At Board of Regents, Chancellor Mnookin offers her vision for UW–Madison

UW–Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin smiling from behind a lectern while looking toward members of the UW System Board of Regents.
Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin delivers a speech during a UW Board of Regents meeting hosted at Union South at the University of Wisconsin–Madison on Feb. 9, 2023. During the speech, Mnookin announced the creation of Bucky’s Pell Pathway. (Photo by Althea Dotzour / UW–Madison)

On February 9, 2023, University of Wisconsin–Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin gave her first official presentation to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents. In a talk titled, “UW–Madison: Enhancing Excellence, Overcoming Obstacles, Pursuing Partnerships,” Mnookin shared her vision for the future of the university and made an important announcement to meet the needs of Wisconsin resident students.

The title slide of Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin’s presentation to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents on Feb. 9, 2023. The slide reads, UW–Madison: Enhancing Excellence, Overcoming Obstacles, Pursuing Partnerships

Chancellor Mnookin: I want to thank all of you for the warm welcome and for the opportunity to lead this outstanding university. I am even more excited to be here today than I was when I arrived last August.

It’s been a whirlwind six months! Complete with experiences I never knew I was missing – like wading in a cranberry marsh (and trying not to fall over) and hiking through apple and cherry orchards at our ag research stations … seeing Extension hard at work with 4-H at the state fair and holding a piglet at a county fair.

Not to mention learning to “Jump Around” AND helping to set an NCAA record for the most fans at a women’s volleyball game!

In fact, we are the only university in the country to have had more than 8,200 spectators at three different women’s sporting events in the same year: basketball, volleyball, and just last weekend, hockey.

And another record – our 850 student athletes achieved the highest average GPA in our history last year!

But best of all has been meeting extraordinary people on and off this campus who are working to make our communities and our state stronger and better.

My core message: UW–Madison is an extraordinary place, but we can’t take that excellence for granted. It needs to be protected and nurtured – not only for the good of the university, but for the good of our great state of Wisconsin. At the same time, if we work together, in effective partnership, I am confident that we can not only maintain our great strengths, but we – and the entire UW System – can be better tomorrow than we are today.

This slide is titled “Excellence in education.” On the left, a photo from Convocation 2022 shows a crowd of students in red and white filling the Kohl Center arena. On the right, a photo of Winter Commencement 2022 with Charlie Berens gigging his address to an audience of graduates in cap and gown.

Let me start with a few words about some of our existing strengths.

Last year was a big year for us! We welcomed the largest and most racially diverse freshman class in our history and conferred one of the largest number of degrees in our history, more than 11,000.

  • We just received final numbers for our total applicants for the next freshman class – and we’ve again set a record! More than 60,000 applicants for 8,100 spots.
  • Clearly both here in our great state and all across the country, many young people, and their families, recognize that very exciting things are happening here at Wisconsin!
  • I am also happy to say that 18,000 of our freshman applicants are students of color – an increase of 18% over last year.
  • Over the past four years, we’ve more than doubled the number of undergraduates of color enrolled on this campus, and I hope to see us continue to build on that.

This slide is titled “Serving more students and improving outcomes.” It has a bulleted list reading: #6 among U.S. public universities in six-year graduation rates; Average time-to-degree down again: 3.85 calendar years; More than 60% of undergrads graduate with NO student The debt; Recent study: Five U.S. universities produce one in eight of the nation’s tenure-track professors: UC Berkeley, Harvard, Michigan, Stanford, UW–MadisonAt the same time as we’re serving more students than ever, we’re also improving outcomes.

  • We are the No. 6 public university in the country for our 6-year graduation rate. Nearly 90% of our undergraduates complete their degrees in six years. The national average for public universities is 66%.
  • Our time-to-degree statistics are down again: Our average is now 3.85 calendar years, six weeks shy of four years.
  • In addition, more than 60% of our undergraduates now graduate with zero student debt. The number, statewide, is just 37%.
  • We’re also bringing a UW­–Madison degree within reach for more Wisconsin families, thanks to Bucky’s Tuition Promise, and we’re even going to improve on that – stay tuned for an announcement at the end of my remarks today.
  • And a research study out last fall puts us among the top 5 producers of tenure-track faculty in the whole U.S. (along with Berkeley, Harvard, Michigan, and Stanford. Pretty good company, I’d say). More than 1 in 8 sitting faculty in the U.S. has a Ph.D. from one of these institutions, which speaks to our profound influence on the cycle of knowledge and the impact we have on this country and the world.

