On the end of the academic year and a way forward

At the last Faculty Senate meeting of the year, someone made a comment that suggested this past year has been all about “bad news.”

Following a number of no confidence votes by faculty at many of the UW System schools, along with recent debates about tenure and the proposed changes to the Wisconsin Idea, I know there has been a drumbeat of media coverage about the frustration and anger of many faculty and staff.

I recognize and understand that frustration.  We are facing some challenges and I’ll say a bit about how we plan to move forward into the coming budget debate this year.  But I also want to remind everyone of all the good things that are happening every day across campus.  This university remains strong and resilient.

For instance:

  • In the face of an unusually large number of outside offers received by UW-Madison faculty, we have been quite successful in keeping people here. We’ve lost some people who will be missed, but that happens every year and our losses this year are not large relative to past years. (We are still compiling numbers and should have more data this summer.) Deans and department chairs across campus have worked hard on this issue and we’ve spent a substantial amount of money to respond to outside offers and retain faculty.  Like everybody on campus, I worry about our future ability to continue to attract and retain top faculty and staff, but this year we have shown that most faculty want to stay at Wisconsin if they have the resources to do their work here.
  • Meanwhile, we’ve done some good hiring in the schools and colleges that have funds to hire. For instance, jointly with the Morgridge Institute for Research, we’ve attracted Phil Newmark, a Howard Hughes Investigator from the University of Illinois, and Jan Huisken, a top scientist from the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Our overall hiring this year is down because of the budget cuts (L&S froze all hiring for the year), but where we’ve had funds to hire, we’ve largely been successful. I expect that to continue.
  • We recently raised $250 million in endowments for faculty chairs through the Morgridge Match, which increases our funding to cover faculty salaries and their related research by $12 million. Every school and college has benefited from this.
  • We are close to finishing off a $50 million match from Ab and Nancy Nicholas for student financial aid funding. Amid much talk about state budget issues, access and affordability continue to be an important focus.
  • We graduated more students than ever this past year: 6,500 undergraduates, 2,100 master’s, 600 PhDs, and 650 professional doctorates.
  • Our student outcomes are at historic levels. Our retention rates and our graduation rates continued to rise this past year, while our time to graduation continued to fall. More than half of our undergraduates leave here with zero debt.
  • Our partnership with WARF continues to help us retain our research excellence. The Wisconsin 2020 awards announced by the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education brought in 250 proposals over two rounds of funding. These are aimed at funding innovative interdisciplinary research proposals at an early stage, to help them reach a point where they can compete for outside funds.

We continue to have a $15 billion impact on the state of Wisconsin and provide the state’s most educated workers. We are an economic engine for the state like no other.

None of this denies the fact that we (like most of our peers) are also facing a set of challenges that we have to take seriously. We are feeling the impact of budget cuts, as are the other System universities. As cuts hit areas like advising and student support, I am deeply concerned with losing the hard-fought gains we’ve made in areas like time to degree and graduation rates.

As I have been saying for the past six months, the upcoming biennial budget is crucial. More than ever, we need investment from the state to complement the funding provided by students and families, research grants and private donors.

Over the year ahead, I will talk about what UW-Madison contributes to the state of Wisconsin with everyone who will listen, emphasizing the value we provide to students, alumni and the residents of Wisconsin.

At commencement, we gave former Gov. Tommy Thompson an honorary degree. (I’d encourage you to take a few minutes to watch his remarks.)

During his tenure as governor, state government and the UW System worked as partners. Yes, there were arguments over the budget, but we benefitted from a productive working relationship and the result was an investment in the university and in its people, labs and facilities. We are a state agency and we need this type of relationship with our state political leadership.

Together, we need to change the current public debate to one about the future of our state and how this university and the UW System have played and can continue to play a vital role in its success.

As we move into this coming budget year, every school in the System needs to be working with its alumni, its employees, its students and parents, and its industry partners to communicate its value around the state. Just last week, I visited Eau Claire and I will travel elsewhere in the state over the summer. We will be looking for ways to pull in others from around the university in this effort.

For instance:

  • We have increased our communication around the work we are doing around the state, and are interested in more stories to tell about the impact we have. View recent examples here.
  • To those of you who are actively engaged in outreach elsewhere in the state, I urge you to work with the communications and outreach offices in your unit to raise the profile and awareness of your work.
  • University Relations is coordinating with communications offices across campus to help in this effort and we will provide additional guidance this summer on how you can be involved.

As we confront the challenges ahead of us, take a moment to appreciate this university and all the good things that happen here on campus every day. We remain a vibrant institution whose work makes a difference in the lives of our students and in the lives of citizens around the state and across the nation.