‘State of the University’ remarks to the Faculty Senate

As prepared for delivery, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020.

Welcome. Thank you for your leadership and partnership in this extraordinarily difficult semester. I know that you’re balancing these responsibilities with your teaching and research – not to mention added duties at home – while also having to worry about health and safety for yourselves and your families. Thank you.

I. News from Campus

Before I talk about COVID, the budget, what we’re doing about racial inequities, I want to start by sharing some of the good things happening on campus:

• We have an excellent new freshman class. We met our goal of 7,300 freshmen and 1,000 transfer students.

• A little over half of the class is from Wisconsin (71/72 counties – missing Pepin).

• International students from 42 countries outside the U.S. They make up 7.4% of the new class, compared to 8.4% of last year’s freshman class.

• And we have 1,000 new freshmen from underrepresented target groups – this is the largest number in a freshman class ever – 13.5% of the class.

• About 17% of freshmen are first- generation and 27% of transfers are first-generation.

• In August, we officially welcomed 171 new faculty hired over the past year – a record-breaking number that includes 85 faculty of color.

• Our research and clinical work on COVID continues to expand. We now have 390 COVID-related grants or grant proposals, and we’re among national leaders on a number of projects funded.

• Two new facilities opening – Meat Science and The Nick

• Meat Science grand opening (virtual) on Nov. 6 – already in use

• The Nick is open by reservation

• We’re engaged in the most expansive effort in our history to help students register and vote.

• And finally – former Badger (and star of the women’s World Cup) Rose Lavelle will be our winter commencement speaker.

I could go on – there are many successes and it’s important to mark them.


Opening for fall:
As you know, we worked hard over the summer to prepare for fall reopening. We developed testing capacity, surveillance and data collection systems to inform us of virus spread … worked on contingency planning … and re-designed thousands of courses.

And just one week into the semester, we had a spike in cases. We responded aggressively with a number of interventions including asking students to restrict their movements, pausing face-to-face instruction for two weeks, and quarantining two residence halls.

None of these decisions was taken lightly – and we had plenty of critics. But this worked:

Our two-week pause allowed us to bring the case count down to about 20 per day. Our campus positivity rate has been below 1% on many recent days, below Dane County’s rate and far below the state’s rate.

Phased return:
We have reopened gradually, with some important changes.
• Further expanded testing capacity
• Testing dorms once a week, rather than every other week
• Ability to do emergency testing in any dorm
• Quicker testing results turnaround because we’ve brought the lab work in-house
• De-densifying residence halls

We also resumed in-person classes. Some classes must meet in-person in order for students to complete the work. For others, we asked the faculty and department chairs to decide what portions could be taught online, and what should be taught face-to-face.

We’ve also prioritized re-opening as many study spaces and computer labs as we safely can – we’ve heard from many students who want and need these spaces in libraries, unions, and other university buildings.

The provost and I believe strongly in the value of in-person learning, especially for our freshmen. I know there are faculty, staff and students who do not want to engage in face-to-face learning. And there are faculty, staff and students – and parents – who really want those in-person classes. In short, there are firm opinions on all sides. We are doing our best to stay flexible and allow people to learn and teach in the ways best suited to them, while recognizing that no solution will make everyone happy.

The good news in all of this is that our campus protocols are working. There has been no evidence of transmission in instructional or lab spaces.


We are also committed to continuing our research without interruption.

The Office of the VCRGE has announced several new funds, including one to help research projects that lost money resume operations; the Dissertation Completion Emergency Fellowships Program for students whose degree progress has been threatened by the pandemic; and one for research scholarships for students who lost access to jobs over the summer because of COVID.

We know a lot more about COVID now than we did last March when we shut down most of our labs – we know how to keep people safe, and we have no plans to close our research spaces even if we have to transition back to fully remote learning.


A messaging campaign is an important part of what we’re doing. Our central message to students: “Campus life depends on you!” to emphasize the importance of individual behavior to stop the spread of the disease.

From what I know, the great majority of our students are doing exactly what we want them to do, following all health protocols. A small number have not complied. For these students, we’ve been very clear that there will be consequences for their actions.

