Fall 2023 Convocation

Thank you, Provost Isbell, and hello, new Badgers! Please help me give a shout-out to all of our great speakers and the UW Marching Band — thank you!

Today is a celebration of new beginnings, *your* beginnings here at UW–Madison. However, I need to begin by saying a few words about the violent attack on one of our students off campus early Sunday morning. First and foremost, as you heard from the Provost we are holding the student and her family in our hearts at this terrible moment. This is certainly not the way we hoped to begin this new school year, and I know that so many of us in this room (and your parents and families) are feeling grief and anger and anxiety. And you may also be wondering if you can feel safe here. The answer is, mostly, yes, but we know that no place is completely safe, including Madison. I so wish it were otherwise. Vice Chancellor Reesor talked about how to find support if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or helpless. More than anything, I want you to know that you are part of a strong Badger community. We help, and support, and look out for one another, and I ask each of you to do the same. Thank you.

And now, on behalf of the faculty, staff and administration here at UW, I am extremely pleased to officially welcome you to the University of Wisconsin–Madison!

I suspect you’ve probably already met some of the people sitting around you, but let me tell you a little more about yourselves.

• This class is a bit smaller than recent freshman classes, and that’s on purpose to make sure you have access to all of the wonderful opportunities that make this place so special.

• There are about 9,000 of you — 8,000 freshmen (freshmen, make some noise!) and 1,000 transfer students (let’s hear from you!).

• So we have a smaller class but we also had a record number of applicants. Which means you got in in what may be the most competitive year in our entire history. Congratulations!

• Lots of you are from right here in Wisconsin — we have 71 of the 72 counties represented (we’re missing Iron County, way up at the top of the state).

• You come from 49 U.S. states along with Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico (give me some guesses about which state we’re missing. It’s Maine! If you know anyone there, let them know we’re missing them this year).

• Let’s hear from you if you’re from one of our top 5 states outside of Wisconsin: Minnesota (this year Minnesota overtook Illinois as our #1 sending state — but only by a hair) … where are you, Illinois? Next is California. And how about the tri-state area — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut? Welcome!

• International students — you’ve come from 51 nations outside of the U.S. Let’s hear from you!

• OK, Wisconsin students: It’s your turn. Make some noise!

• And more than 15% of you are the first in your family to go to college. A special congratulations to all of you!

To all of you, wherever you are from, wherever you aim to go, I want to say to you: You belong here. You are part of the tapestry that makes us who we are. I welcome you to UW–Madison and to the extraordinary opportunites you will have over these next years.

An historic year, an historic university
Now this class is also making history — you will forever be able to say: I started at UW–Madison on the university’s 175th birthday! You’re going to be involved in lots of celebrations of our amazing — and also sometimes complicated — past, present, and future over the next year. And over the next four years, you’re going to learn from some of the smartest people in the world — people doing truly amazing things, driven by their curiosity, their passion for knowledge and education, and by the drive to make a difference. Let me introduce just three of them.

This is Professor Susanna Widicus Weaver, from our chemistry and astronomy departments. She runs a major research lab here at UW studying the ingredients for life on other planets.

How many of you think there’s a planet outside of our solar system that has the characteristics that could support some life form? Raise your hand!

If you raised your hand — you’re right! But there’s not just one planet that could support life — Professor Weaver knows of 60!

This is Professor Monica Kim from our history department. Dr. Kim is literally re-writing history by examining wars from the perspective of the ordinary people living through them. If you take a class from her, she will challenge you to think in entirely new ways about topics you may have thought you already knew pretty well.

Her work is so important that she recently won one of the greatest awards any scholar can win — the MacArthur Genius Grant.

And this is Professor Faisal Abdu’Allah, an internationally acclaimed artist on the faculty in our art department. If you walk up State Street, you’ll see a statue of him in front of the Overture Center.

Prof. Abdu’Allah worked as a barber to support himself in college, and — as you can see — he is still a barber! He uses these experiences in his artwork, and if you take a class from him, prepare to be challenged to bring your own life experiences into your art.

These are just three of the more than 2,000 renowned scholars on our faculty. People dedicated to something we call the Wisconsin Idea — the notion that this university exists to serve the public by sharing our knowledge and innovations. Because the world needs our help. Wisconsin needs our help. And the planet needs our help.

We don’t sit on the sidelines here at UW. We don’t wait for someone else to
step up and make things better. And you don’t either — that’s why we selected you to be part of this great class.

Sifting & winnowing
Another tradition you’ll hear about is something we call sifting and winnowing. That’s our way of describing the scholarly inquiry that generates insights and discoveries.

