What Does a Chancellor Do Anyway?

In conversations with alumni, students, community members and others, I am frequently asked what a typical day for a Chancellor looks like. I’m never quite sure how much they really want to know. For those both inside and outside the university, figuring out how decisions are made – and the role of the Chancellor – isn’t easy. I thought I would try to answer that question in this blog so you could see why I am honored to serve in this role for UW-Madison.

We are a $3+ billion public organization with 45,000 students and 24,000 faculty and staff. That means our campus community is about the size of the city of Janesville. To fulfill our mission of education, service and outreach, our academic units range from the medical school to the dance program; we operate utility plants; serve food and provide housing to thousands of people every day; operate farms; and provide health care to students. The list of the university’s activities is long and diverse. We also have large numbers of stakeholders (students, employees, alumni, elected officials, local citizens, research funders, employers who hire our students, etc.) with whom we need to regularly communicate. In short, we are a highly complex place and decision-making power is necessarily dispersed throughout the organization.

In a moment I will describe the activities that fill my days, but let me start with my most important role: In the long-run, the most important thing I do is to develop and communicate a vision and strategy to preserve and enhance UW-Madison’s extraordinary excellence in teaching and learning, scholarship, and service to the state, nation and the world. Everything I do is directed toward making sure we serve our students and our many other stakeholders as effectively as possible.

This strategic work is definitely the most fun part of the job, but also the one that is hardest to hold onto. Every day is filled with immediate demands on my time, and it’s easy to let daily activity drive out long-term thinking.

My most important responsibility is to have a long-term plan for UW-Madison and to articulate that both inside and outside the university. Among the things I regularly talk about:

o Increasing graduation rates and reducing time to graduation of students
o Increasing access for lower-income students
o Expanding outside-the-classroom learning opportunities for students
o Increasing diversity among faculty, staff and students and creating a campus climate that is welcoming and supportive of all
o Expanding our research portfolio, including better connections with industry and better support for start-up ventures
o Raising the visibility and support for UW-Madison, while promoting the extraordinary things that UW-Madison does for the community, the state and the world
o Creating a stable financial situation, making sure we have resources to invest in new ideas and changing needs.

I try to regularly step back and think “what are we doing well? What aren’t we doing that we should be doing? What can we do better?” And it’s my job to push leaders from across campus to keep asking those questions as well…and then to take action as we develop answers.

On a day-to-day basis, however, my time is spent on four key roles:
1. A large share of my time is spent representing the university to those who are not part of our immediate campus community. In my role as Chancellor, I am the public face of the University. Here are some of the things I spend time on:

• I stay in touch with key political leaders in the state. I talk regularly with the Governor, with top state legislative leaders, with members of our Federal delegation, and with city and county leaders. This is particularly true in years when the state budget will be passed and I am advocating for priorities important to UW-Madison.

• I represent UW-Madison within the UW System. I am in regular contact with members of the Board of Regents and attend all Board of Regent meetings. I meet regularly with the President of the UW System and attend meetings the System Administration holds with all UW System chancellors.

• I represent UW-Madison around the state. In more normal years, I typically travel to other cities in Wisconsin to meet with alumni, talk with local political leaders, meet with members of the business community, and meet with the media.

• I represent UW-Madison in national settings. I am regularly in conversations with other university leaders, attend professional association meetings, and speak at national meetings. As I’ve become more senior in this job, I’ve been asked to serve in national leadership roles. For instance, I currently serve on the Board of Governors of the NCAA, representing the Big 10, and I am the incoming president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

• As Chancellor, I’m also often the person who talks with the press about new programs or contentious issues that arise. When something important has to get said publicly, I’m often the one who says it.

• UW has a number of closely-affiliated organizations that are organizationally independent but whose work supports the university. I serve on the Boards of the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority, the University Research Park, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), and I attend board meetings of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association (WFAA).

This public outward-facing role requires a great deal of time, preparation and (typically) travel. It’s where I spend much of my time and it’s why my schedule is often full.

2. I spend a great deal of time connecting with alumni, including fundraising. Our alumni mentor students, serve on advisory boards, and return to campus to attend both cultural and athletic events. They are also an increasingly important source of financial support, through their generosity.

• I attend lots of alumni events. In a normal year, there are major UW alumni events in cities across the country (and sometimes around the world.)

• While deans and departments are responsible for connecting with their alumni, there are some alumni who are major donors and whose donations span multiple parts of the university. I will often travel to visit these alumni in their homes or offices and meet with them when they come to Madison. These are typically generative and generous people, highly successful in their careers, and it is a joy to work with them.