The university is currently investigating (or has investigated) 650 students and 20 student organizations for public health violations, and 21 students were referred for emergency suspension.

We’ve tried to be transparent about our testing data, with a daily dashboard showing our testing and its outcomes. This dashboard has been well-received and the traffic has been substantial – at the start of the two-week quarantine we got up to 50,000 hits per day … now down to 15,000-20,000.

Going forward:

This is a time of great uncertainty, and we will continue to be guided by the best information we have as we move through the fall.

You all know classes go entirely online after Thanksgiving. We know many students will go home and we are asking students who go home to stay home. If students in the residence halls return, they will need to be tested upon return. Other students will be encouraged to do this as well.


I know many of you have questions and concerns about the resumption of the Big Ten football season. Chancellors and Presidents in the Big Ten voted to postpone the season in mid-August because we had many questions about how best to protect our student athletes. Since then:

• A medical advisory committee of doctors from multiple Big Ten schools has put together a set of protocols that respond to our questions.

• The Big Ten is contracting with an outside testing firm to do daily tests for all Big Ten athletes. This allows us to practice and compete with a clean field every day.

I voted to allow football to play a delayed season because these new measures answered my questions and concerns.

There will be no tickets sold or fans in the stadium. The only ones will be players, staff and officials on the field. Families of the student athletes and the coaches, and a small number of personnel and sponsors will be allowed in, as will the press.

We are working with athletics to message to students that they should stay safe and not violate public health guidelines while watching the game. We will prohibit tailgating and all other game day activities on UW property. The alumni association is making it clear that there will be nothing happening in Madison and no tailgating in parking lots or anywhere else. We’re working with the city and county to make sure bars follow public health guidelines.

The community:

We are working hard to build a more constructive dialogue with the County Executive.

This is a time when we need to be working together with the county and the city and I don’t agree with and really don’t understand the effort to tell our students to go home. This is particularly true given our infection rates are below those of the rest of the county.

You may have seen the open letter I sent to County Executive Parisi encouraging him to work with us, and explaining that – regardless of whether the campus is open or closed – we do not have the power to send home all of our students, as the majority live off-campus. They are Madison residents, many have jobs here, and they help support the local economy.

III. Budget

The budget crisis is real – many revenue sources are down while
COVID-related costs are climbing

• Auxilaries have lost most than anyone: Athletics, conferences, unions, parking, housing, etc.

• There are big dollar losses in state dollars.
• Two state lapses: Between last fiscal year and this current fiscal year, UW-Madison will lose between $40-$50 million in dollars taken away from the planned budget by the Governor’s order.

Response to budget issues:
In a nutshell, we face two problems:
• Short-term cashflow problem
• Long-term base budget cuts, due to state budget cuts

To handle the first problem, we took immediate action:
• Hiring and salary freeze
• Pulled back distributions for next year
• Implemented progressive furloughs; work-sharing
• Using reserves to cover some of the losses.

But we will need to make further budget adjustments in this year. We’re just now trying to predict our entire year’s revenue and expenditures. I don’t yet know where that will end up.

One discussion is about whether to extend our progressive furlough program. These provide one-time savings to offset one-time cash flow problems. The advantage is that they spread the pain across all of our employees – with smaller reductions for our lowest paid employees and larger reductions for those with higher incomes. Given that some of our problems will disappear when a vaccine becomes available and life returns to normal, this lets us achieve some short term savings.

Unfortunately, the impacts of the pandemic are spread quite unevenly, with some of our auxiliary units being particularly hard hit. Given the serious impacts some of these units face, there may be layoffs or additional workshare programs in a few units.

Of course, we’re also looking into whether we have to think about base budget cuts, what we can absorb centrally and what we need to ask of our different units. By a month from now, we’ll know a lot more and I will keep you up to date as our analysis solidifies in the days ahead.

IV. Racial Equity
We are also seeing a social revolution in this country created by millions of people who have taken to the streets in cities including Madison to demand justice and an end to violence against people of color.

As one of our faculty members put it:

“George Floyd’s death was a reminder of how far we haven’t come.”