You’re going to explore many different issues and ideas across many different academic fields in your time on this campus. You’ll learn to think critically … argue persuasively … listen carefully … and produce work that goes beyond the level of excellence that you’ve already achieved.

And it all starts with curiosity and an open mind. Because here at UW–Madison, we discuss everything — the ideas we agree with and the ideas we strongly disagree with.

This will be exciting. It will stretch you. And there will be days when it might not feel altogether comfortable. The point isn’t to change what you believe — though sometimes you might indeed change your mind. But what’s most important is that by engaging with a great diversity of ideas you will better learn what drives YOU, and you will emerge with a stronger, deeper and more nuanced understanding of what drives you, and what you believe and why.

That’s part of what both academic freedom and freedom of speech are about. And there’s no doubt that freedom of speech is a heck of a lot easier to believe in when you agree with the speaker. But the truth is, it’s most important when you don’t. Now during your time with us, you should feel free to disagree with one another, and with your professors and with me. In fact, that’s part of exactly what you should be doing. But I also ask you to do it productively — with respect for our common humanitiy, and with humbleness instead of hubris. Start with curiosity rather than condemnation, and generosity before judgment.

If you take this advice, and I hope that you will, you have the opportunity while you are with us to learn to engage across difference productively. And at the same time, if we can do this as a community, we can help assure that even as we engage across our differences, everyone here can know that you are supported and that you belong here. Because you do. You belong here when (and maybe even especially when) you’re in discussions with classmates or others who may have a very different world view from your own.

I remember my own first days as an undergraduate — I initially gravitated toward people who were from similar backgrounds and saw the world in the same way. And we all need friends like that, and some of those folks became lifelong friends! But after a while I also got to know other people — people who were nothing like me in terms of background, identity, and viewpoint. And some of them, as well, became some of my very closest lifelong friends.

Many of you have never been — and may never again be — living and working alongside people from so many different states and countries, so many different races, identities, ethnicities, religions, and points of view.

This is an extraordinary opportunity. That’s one of the most exciting parts of being at a big, public university. Take advantage of it. It’s through those engagements that new and unexpected knowledge is produced, and that we — and that YOU — will come up with ideas that change the world.

Go Big Read
One of things that will bring us together as a community this fall is our Go Big Read project — it’s something like a campuswide book club. On your way out today, you’ll pick up a free copy of this year’s book. It’s called How Minds Change by David McRaney.

If you’ve gotten into an argument online (or in person) about politics or some conspiracy theory or an issue you feel strongly about, did you notice that presenting a bunch of evidence about why the other person was wrong and you were right often didn’t change their mind?

The book explores the science behind why that is, and what actually does cause us to re-think long-held beliefs, or be more open to the idea that something you’ve long believed just might not be as certain as you thought. As you read it, I hope you’ll ask yourself why you believe the things you do, and whether and why it matters to you to change other people’s opinions.

Some of your professors will use the book in their classes, and the author will come to campus this fall to lead a discussion about it.

Thinking about what you believe, and why, is part of getting to know yourself better, which is a critical part of what you do in college! In these next four years — maybe more than in any other time in your life — you will get to know yourself … what you’re passionate about … what you’re really good at … and, equally importantly, what you don’t want to do.

And inevitably — and wonderfully — you will leave here a very different person than you are today, enriched by your coursework, by the activities that you throw yourself into, and by the deep friendships made here that will come to be part of your story and ours.

We’ve given you a lot to think about — you won’t remember it all, and that’s OK!

You heard Joel Baraka say it was scary coming to this big campus — and that’s true whether you’re coming from Uganda (like Joel) or New York or Fitchburg, Wisconsin! There’s a lot happening here, and it can be easy to feel lost (and to actually get lost!)

Your science class probably isn’t in Science Hall … your music class is almost certainly not in Music Hall … and there are two totally different places named “Grainger.” We even have our own ZIP code! But you will be amazed to see how quickly you find your way here, and come to see this as a new home.

I do have one more thing to ask of you. You heard Provost Isbell say we won’t all be together again in one place until graduation day. And that’s true. So I want a photo!

[pull out phone and take selfie with the students]

Consider this your first official UW portrait … it’ll be on Instagram if you want to follow me @UWChancellor.

Bucky & Babcock
Now it’s time to celebrate! We want to celebrate all of you with two time-honored UW traditions — singing Varsity and eating Babcock Ice Cream.

Of course, we can’t do both at once.

We’ll sing here, and eat ice cream at Alumni Park, next to Memorial Union, courtesy of the Wisconsin Alumni Association.

Now please join me in welcoming one very special Badger… we can’t do this without Bucky!

(Bucky enters)(applause)

After we sing, please remain standing for the faculty recession.

Now rise as you are able and the UW Marching Band will lead us in Varsity.