3. I am part of campus conversations and celebrations. As Chancellor, it’s important that I am present around campus.

• I attend major celebrations, from the opening of new buildings to athletic events. I speak at awards ceremonies, graduations, and Convocation.

• It’s my job to communicate both the vision of where the university is going as well as how we are dealing with challenges. I write a blog, I talk with governance groups, and whenever possible I say ‘yes’ to invitations to meet and talk with faculty or staff at departmental meetings or other events. Similarly, I regularly meet with various student organizations.

4. My main involvement in the daily operational aspects of the university is through facilitating and overseeing the work of my Executive Team as they run their units as efficiently and effectively as possible.

If you think about the range of departments, curriculum, research, and operational activities that are part of UW-Madison, it quickly becomes clear that no one person can possibly be the final decision-maker for all of these activities. As a result, I rely on my Executive Team to guide the daily work of the university through our highly decentralized structure, with many decisions made at a local level, inside departments or administrative units.

• As Chancellor, I am directly in charge of very few (if any) operational activities. All of those are overseen by Vice Chancellors:
o Karl Scholz, Provost, in charge of all academic/education matters;
o Steve Ackerman, VC for Research and Graduate Education, in charge of all research and graduate student issues;
o Laurent Heller, VC for Finance and Administration, in charge of operations including budget, buildings, and HR;
o Lori Reesor, VC for Student Affairs, in charge of student life issues;
o Charles Hoslet, VC for University Relations, in charge of all external communications and strategic partnerships;
o Ray Taffora, VC for Legal Affairs, in charge of compliance and legal issues.

The Executive Team is rounded out with three additional individuals:
o Cheryl Gittens, Interim Deputy Vice Chancellor and Chief Diversity Officer
o Matt Mayrl, my Chief of Staff and Chief Strategy Officer
o Mike Knetter (ex officio), the President of WFAA

I also work closely with Dr. Robert Golden, Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences and Dean of the School of Medicine and Public Health, and Barry Alvarez, our Director of Athletics who oversees our very successful athletic programs.

In almost all cases, these individuals handle any issue that arises, while keeping the trains running on time for ongoing activities. I meet at least once a week with the Executive Team, and I meet individually with each of these persons as well. My job is not to micromanage their decisions, but to mentor them, figure out where I can assist them in getting things done, and talk about substantive new issues that arise.

Only if significant new issues emerge, for which there is not a set policy or which raise major controversial or substantive questions, will I get involved in decision-making. But I never make decisions without consulting with the relevant Executive Team members. I want them to come to me with recommendations and options, and then we typically make decisions collaboratively.

And I should note that I meet very regularly with the University Committee and semi-regularly with other staff and student governance groups. They are part of the consultation and decision-making process.

All of this keeps my schedule full from early to late, often seven days a week. Of course, there are also a wide range of things a Chancellor does not control at UW-Madison.

For instance, I have no involvement in educational decisions over what is taught in the curriculum and how it is taught. Almost all education decisions are decided within departments, often with substantial responsibility invested in individual faculty. I have no involvement in tenure decisions, which are primarily decided by departments and Divisional Committees. And, importantly, I have no involvement in admissions decisions about who is admitted or what financial aid they will receive. While I am involved in setting strategic priorities for admissions and financial aid, I do not touch individual admissions. Students who are admitted here are admitted on the merits of their application, not through the influence of any senior administrator.

Of course, the work of a Chancellor at any public research university is highly constrained by policy and regulations. Faculty Policies and Procedures lays out faculty responsibilities; Board of Regent policies set requirements that must be followed, as does state statute. And the federal government has its own set of rules. For instance, the university has little control over our health care benefits or retirement program, which are determined by the state.

Occasionally, of course, UW hits a crisis and then things move fast. That happened last spring when a global pandemic suddenly confronted us with a set of questions, many of which no one in this university had previously thought about before. We had to make hard decisions…and make them very quickly. Between the middle of March and the middle of June, we had to figure out how to operate the university in a whole new way….and then had to get that done by the first of September.

My job is fascinating, fun, challenging, sometimes frustrating and always intellectually engaging. I’d like to believe my role is important, but I know that when things get done at the University I’m not the one who should receive the credit. That’s due to the staff and faculty and student employees who do the work on campus.

I am honored to be the Chancellor of UW-Madison and proud of everything that you – the members of this campus community — accomplish every day.