As I said in my blog last week, we’re responding as a campus community in many different ways, building upon years of effort by many people on this campus.

Recruitment and retention:

The record number of students from underrepresented groups in our freshman class is a great example. This is the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people to expand our scholarship dollars and improve recruitment.

• Over the last 10 years, our need-based grants to students have grown from $36 million to more than $100 million. We have used this money to implement programs like Bucky’s Tuition Promise and Badger Promise, which provides four years of tuition-free school to low-income Wisconsin residents.

• In the three years since we launched these programs, they have made it possible for nearly 2,800 Wisconsin resident students to pursue their degree here without tuition expenses.

• But we need to continue to deepen our scholarship pool to attract more low-income students and students of color. That’s why we’ve launched a $10 million fundraising campaign with the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association to create more scholarships – specifically to help recruit diverse students.

• For the first time ever, we have admissions/recruitment staff “on the ground” in cities outside of Madison, including Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis.

• And to recruit diverse faculty, I have committed to continuing our Targets of Opportunity Program (TOP) started in 2018. TOP provides dollars from the central campus to help departments go after people from groups that are not well represented in their fields.

• In the past two years, we have hired 32 new faculty though TOP – ¾ of them are people of color from underrepresented groups. Others add diversity in other ways – most of them are women in science fields that have few women.

Building community:

Recruiting is just the start – we have to create a community where diverse people feel at home.

Part of that is bringing students together through programs like Our Wisconsin to get to know one another and recognize the (often unconscious) biases they may have.

But we also need to carve out spaces that allow our underrepresented students to be separate from the larger student body. As the new director of our Multicultural Student Center Claudia Guzman put it:

“I want the center to be a space where you can look around and see people who may have a similar lived experience as your own, and you don’t have to explain that.”

In addition to the MSC, we now have four cultural centers – for Black, LatinX, Native American, and students of South Asian heritage.


Exploring what we need to do is going to involve some difficult and uncomfortable conversations – including talking about campus policing.

As you might have seen, the calls to defund the police have reached our campus – ASM passed a vote of “no confidence” in the UWPD last week. I don’t find this a particularly constructive action. We need a security force on a campus of more than 65,000 people, and UWPD has been on the forefront of a number of progressive policing changes.

But all organizations can be better and I was pleased to see the Racial Equity Initiative UWPD launched last spring. It includes – among other things:

• A full review of departmental policies and practices by a workgroup that includes community members.

• And an accountability tool for long-term use that will be transparent and easily accessible to the public.


We also have some important new initiatives in our research enterprise:

• The VCRGE is launching a funding competition to support faculty research that improves our understanding of racial inequities in the U.S.

• And the provost’s office has created an Exceptional Service Support Program to acknowledge the extra work by faculty members – often from underrepresented groups – who spend time mentoring students beyond what is usually expected. As many as 10 faculty members will recieve a course release each year under this program.

There are many ways to build trust and create a stronger community here – but there’s only so much we can do centrally. Each department and unit needs to talk about what they need to work on and how to do that. All of us need to be involved in this important work.

V. Focusing on our core mission

Through this summer and fall – through COVID, budget problems and racial justice protests – we have stayed focused on our mission. And, in particular, our commitment to undergraduate education.

The results of the latest National Survey of Student Engagement conducted between February and April, at the beginning of the pandemic,
show the impact of that commitment:

• 91 percent of our seniors rated the academic quality of UW–Madison as good or excellent, significantly higher than our peer average of 82 percent.

• And our students reported higher-quality interactions with faculty, staff, and other students than their peers at other schools.

In a very difficult year, this is a wonderful reminder that UW really does stand apart – thanks to our excellent faculty and staff.

VI. Conclusion: Using what we have learned

We’re in a world that none of us ever thought about or wanted to be in. But this crisis has given us opportunities to try out new ways of doing things and there are some silver linings.

I hope you will all be thinking about what we can learn from this pandemic. For instance, I hope that our teaching might be different and better, using a broader range of technological tools. Similarly, I hope our operations may be better, with more telework where that is effective, and with more use of virtual meetings rather than travel. I challenge all of you to think about what we will do differently and better as a result of this period of time.

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.