from 83.7 percent to 87.3 percent; we continue to retain over 95 percent of our freshmen into their sophomore year; time to graduation has fallen from 4.15 years to 4.03 years; and over the past three years, the percentage of undergraduates who leave with zero student loan debt has gone from 48.5 percent to 53.1 percent. The gap between our targeted minority students and other students on these metrics has shrunk noticeably. Meanwhile, our new freshman applications have risen 40 percent over the past five years, so that the quality of our students continues to rise.
  • At the same time, we’ve improved affordability and access, particularly for students from low- and moderate-income families in Wisconsin. We’ve used some of our investment revenues to fund the Badger Promise (providing tuition funding for first-generation transfer students) and Bucky’s Tuition Promise (providing four years of tuition funding for Wisconsin students from families with incomes below $56,000, the median household income in the state.) Our campaign fundraising efforts among alumni have funded over 1,000 new scholarships. My goal is that any student who is admitted to UW should be able to afford to come. We aren’t there yet, but we’re much closer to that goal than we were five years ago.
  • We’ve reinvigorated support for research at UW. When I arrived, research dollars were falling and it was clear we needed to do more to encourage and support faculty efforts to raise federal and other grant dollars. UW2020 has been funding interdisciplinary groups of faculty to jump-start work in key scientific areas. We moved research grant administration and support into the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education’s office, where it is closer and more responsive to faculty. We used some of our investment dollars to re-establish the Cluster Hire program, building cross-disciplinary strength in important research areas. After three years of decline, research dollars grew in each of the last two years. My goal is to get us back into the top five universities in research funding.
  • Attracting top faculty is highly correlated with attracting top graduate students. Over the past several decades, grad student stipends did not increase as rapidly as they should. Even in the midst of budget cuts, it was clear we needed to raise support for grad students and we have increased grad student fellowship support with additional WARF dollars. Even more importantly, we have raised grad student stipends nearly 25 percent over the past five years. By next year, our grad student stipends will be close to the Big Ten average, not at the bottom.

I could keep going, but the main point is this: UW–Madison is moving forward.  Our always-strong educational programs are even stronger. We are re-investing in our faculty and our students. We have increased access and affordability. I am proud of what we have accomplished over the past five years — despite all the headwinds — and hope that others across the university feel the same.

All of that said, there remain some key issues to work on in the years ahead.  Here are a few:

  • We must continue to raise faculty and staff salaries, where they lag the market. We will continue to fund critical compensation dollars and argue for regular salary increases from the state.
  • This coming year is another budget year. The politics around higher education is difficult across the country. We need to work in partnership with state leadership as fully as possible to assure state support for higher education in the state.
  • I am particularly worried about the sharp decline in state support for capital projects in the last two budgets. We are the only flagship university and system without borrowing authority and without our own oversight over university construction projects, instead having to rely on state-allocated bonding and state project management for building renovation and construction. This has led to inadequate maintenance, and too many facilities that need renovation or reconstruction across campus. Achieving borrowing authority for the UW System is one of my highest priorities, along with the ability to oversee and manage our own projects. I know I share this goal with System President Ray Cross.
  • Higher education is changing in interesting ways, as new technologies make it possible to deliver information in new ways. While residential education will continue to be our comparative advantage, we should be doing more to engage in a wider variety of educational options including more online classes, more short-term credentials, and more hybrid options allowing students to come to campus only occasionally.

While being chancellor at UW–Madison has been a tough job at times, it has some pretty cool advantages. Not many jobs come with a marching band, my own ice cream flavor, a lakefront terrace and jogging path, and great sports teams. (When asked about my best moment in the job, it’s hard to top the sheer joy of watching UW beat undefeated Kentucky in the Final Four several years ago). And let’s not forget: UW employs some of the top scholars and supports fascinating research projects. It’s always fun to talk with faculty, staff and students about what they are doing.

Thanks to all of you across campus who’ve put your time and passion into your students, your research, your service to UW, and your efforts to make this place one of the top public universities in the world. We will continue to face hard issues on this campus, but I am confident we have the talent and commitment to deal with challenges as they arise. I continue to feel honored to serve as chancellor here at UW–Madison … and I’m looking forward to the next five years.