This slide is titled “new faculty recruitment.” It shows a bar graph that depicts an upward trend in the number of faculty recruited year on year from 2012 to 2022. The year 2020 is lower than the rest of the curve, an outlier.And while we’re sending outstanding future faculty out into the world, we’re also welcoming outstanding new faculty to Madison. We brought in 168 accomplished new faculty members last year – the second highest number in more than a decade.

I want to call out one of our recent hires. Professor Monica Kim – who joined our History Department in 2020 – won a 2022 MacArthur Fellowship (often known as “Genius Grants”). She’s our third MacArthur winner in the past three years, and it’s exciting to see her impressive historical work on untold aspects of international and diplomatic history receive such acclaim and attention.

This slide is titled “excellence in research“ and shows a collage of photos: a teacher sits at a small table with young learners working on a puzzle in a laboratory setting; a gloved hand holds a tray as pipettes fill its chambers with colorful liquids; a man sits at computer monitors looking at MRI brain scans; two friendly robots look at the camera; a transparent whiteboard with chemistry symbols and laboratory equipment in the backgroundYou already know, I hope, that we are comfortably in the top 10 U.S. universities for total research expenditures – though we aim to grow that further. We’ve had far too many research accomplishments to name, but let me highlight one that’s a model for the kinds of expansive partnerships I want to see more of:

  • PANTHER (which stands for Physics-bAsed Neutralization of Threats to Human tissuEs and oRgans) recently won a $10 million grant from the Department of Defense for their work to develop better ways of detecting and preventing traumatic brain injuries.
    This slide is titled PANTHER, which stands for Physics-based Neutralization of Threats to Tissues and Organs. A photo of about 50 people stand in rows on the steps of building and smile at the camera.
  • I’m singling them out because they’re more than a cross-disciplinary project. PANTHER is an entire innovation ecosystem involving us, other universities, and multiple partners from government and industry.

This is the kind of project that will position us to stay on the leading edge of discovery.

And there are many other areas where we’ve reached new levels of excellence this year. To mention just a few:

  • The Carbone Cancer Center – the only National Cancer Institute in Wisconsin – just got renewed by the NIH with a grade of ‘outstanding’ which puts it in the top 10-20% of National Cancer Institute centers in the nation.
  • The Institute for Research on Poverty has won major grant funding to study the relationship between income and a child’s brain development.
  • And the Waisman Center recently published some groundbreaking research that’s moving us closer to understanding what causes Down syndrome.

This slide is titled “Excellence in outreach.” It shows the logo for UniverCity Year” a red circle containing the text “UniverCity Year” and “Better Places Together.” Also inside the circle is the outline of a city skyline.We’ve also had an outstanding year in public service.

Teddy Roosevelt once wrote: “In no other state in the union has any university done the same work for the community that’s been done in Wisconsin.” (I believe he was running for re-election at the time, but that doesn’t make the statement any less true!)

  • Example: Students and faculty are working through our UniverCity Program that asks local leaders: What are the problems you would tackle tomorrow if you could? And then our faculty and students work to do just that.
  • The program’s been around for eight years, and it’s a huge win-win. I’ve heard from county administrators and mayors about what powerful, concrete help this program offers, and I’ve heard from students and faculty about how transformative it can be for them.
  • It’s also a wonderful example of the power of System-wide partnerships. Over the years we’ve worked with five other System schools (River Falls, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Parkside) on these projects.

This slide shows a hand-drawn infographic. In the upper left, hands shake over the outline of the State of Wisconsin. Above and below the state outline are the words “Teacher Pledge” and a rising sun. In the center, a group of people follow a red arrow into a large academic building. In the upper right a check-list reads Full in-state tuition, testing, licensing. A stack of money sits in the bottom right corner.Our Teacher Pledge is another great example. It’s an innovative model for responding to the teacher shortage in Wisconsin, funded entirely by gifts from friends and alumni to the School of Education.

  • It covers in-state tuition, fees, and licensing for new grads who pledge to work in a Wisconsin school, for 3-4 years post-graduation.
  • We now have 530 pledged students and graduates, 200 of whom are already teaching in school districts across Wisconsin.
  • This powerful pilot shows how investment and access to resources can enhance our ability to meet the state’s workforce needs, though to make it permanent may require support from the state.

And our biggest statewide footprint is through the Division of Extension, which has put rocket boosters under our statewide engagement since we brought them back to UW–Madison five years ago.

The UW–Madison crest sits above the text “Extension University of Wisconsin–Madison. The text contains a white letter W on a red background, surrounded by a light brown ornamental frame representing a stone carving.

