‘State of the University’ remarks to the Faculty Senate

As prepared for delivery, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021.

Welcome. Thank you for your leadership and partnership as we transition into a new semester, and for all that you’ve done over the past 18 months.

I’d like to say a special welcome and thank you to new University Committee chair Eric Sandgren, and new UC members Susan Thibeault and Fernando Tejedo-Hererro.

I am told we have a number of new senators – how many of you are new? Thank you for serving.

We are welcoming three people into new leadership roles this semester: Nancy Lynch, Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs, Rob Cramer, interim Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration, and LaVar Charleston, Chief Diversity Officer & Deputy VC for Diversity and Inclusion.

I also want to congratulate a former member of the Faculty Senate, Chris Walker, who was appointed director of our Division of the Arts effective July 1.

Before I talk about COVID, the budget, and some of the things we’re working on, I want to share some of the good things happening on campus.

Washington Monthly recently named us the top public university in the country, and 4th overall behind Stanford, MIT, and Duke and ahead of Harvard.

This ranking is particularly important, because it measures each university’s impact on the country through education, research, and public service – which is at the heart of our mission.

We’ve welcomed an excellent new freshman class – the largest in our history – 8,400 students chosen from a record 54,000 applicants. The class includes: one of the highest numbers of WI students in the past 20 years; students from every state except North Dakota, and; international students from 45 countries outside the U.S.

The share of students of color in our freshman class is just over 25%, an all-time high, and the share of underepresented students of color in our freshman class is also at an all-time high of 14.8%. Both of these are up substantially from just a few years ago.

Thanks to improved scholarships and recruitment, this is the 5th year in a row we’re projecting an increase in the number of National Merit Finalists from Wisconsin.

We didn’t set out to enroll a class of this size, but to be a ‘hot’ school nationally is not a bad problem to have. We’re working to expand class sections, advising, and other student services – we’ve just hired nine new mental health providers.

In addition to new students, we also have new faculty. Despite all the challenges of the pandemic year, over the past year, we’ve hired 80 new faculty.

Finally – on an issue I know many of you care deeply about — environmental sustainability. Last April, we were one of five universities nationwide (and first in the Big Ten) to win a prestigious national designation as a ‘Green Ribbon School’ reflecting our commitment to creating a campus that’s more sustainable and resilient – and to being a leader in research and education related to the environment.

Turning to COVID – we are monitoring numbers from the campus and community very closely, and we’re seeing what we expected to see and what we planned for.

Our campus testing program is identifying cases and our contact tracers are making sure that any close contacts are notified so they can quarantine. Students living in the residence halls who test positive are moved into spaces we’ve set aside for isolation (some choose to go home to isolate).

We’ve mandated indoor masking for everybody, consistent with current Dane County requirements. All students and employees who have not shared proof of vaccination with UHS are required to test weekly. We’ve been clear that there are serious consequences for failing to follow these rules.

The good news is, we have a very high vaccination rate. 93% of our students, nearly 95% of all employees and more than 99% of our faculty are fully vaccinated, and the numbers are continuing to grow – especially among students.

Based on what we know now, we believe that our high vaccination rate and public health measures will keep infections on campus low. Our seven-day positivity rate is very low – right around 1%.

But we will continue to see COVID cases on campus. This is now an endemic disease and we have to learn to live with it. The best defense is vaccination. We continue to consult weekly with the same team of public health experts from here on campus who worked with us last year throughout the pandemic.

I want to thank you for all that you are doing both in, and out, of the classroom. I don’t have to tell you our students are thrilled to be back in the classroom and not on Zoom sessions. I know many of you share that feeling. Being together, in person, leads to the best educational outcomes.

Turning to educational excellence, I am happy to tell you that we got new numbers just this week and they are the best we’ve ever seen.

Our six-year graduation rate highest ever (89%), putting us among the Top 10 among U.S. publics. Our four-year graduation rate is also our highest ever (just under 73%).

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

And we have once again set a new record for average time-to-degree – 3.89 years – 40 days less than 4 years.

