Why you want to be educated at UW-Madison

My daughter is entering her senior year of high school and like many parents of a soon-to-be-college-age teenager, I spent a chunk of this summer going on college campus tours. As the incoming chancellor at Wisconsin, this was a great opportunity to find out how other schools are marketing themselves.

I soon learned that there seems to be a script that almost all schools follow. Every school we visited had the most engaged faculty, the best teaching, the highest quality dorm food, and the most fun set of fellow classmates. After visiting eight larger private universities, our last two stops were Michigan and Wisconsin.

OK, Wisconsin was my idea, not my daughter’s. Going to school where her mom is chancellor is not her idea of a good college choice. But I wanted to take the tour incognito and needed a 17-year-old for cover. I put on a UW cap and sunglasses and stood behind her, trying to blend in as a typical parent.

I was particularly interested in what Michigan and Wisconsin said that was different from the spiel I’d heard from Northwestern, Washington University, or Boston University. What would these big public universities say to potential students about why they were a better place than their private competition? To be honest, I was disappointed at Michigan. They followed the same script as everybody else. From what they said, I couldn’t have told you that they were a big public university.

Here at UW–Madison, I thought they did a better job saying something about what it means to be one of the top public universities in the country.

When I went to college, it was assumed that I was going to the big state university near my house (the University of Minnesota), so I didn’t do any college tours and didn’t make any choices. But this isn’t true for many students these days. So why should you come here, to UW–Madison, compared to a smaller public or private university? Here’s what I want our tour guides to tell students and parents:

1. The breadth of UW–Madison is stunning. This really matters. A university is a place where students should have the world of learning before them. The range of classes here is amazing. This is a place where you can get the broadest possible education.

2. The size of UW–Madison also means that it’s incredibly diverse. You’ll meet students from every part of Wisconsin, the U.S. and the world. Our entering class this fall has students from 34 different countries. Much of your education will come not from your classes but from your fellow students. So a class with more and different students means a better education.

3. UW–Madison is not just a big teaching enterprise. It’s also one of the top research universities in the country, which most smaller schools can’t claim.  Why should that matter to a freshman? In my experience (and contrary to the popular stereotype) world-class researchers are often the best teachers.  They have a passion for their subject that is unmatched and often find innovative ways to help students learn about some of the most interesting and newest ideas in their field.

And research and instruction interact in important ways on campus. Getting involved as a research assistant on a project is one of the best ways I know of to learn how information is put together and analyzed. I promise that’s a lesson you can use no matter what career you pursue.

4. The big size of this place doesn’t mean that you’ll get lost. Some students and parents select small schools because of the perception that there will be more personal attention. If I may slip into economist-speak for a second, I have found that despite our macro size, UW–Madison offers very micro-level student services. Every day I continue to be impressed by the hard work, dedication and time UW–Madison faculty and staff members commit to teaching and nurturing students. Yes, I know students occasionally slip through the cracks and don’t get the attention they need. But we’ve worked hard on improving our advising and our access to core entry classes, so students can get the courses and the assistance they need.

5. Madison really is a great place to live. It has good biking, a beautiful lakefront, great sports, lots of good hang-out space on campus, student groups that fill every possible interest, and a casual, friendly atmosphere.  And Bucky Badger really is the best mascot in the country.

I’m a huge fan of the big public universities in this country, and took this job because I want to do everything I can to make sure that the UW retains and builds on the things that make it great. So — unless your mom is the chancellor — you’re at the right place!