Their daily presence in all 72 counties is connecting our researchers in a much more direct way to some of the biggest problems this state is facing – like opioid addiction, water contamination, and health disparities. Extension is a bridge between university research and the work happening “on the ground” in our communities, making the work on both sides stronger and better.

This is the very best of the Wisconsin Idea.

So many of the successes I’ve just mentioned were made possible in significant part by Chancellor Emerita Rebecca Blank. I want to thank her for the wisdom she’s shared with me, and for her tireless work on behalf of this great university.

I very much hope you saw the announcement about the Rebecca M. Blank Center for Campus History. I am pleased that we can celebrate and honor Chancellor Blank in this way, especially given her central role in the creation of the Public History Project.

White text on a black background reads, “Overcoming obstacles.”

So: The university is thriving in many ways. We have a lot to be proud of.

But we also need to look in a clear-eyed way at obstacles we need to overcome if we are to maintain and build on our excellence.

There are many, but I’m going to focus today on these five:

  1. Creating a physical infrastructure to support ongoing excellence.
  2. Helping our students thrive as learners, community members, and people.
  3. Bringing outstanding students into Wisconsin and keeping our top students in the state as the number of college-age Wisconsinites shrinks and workforce demands grow.
  4. Growing the research enterprise, creating more knowledge with impact on the world, and enhancing the ways we link to industry.
  5. Making the case for increased state investment in UW, along with needed flexibilities to let us operate efficiently and effectively.

Obstacle #1: Creating a physical infrastructure to support ongoing excellence

We don’t need the fanciest buildings out there, but we simply can’t be excellent without well-designed, modern spaces that support educational and research needs.

Many of you heard last night at the Chemistry Building how we’ve not been able to expand our research in key areas like pharmaceuticals because of poor ventilation and fire-safety issues in our labs.

So though we have some terrific facilities, and some important plans, we also have ongoing significant challenges in this area, both around STEM and well beyond.

This slide is titled “Movement into STEM.” A line graph titled “Trend in Juniors and Seniors with STEM majors” shows the percentage of students enrolled in STEM majors from 2003 to 2021. The line plots an upward trend from 28.1% in 2023 to 45.8% in 2021.To give you a sense for the STEM-related issues: 20 years ago, fewer than one-third of our undergraduates were enrolled in STEM majors. Today, nearly half are.

Last year’s grads included record-high numbers of bachelor’s degrees in high-needs fields such as Computer Engineering and Nursing.

  • On the one hand, this is great news. Wisconsin employers need graduates with these skills.
  • On the other hand, this means we have to invest in more high-tech classrooms and research labs, as well as other kinds of infrastructure to support student learning and excellence.
  • Over the last 20 years – with the help of both the state and our donors – we’ve invested a little over half a billion dollars in facilities projects that impact or enable our STEM programs – such as the new facilities for Chemistry and the School of Veterinary Medicine.
  • And we’re on track to invest another billion over the next several in projects currently in design or under construction.

This slide shows a bar graph titled “Reinvestments falling behind peer institutions.” The graph plots the average capital reinvestment compared to our goal over a five-year period in academic and research space. UW–Madison ranks lowest among its peer institutions, Rutgers, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota and Iowa.Those sound like big numbers, and investments worth celebrating. And they are. However, if you look at many of our peers, we are in fact running behind.

Some of you have seen this slide.

  • Our facilities unit contracts with a consulting firm that owns the largest verified database of university facilities, and their reporting helps give us insight on how we compare to other institutions.
  • This slide shows our average capital reinvestment compared to our goal over a five-year period in academic and research space. You can see that we are way behind our Big 10 peers … and way WAY behind the major private universities who are also our competition for top faculty.
  • Their data also shows us that over the last 10 years, our total capital reinvestment has been roughly half of our peers per gross square footage for academic and research space. For every $3 we invested, they, on average, invested $6.
  • And our current estimate for deferred maintenance alone is $2.1 billion and growing. That’s escalated from $1.5 billion in just the past four years.
This slide is titled “Meeting demand for engineering.” It shows two old and dated facility images on the left. Most of the slide is taken up by a rendering of a new engineering building.

So: We badly need to keep investing in facilities. The College of Engineering is one place where we’re hoping to do just that. Engineering needs a new building, which we hope will be funded jointly by the state and by philanthropy, and which will open up significantly more spots for students at a time when engineers are in high demand in Wisconsin.

Thank you to President Rothman and the System for putting this facility at the top of the priority list of major projects – and thanks to all of you for your support.