We have expanded institutional scholarship aid – from $25 million in 2012 to almost $100 million this year. For the first time in our history, we guarantee four years of zero tuition and fees for low-income students from Wisconsin. That’s the program called Bucky’s Tuition Promise.

Better scholarships and less time in school means less debt: More than half of our undergraduates (57%) graduated with no student loan debt in 2020. Nationally, fewer than one-third of students do.

These improvements didn’t happen by chance. They’re the result of a strategic effort we began in 2014, to identify and eliminate the roadblocks that keep students from graduating on time.

We’re also continuing to push on improving educational outcomes through high-quality advising and innovations like the new Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring that some of you are familiar with.

Among other things, the Center will be a clearinghouse for lessons learned in the pandemic about how to use technology to improve student engagement.

And now, I want to bring you up-to-date on some of the things we’re working on to make this campus a more diverse and inclusive place where all people feel like they belong.

First, I am happy to tell you that we had a substantial increase in applications from underrepresented students of color this year, and that’s translated into a substantial increase in enrollment.

As I mentioned earlier, we have been successful at increasing the share of our freshman class comprised of students of color. We have more work to do. Attracting top students from historically underrepresented groups is harder than ever – the national reckoning with racial injustice has fueled a new level of competition for these students among predominantly white schools like UW.

So we have to offer not only an outstanding educational experience, but also attractive scholarships.

One of the ways we’re doing that is with our new Raimey-Noland Campaign, named for the first two Black students to graduate from this university — Mabel Watson Raimey and William Smith Noland. Our original fundraising goal was $10 million. As of two weeks ago, we had raised $40 million.

About half of the fund is for undergrad scholarships. The rest is for graduate/professional scholarships, faculty support, academic programs, research, and outreach.

Let me highlight two faculty support efforts related to diversity.

This past academic year, the Provost’s office created the Exceptional Service Support Program to acknowledge the extra work by faculty members – often from groups that are underrepresented on this campus – who spend time mentoring students beyond what is usually expected.

In the first round, we provided a course release to six outstanding faculty members. We can fund as many as 10, but we need help getting the word out. Watch your inbox for an announcement this week, and please share it with people who you think might qualify.

And we’re continuing to invest in the TOP program, which began in 2018 to provide funds from the central campus to make it possible for departments to go after the people they’d like to recruit from groups that are not well-represented within their discipline.

In the past three years, we’ve hired 39 new faculty though TOP across a range of departments. The program’s goal is diversity in all forms – for example, we have hired women into departments that are heavily male. And about three-quarters of these new faculty are people of color from underrepresented groups.

As you know, there is only so much that we can do centrally to make this campus more diverse and inclusive. Each department and unit needs to identify what they need to work on and how to do that. We’ve seen some important initiatives at the school/college/department level over the past couple of years – and I want to thank those of you who have been deeply involved in this work.

This is not to say we always get it right – scheduling the start of classes on the second day of Rosh Hashanah was a misstep. Rabbi Steinberger invited me to speak during Rosh Hashanah services at Hillel, and I told the congregants what I have told you: We have a committee that is reviewing calendars to be sure this doesn’t happen again. Because UW-Madison has to be a place where Jewish students (and students from every faith community) feel safe, welcomed, and included.

Turning to research … I am happy to tell you that our research continues to expand. In Fiscal Year 2021, which closed at the end of June, we had an increase of more than 100 grant proposals over the previous year, and we grew our grant awards by $264 million, an increase of over 15%.

This is a result of faculty developing an unusually large number of new grant proposals when the pandemic forced us to shut down a lot of our research.

We want to continue to improve the success of our proposals. In part, this requires being strategic about targeting research areas that we know federal agencies are funding.

We are expecting a lot of new federal research dollars to become available in this next year. I’ve asked Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education Steve Ackerman to identify areas with substantial increases in federal funding, and to talk with faculty, departments and centers that have an opportunity to solicit some of these funds. We need to prepare today to put in proposals for this funding in the year ahead.

If we’re expanding our grants, we also need to improve how we support them. We’re doing that in a couple of ways.

First, by modernizing our operations. We are implementing new business systems across the university over the next several years. We expect these to reduce the amount of time faculty have to spend on administrative tasks – this is part of our Administrative Transformation Program which you will be hearing more about from Rob Cramer.