I have appreciated the many conversations I’ve had with legislators, industry leaders and others about this facility, and I look forward to working with the Assembly, the Senate, the Governor, the Regents, the System, and the Department of Administration to get this vital project completed.

As fast as demand for engineering is growing, computer science is growing even faster – a roughly 700% increase in undergraduate majors in the past decade, making it our No. 1 undergraduate major.

No other department has grown so much, so quickly, partly because of the huge demand among both students and employers, and partly because we are proud that we make computer science an available area of study to all who choose to pursue it, rather than a program with limited admissions.

This slide is titled “Meeting demand for computer and data science” and shows a rendering of a new building for computer and data science.

I’m happy to tell you that fundraising for the new building is 90% complete. We now have everything staged to start digging, and if all goes according to plan, we’ll open the building in spring 2025.

Keeping up with demand also requires us to recruit new faculty, which is phenomenally difficult in computer science as we’re competing with private employers who can offer 4 or 5 times what we do, as well as an extremely competitive market among strong university programs.

The good news: we’ve netted 24 new faculty in computer, data, and information sciences since 2019, thanks to our top-ranked departments and excellent reputation. But we still have the smallest faculty of any of the top public universities in computer sciences. We have to grow further to meet the demands of our students, our state, and our economy.

This is not to say that all of our growth is in STEM, nor should it be.

We have pressing needs in the arts, which are critical to human flourishing and help us find and express meaning.

This slide is titled “Growth in more than just STEM.” It shows an image of a small group of dancers bending in a stylized pose in a rehearsal studio.

I’m proud of our strengths in these areas, but from a facilities perspective, we have an urgent need for a pathway out of our obsolete Humanities Building for both the School of Music and the Art Department.

The Humanities building needs $70 million in immediate repairs – and even then wouldn’t come close to providing the kind of learning environment we would wish for.

So we need to be able to cement plans for a new home for Music and for Art, and if we are able to do so, that will also let us envision exciting possibilities for that prime campus spot that the Humanities Building currently occupies.

And we have numerous campus buildings besides Humanities that serve critical campus needs that are also aging and in clear need of maintenance or replacement. I could list them but unfortunately that list gets long.

This slide is titled “Irving & Dorothy Levy Hall.” It shows a rendering of a new building to house the History Department and the Center for Jewish Studies as well as six other Letters & Science departments.

One very bright spot is Irving and Dorothy Levy Hall. It’s in the design phase, and when it’s done it’s going to allow us to move the History Department and the Center for Jewish Studies out of Humanities and bring together under one roof six other Letters & Science departments that are now spread out across campus.

This is a very long-awaited project – the last time we built a new academic building for humanities departments in the College of Letters and Science was 50 years ago.

Obstacle #2: Helping our students thrive as learners, community members, and people.

There is no doubt that it’s been a rough few years all around, especially given the many challenges produced by the pandemic, from learning loss, to isolation, to the pressures produced by ubiquitous social media.

To be truly excellent in this moment we have to be intentional about working in new ways to help the students thrive as learners, community members, and people.

This means providing not only modern spaces for learning … and not only impactful educational opportunities and superb teaching … but also investments in high-quality academic support services such as advising and tutoring … ready access to mental health services … and spaces where students can come together in community.

And it also means helping our students develop the tools to engage across difference, and I’ll say more about that in just a few moments.

An aerial view of UW campus looks south from Observatory hill on a fall afternoon. Parkland in the foreground gives way to a cluster of academic buildings that span the width of the photo before transitioning to tree cover in the background.

We conducted three separate campus climate surveys last year for faculty, staff, and students and we learned a lot!

The great majority of people in our community feel respected, supported, and welcome here. But these surveys show that to be less true for groups that have been historically underrepresented and marginalized on this campus.

Those groups rate the campus climate less highly than their peers.

Not long ago, one of our students described her experience in an upper-level math class as feeling like “a fly in the milk.”

It’s sometimes hard to feel like you fit in in a place where you stand out.

And one of the things we hear from our students is: Hire more people who look like me!

You can certainly learn effectively from people very different from yourself. But there’s also no doubt that when you see people in positions of authority – like your professors – who seem more like you, that can dramatically enhance your own sense of both possibility and belonging.

This slide is titled “Progress toward a more diverse campus.” It shows a bullet list of key statistics: Highest-ever number (907) and share (39.5%) of women faculty; Highest-ever number (606) and share (26.4%) of faculty of color; Highest-ever number (239) and share (10.4%) of faculty of color from historically underrepresented groups.

I recently received some impressive new numbers. You can see the details on the slide. We now have:

  • Our highest-ever number and percentage of women faculty, faculty of color, and faculty of color from underrepresented groups.

I’m proud of the progress we’re making. At the same time, I also recognize that some aspects of our current approach may be impacted by the upcoming Supreme Court decisions involving race-conscious admissions at Harvard and UNC.

The tools in our toolbox may change, but diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging will remain top priorities.

And let me be clear – to be an outstanding public university, we need diversity of all kinds: Racial and ethnic, first-generation, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, religious, rural/urban, and political and viewpoint diversity. These all matter. And creating a sense of belonging and inclusion across ALL of these kinds of difference needs to be an ongoing priority.

Obstacle #3: Bringing outstanding students into Wisconsin and keeping top students in the state

This slide is titled “Projected percent change in number of high school graduates: 2013-2029. It shows a map of the United States with each state shaded according to the percent difference in high school graduates projected for 2028-29 compared to 2012-13. Wisconsin is a lagging state, projected to be more than 5% lower.As I think everyone in this room knows, Wisconsin’s demographics are changing. I recognize that for some of our system campuses that’s been extremely challenging.

As we face a shrinking pool of college-age students in this state, UW–Madison can bring a couple of things to the table.

First, we can keep more top Wisconsin students in Wisconsin. This doesn’t look like a big increase, but it’s the result of a lot of effort by our Admissions team given the smaller numbers of high school graduates in our state.

Also working to our advantage is that post-COVID, many students are eager to have the ‘big school’ experiences that we provide.

This slide is titled “Percentage of Wisconsin students enrolling at UW–Madison following HS graduation.” It shows a line graph plotting the percent of students enrolled at UW following high school, starting at 4.9% in 2010 and ending at 5.8% in 2021.

Now let me be clear: We want to support the success of our sister schools, the comprehensives, as well. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that much of the time, we are not competing with other System schools for our students – but out-of-state schools like Minnesota and Michigan, as well as private institutions across the country.

Second, and critically, UW–Madison can draw talent into the state in significant numbers.

We have 22,000 undergraduate and graduate students from out-of-state on our campus right now.

Of course, our graduates don’t all stay. But the number who are staying is growing. This is 2016 versus 2022.

  • Among students who graduated last academic year and started working, 48% told us that they’re working in Wisconsin – up from 37% just five years ago.
    This slide is titled “Share of our grads staying in Wisconsin to work.” It shows two pie charts. On the left, a pie chart shows that 37% of 2016-17 grads were employed in Wisconsin. On the right, a pie chart shows that 48% of 2021-22 grads were employed in Wisconsin.
  • For our in-state students, that number is 62% versus 48% five years ago.
  • Among out-of-staters, 22% report they’re employed here, versus 17% five years ago.

I think we can improve on these numbers still further. If we can work with employers to create more great opportunities in the workforce, more of our grads from both in state and out of state will stay.

Obstacle #4: Growing the research enterprise creating more knowledge with impact on the world, and enhancing the ways we link to industry

This slide is titled “Top 10 universities by research expenditures.” UW–Madison is ranked eighth on the list.

I’m turning now to challenges in research. As you know, UW–Madison is a research powerhouse and our discoveries are changing lives here in Wisconsin and around the world.

In overall research expenditures, we rank No. 8 nationally. This is very strong – but it’s also down from No. 4 ten years ago. Now I’m a competitive person – seeing UCLA leapfrog us is not the top reason I want to address this, but it is one motivation!

To be clear: we’ve done a good job of increasing our expenditures – they rose by $16 million, or 1.2%, in 2021, despite the pandemic … but our national competitors grew by an average of 4%.

So to move up this chart, we don’t just need to go up – we need to go up faster than our peers.

We have a goal, as part of the UW System strategic plan, to get back to No. 6. This is, I believe, doable but ambitious. It will mean working in some different ways and investing further in our research infrastructure.

It will also mean we need to expand our industry partnerships. I told you that we currently rank No. 8 in research expenditures overall; however, in industry investments in R&D we rank 52nd.

This slide is titled “10-year growth in industry R&D expenditures at UW–Madison” and depicts a blue bar graph showing expenditures year-by-year from 2012 to 2021. It shows large growth from 2019 to 2021 of $26.5 million dollars to $31.5 million dollars after years of mostly modest growth or decline.

This is an area where we have significant opportunity, and I’m happy to say we are moving in the right direction.