And second, by modernizing our facilities. We have a number of new research and teaching spaces in the works, as you know, including a renovated and expanded Chemistry Building – we’ve had some setbacks but remain hopeful that the project will be completed in 2022.

Work is also underway on an expansion of the Veterinary School – we broke ground in June. A new Meat Sciences building opened last November. There’s also the Center for Dairy Research, with a move-in date at the end of this month, and completion by next spring, and the Babcock Dairy Plant set to be completed by next fall.

And three weeks ago we announced a new $225 million Computer, Data, and Information Sciences building. There are no state dollars in this one, so we are in the midst of fundraising and hope to break ground early in 2023.

None of this is cheap or easy – which brings me to the budget.

The pandemic created a financial disaster. Last winter and spring we expected the budget hole to be $319 million – that includes lost revenues plus all the additional expenses we incurred due to COVID.

Fortunately, at the close of fiscal year on June 30, we were in a better position than expected: We had ‘only’ lost $226 million.

What changed? – Three things: the state returned $31 million that they had originally planned to reclaim; research expenditures didn’t fall despite the lack of travel and the furlough savings; and while housing and the unions lost more than we were projecting, athletics lost less.

As we go into this coming year, I expect we will be in reasonably good shape. I say this for three reasons.

First, we were on very strong financial footing going into the pandemic.

Second, we received substantial federal funding that helped offset some of these losses. Federal dollars covered over 20% of our losses.

Third, we have entirely absorbed the losses of the past year and a half of the pandemic…through furloughs and budget cuts, through reduced spending over the year, through additional federal dollars, and by using our reserves. That means we’re going into the current year with no overhanging budget problems from the pandemic.

We are also helped this year by a bigger-than-expected incoming class.

We got a new state budget in July. As always, there are some good aspects of the budget and some disappointments.

The not-so-great news: We received no increase in general state money to support new programs, faculty hiring, or inflationary cost increases. And we did not get funding for a new Engineering building that many of us thought would be funded. Though we did get funding for a major utilities project that will allow us to start planning for the new building.

The good news: 2% raises were approved for all faculty and staff in January 2022 and January 2023, and we did receive money for a new academic building for the College of Letters & Science .

Additional good news, not from the state, but from the hard work of lots of folks across campus.

This fall, we’ll celebrate the end of the most successful fundraising campaign in our history – We had a goal of $3.2 billion. We will be over $4 billion by the end of this year.

Let me be clear: This doesn’t mean we have $4 billion to spend. Much of it is allocated into endowment – that means it pays out at 4.5% far into perpetuity. This will generate millions of dollars far into the future for, among other things, faculty support and research.

A substantial share is still pledged, often as part of a will, and hasn’t yet been collected. And some is directly and immediately expendable.

These dollars go toward merit compensation, increased graduate student support, scholarship programs, and faculty support. For example: We’ve created 255 new faculty chairs and professorship funds all over campus.

We will be celebrating the end of the campaign on Homecoming weekend, the last weekend in October.

I want to close with a few words about compensation. As you know, in recent years, we’ve put significant money into a compensation program designed to provide merit and market adjustments.

Two years ago, we made a large commitment to raise faculty salaries. The result: This past year, we were ranked number five in faculty salaries within the Big 10. That’s after two decades of being at the bottom of the list. I’m very proud of this progress – it’s long overdue – and I hope the faculty are aware of this.

We need to keep from sliding backwards. This year, we are putting $2 million in a faculty compensation fund for merit and matching salary increases. We will also be funding equity increases for staff. And we’re putting out a $5 million bonus fund, aimed primarily at rewarding employees who worked particularly hard this past year dealing with the pandemic.

In conclusion, this past year was difficult but we are in a much better place than we were last fall.

I hope you will all be thinking about how we can apply what we’ve learned in this pandemic to improve some aspect of our work. This is a great university, and our reputation is stronger than ever – but we can be even better.

Let me close as I began – with “thank you” – I know that none of this is easy and I appreciate all that you do for this university.

I’ll be happy to take a few questions after UC chair Eric Sandgren speaks.