In 2021, we increased our industry R&D expenditures by 6.5% while, nationwide, industry expenditures fell by 1.3%.

But to do more and better, we need to look closely at how to work more effectively with industry in a variety of ways. And this is a place where we need to continue with some internal culture change, while also keeping our mission as a public university as our North Star when we evaluate potential projects.

Obstacle #5: Making the case for increased state investment along with needed flexibilities to let us operate efficiently and effectively

With workforce shortages predicted to grow, and an estimated $7.1 billion state surplus, this is a strong moment to invest.

And we’re a pretty terrific investment!

  • UW–Madison now supports one out of every 13 jobs in this state … and our total economic impact on Wisconsin is nearly $31 billion a year.
  • According to one study, for every $1 in state money invested in the university, we return $26.73.
  • That’s an eye-popping return – and an incredibly low-risk, high value investment in Wisconsin’s future.
This slide is titled “UW–Madison is a great investment!” and shares the following three bullet points about UW–Madison’s contribution to the state’s economy and job growth: 1. We support one out of every 13 jobs in Wisconsin. 2. $31 billion annual economic impact. 3. Every state dollar invested returns $26.73. Data source: NorthStar Analytics, LLC, 2021.

We were recognized nationally for our contribution to this state three months ago – we are one of nine universities in the country designated this past year as an ‘Innovation and Economic Prosperity University’.

We’ve been in a position to invest and grow in the past several years, thanks both to tremendous investments by our alumni and friends in a record-breaking capital campaign, and thanks to some effective revenue-building opportunities that have protected us from some pretty strong headwinds.

These resources are vital. They allow us to carry out our mission to transform lives through education and research.

And we’ll keep doing our part to create resources for our future.

But at this point we’ve pulled the most likely and available levers to create new revenues and the challenge is going to be finding additional pathways.

One of those may be redeveloping selected parcels of land, in ways that might simultaneously meet critical needs, for example, for new collaborative spaces for students, faculty, and partners from industry, while also potentially creating new revenue streams.

This slide shows a color-coded map of the United States with several states dark red, several light red, and most in shades of light or medium blue, depending on the percent change in state funding for the state university system between 2011-2022. It shows Wisconsin in light blue, indicating a 1.3% investment, one of the smallest increases in the country.

There are some exciting possibilities here, but our future success will depend on effective partnership.

The state has made deep investments in this university over the past 175 years, but in recent years we’ve fallen behind our peers. We cannot and will not look to the state to solve all of our challenges – at the same time, we unquestionably need ongoing and substantial state support in order to thrive, as well as additional flexibility to allow us to seize opportunities.

In terms of state support, here’s what’s happened over the last 10 years. Many – indeed most – states have outpaced us.

This slide is titled “Change in resident undergrad tuition at Midwest flagships, 2018 to 2022” and shows seven Midwestern states, six of which are in gray and show varying percentages of increase in tuition rates, and Wisconsin, shaded red, showing a zero percent change.

And frozen in-state tuition has made it even more difficult for us to maintain our excellence.

Add to that another significant challenge – we’re the only flagship university in the country that does not have the ability to borrow money without specific legislative approval to do so in each instance.

That means every time we do building renovations or construction, unless it is funded entirely by gifts and grants, we need to go through multiple layers of approval at the other end of State Street, even if all we are hoping to do is, in effect, borrow funds which we will repay from our own revenues.

This system is costing us. It reduces our opportunities to improve our facilities and adds delays that in turn lead to higher construction costs. So we badly need to keep trying to make some form of revenue bonding authority possible, and I appreciate the support of the Regents and President Rothman as we work together to try to achieve this.

Gov. Evers is scheduled to deliver his budget message six days from now. I want to thank the Regents for the strong budget request and tell you that we’ve only just begun our engagement with that process!

We’ll be working with many different stakeholders over the next five months to advocate for a substantial investment in the System, and its flagship institution – which is, in an enormous way, also an investment in the future of our state.

Pursuing Partnerships

Squarely and thoughtfully facing these five challenges will bring the university onto a stronger and better path to the future. There isn’t, of course, a simple or linear, one-size-fits-all answer, but I can tell you that effectively pursuing partnerships, both within UW–Madison and well beyond our walls, needs to be at the heart of our work.

This slide is titled “Opportunities to improve education” and includes a photo taken from the back of a large lecture hall showing students with laptop computers open, listening to a speaker at the front of the room.

Opportunities to improve education

We know that our student experience is outstanding. We have a 95% freshman to sophomore year retention rate! But we need to be looking to the future and thinking about what teaching and learning look like using strategies that actively engage students.

Our Center for Teaching, Learning, and Mentoring, which opened its doors 18 months ago, is bringing partners from across the campus to work together in new ways. It’s already transforming how we support instructors so that they can connect more deeply with their students.

Another priority is exploring how we hold fast to two values, both centrally and deeply important to our university, and which, if we are candid, can sometimes come into tension with another: our commitment to free speech and our efforts to create a strong sense of belonging for all.

The results of the recently released free speech survey by System, combined with our own campus climate survey, as well as lots of other evidence from across our nation, suggest that we have work to do, to help students engage across difference. The challenge can be especially acute around hot-button issues and across political divides.

This slide shows a photo of a document titled “UW System Student Views on Freedom of Speech, Summary of Survey Responses, February 1, 2023” and contains a University of Wisconsin System logo.

This isn’t something people are born knowing how to do. To engage across difference in a civil and constructive way, students need to build the skills necessary to engage in high-quality discussions with one another.

Our School of Education has created a Discussion Project that’s both a professional development course and a research project that has taught over 800 instructors across campus to design and facilitate powerful discussions. Its focus is to ensure that all students – regardless of what they are studying – have opportunities to learn how to talk and listen in ways that enhance learning and create a sense of belonging.

We are also considering developing a student deliberation project specifically focused on teaching students who have a wide variety of views to talk and listen across difference – an especially important skill in this polarized time in our nation.

Opportunities to improve research

On the research side, we already have an interdisciplinary and collaborative culture – indeed, that’s one of our institutional strengths. But we need to go even further and build still more expansive research partnerships.

We’ve already started. One great example is the Dairy Innovation Hub.

We have researchers across three UW campuses talking to one another, mentoring grad students together, and solving problems that no individual campus can solve alone – and we’re already seeing the impact in new research projects and new industry partnerships.

AND we have another even larger-scale example of success in this domain – our achievements in the life sciences.

This slide is titled “Life sciences: An amazing success story” and contains a blue bar graph showing the top 25 U.S. markets for a number of life science workers. It depicts Madison in red, and explains that every other city listed is at least three times the size of Madison.

Madison is one of the top 25 markets in the U.S. in terms of the number of microbiologists, biochemists, and other life sciences workers – and every other city on this graph is at least three times our size.

This is really quite astonishing. And we got to this place through creating synergies and partnerships that crisscross industry, academia and our whole region, to create an impressive national hub for life sciences technology.

The result is that the life sciences here are growing fast, AND we have a virtuous cycle where success breeds success.

With that success, the university is better positioned to compete for research funding (both federal and private) and that helps generate more discovery, innovation and commercialization, which in turn attracts great faculty, which in turn attracts great students …

And they graduate to become talented members of the life sciences workforce and innovation ecosystem, and that in turn attracts life science companies to Madison, which further drives the economy, and draws new talent into the university. It’s win-win-win-win-win.

This slide is titled “National leadership in the life sciences: Cryo-electron microscopy” and includes a photo shot from behind of a faculty member meeting with a graduate student in front of a large microscope tower.

Here’s just one example of the impact. Back in 2018 we successfully recruited Professor Elizabeth Wright, who’s shown here meeting with a graduate student.

She’s a biochemist who is helping us reach new frontiers in the biosciences by establishing a national cryo-EM center on our campus. Cryo-EM is kind of like an MRI for molecules that gives incredibly crisp, 3D images that show individual atoms.

This slide is titled “UW - Morgridge Cryo-EM Breakthroughs in Viral RNA Replication Complex Imaging” and depicts four images of a coronavirus, the first under an electron microscope and the next three showing increasing levels of detail under the cryo-EM microscope.

Morgridge Institute scientists partnered with the center to produce this image. On the left is the coronavirus magnified by a traditional electron microscope. On the far right is an illustration of what the coronavirus crown looks like magnified by cryo-EM.

You can see how cryo-EM is literally changing what we see. Scientists say it’s the difference between seeing the outline of a building and seeing the doorknobs.

So, I want to look ahead and ask: What are the next places where we might create this kind of synergy between job creation, industry, research, and transformative education that will allow us to build a really amazing future for our university AND our state?

We’ve identified a group of areas where we’re strong and where there’s potential to do more – and some examples include:

  • Clean energy and energy storage
  • Fusion research
  • Climate change and sustainability
  • Quantum science
  • (Potentially) Semiconductors
  • And artificial intelligence and machine learning, and especially its application to imaging and data analysis.

To reach the next level of excellence in any or all of these areas will take:

  • More strategic efforts to tap into major new sources of federal dollars
  • Effective and strategic partnerships with industry
  • Investment from the state
  • And a kind of working together that we’re not always accustomed to.

If we can further enhance our innovation ecosystems, not only will our university thrive, but we can continue to be an effective engine for the state economy and improve lives for our graduates, and for people throughout our great state.

Opportunities to improve access

This slide is titled “Bucky’s Tuition Promise: 2018 vs. 2022” and shows two Wisconsin maps with red dots depicting high schools that have sent Bucky’s Tuition Promise recipients to UW–Madison. The 2022 map shows significantly more red dots, and in more Wisconsin counties, than the 2018 map.

I want to close with a bit of news.

In 2018, Chancellor Blank stood before you in this room and announced a new program called Bucky’s Tuition Promise to cover tuition and fees for students whose family income is below the state median.

It’s a wonderful program – yet there continues to be an opportunity and a responsibility to support our highest-needs Wisconsin students in accessing the UW–Madison experience.

One of our recent grads tells the story of coming here and hearing the students in her classes and residence hall talking about experiences that were unavailable to her, like taking an unpaid internship or a summer course. She said:

It seemed like everyone else was having all of these other experiences and I was just working and going to class.

To be sure, there will always be differences in what students can afford. But if we’re going to live our values of creating real access and opportunity, we need to do more for our students from Wisconsin’s lowest-income households – our Pell Grant recipients.

So today, I am happy to make two announcements. First, we are slightly increasing the eligibility requirements for Bucky’s Tuition Promise. Instead of reaching families with adjusted gross incomes of $60,000 or less, we are now increasing that number to $65,000.

Second, I’m excited to announce the creation of Bucky’s Pell Pathway. This program will ensure that our Pell-eligible Wisconsin resident students have a pathway to complete their four-year degree without needing to take on debt to cover their educational expenses.

This slide is titled “Bucky’s Pell Pathway” and depicts an aerial photo of the UW–Madison campus in autumn with an illustrated graphic of Bucky Badger waving in the middle.

This is an important additional step in creating opportunities and access here at UW–Madison and working to ensure that the amazing resources of our university offer transformative possibilities to talented students from all across our state, regardless of their means.

Concretely, what does it mean?

We’re going a step further than Bucky’s Tuition Promise for Wisconsin families who are eligible for Federal Pell Grants. For these students, Bucky’s Pell Pathway will cover all remaining financial need, after their Pell Grant and other scholarships. That means not only tuition and fees, but housing, meals, books, and additional funds that will allow these Wisconsin students to be involved and engaged in some of the many life-changing experiences this university offers.

It’s another meaningful step toward improving access and removing barriers for talented students with high financial need.

I want to be clear that there are NO state dollars involved. We will be funding this program through a variety of institutional, private, and external sources.

And I want to call out and appreciate the generosity of a number of our alumni, who have given specifically to support scholarships for students with financial need, and whom I know will continue to support this critical goal. Their recognition of the critical importance of higher education as a pathway to opportunity helps makes this program possible.

I also want to thank our Enrollment Management team for envisioning this goal with me and figuring out how to get it done.

This slide is an aerial shot of the UW–Madison campus, shown with Lake Mendota and Porter Boathouse in the foreground

One of the things that brought me here to UW–Madison was the knowledge that this state – while pretty average in population and income – has a flagship university that’s anything but average. UW–Madison’s not just pretty good – we’re outstanding.

I heard recently from one of our alums who now lives thousands of miles away and who said to me:

You might be able to make an argument that School X has academics that are just as good … you might be able to make an argument that School Y has athletics that are just as good … you might be able to make an argument that School Z has a city that’s just as good. But you’re not going to find another school that has all of these extraordinary assets.

This university is extraordinary. It’s one of this state’s most precious and best tools for making a difference in creating positive futures. But it’s also fragile. Without investment by the state … without a willingness to give us the flexibility to be nimble and seize opportunity … without the support of the UW System to preserve and build our excellence … we risk a slow decline.

There is an amazing version of our future, where education, research, and outreach all flourish in an innovation ecosystem built on partnerships that are broad and deep, to the benefit of our students, our university, and our state. This is an achievable future, but it is not an inevitable one. And it depends on all of us.

It’s my job to bring people together to create and nourish that ecosystem, and I look forward to working with all of you, and the many people we serve, to do exactly that. I thank you for giving me this opportunity.

View the full set of slides of Chancellor Mnookin’s presentation or watch video of her presentation.