Remarks to Badger Families – 2020

Chancellor Rebecca Blank

Remarks to Badger Families



Hello Badger families!  I am Chancellor Rebecca Blank and I am delighted to welcome you to this virtual Family Weekend at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

For those of you who are alumni, or have older children who are alums – thank you for continuing the tradition!

For those of you are new to UW – a very warm welcome to our big Badger family!

I want to thank all of you for entrusting your wonderful students to us.  As the mother of a recent college graduate, I know how hard this first semester can be.  And COVID has made it that much harder.

As one mom put it in a recent e-mail to us:

I can’t help worrying about my child.

I want you to know that I hear you.   As a parent and as Chancellor of this university, I share your worries.  We are fortunate to have some of the world’s top public health experts right here on our campus, and we are working together to make this as safe a place as we can for your student.

I’ll say more about COVID in just a few minutes – but first, I want to tell you about this outstanding new class of 7,300 freshmen and 1,000 new transfer students.


The new class

Our freshmen were selected from a record-breaking 46,000 applicants this year. Those of you who have a freshman can be very proud that they rose to the top in an unusually competitive environment.

  • Just over half of our new freshmen and two-thirds of our new transfer students are from Wisconsin.
  • Out-of-state students in the freshman class come from 44 states and 42 countries outside the U.S.
  • This is our most diverse class ever: 13.5% of the class are students of color from groups that have been traditionally underrepresented on this campus.
  • And I am very proud to tell you that nearly two out of every 10 new freshmen, and three out of every 10 new transfer students this year are the first generation in their family to go to college. To those students and their families, I want to say a special congratulations and welcome!


COVID response

One of my greatest joys as chancellor is seeing our new students get to know the campus, make new friends, and get excited about whole new worlds opening up to them here at UW.


COVID has taken some of that away this year, but we are doing what we can to give the students a few of the in-person experiences that make this place special.  For that to happen safely, we’ve put in place a full array of safety protocols here on campus including:


  • A robust system for testing and contact tracing
  • Classrooms reconfigured to ensure physical distancing
  • Air-handling systems modified to make our buildings safer
  • If students do become ill, safe and comfortable spaces for quarantine and isolation


All of our students received kits when they arrived on campus with masks and santitizer and information on how to keep themselves healthy.

We also have made sure that every student understands the public safety rules and the consequences for breaking those rules.

As you know, just one week into the semester, our system was put to the test.  We had a spike in cases and we responded aggressively with a number of interventions including asking students to restrict their movements, pausing face-to-face instruction for two weeks, and quarantining two residence halls along with a number of fraternity and sorority houses.

I know this wasn’t easy.  But I was proud of how our students worked together to help ensure that we could re-open the campus … and amazed at what some of them accomplished in quarantine.

One of our freshmen, for example, used the time to apply for a start-up grant (which he received) to help buy supplies for a company he’s building that sells personalized sneakers.

They also managed to have some fun in quarantine – and got to know students they might not otherwise have met.  One of the most popular games was Grocery Bingo (a giant bingo game on Zoom where the prizes were grocery items) and some of the students even put on a (virtual) talent show – they read poems they’d written … showed off dance moves … one student even played the tuba.

This two-week ‘pause’ in activity allowed us to bring our infection numbers way down.  We’ve now had three weeks of low infection rates.  Our positivity rate has been below 1% on many recent days, well below the rate in our county and our state.

But we have not out-smarted this virus.  We may well see future surges.  So we have made some important changes, including:

  • Expanding our testing capacity – all students in the residence halls are now tested once a week
  • Setting up a rapid-testing system that will allow us to respond even faster to any future spike in cases
  • And encouraging students who want to go home to do so, which has allowed us to give the students living here more space to spread out.


We resumed in-person instruction for classes that have to meet face-to-face in order for students to complete the work.  For other classes, the faculty and department chairs determined what can be taught online, and what should be taught in person.

I believe strongly in the value of in-person learning, especially for our freshmen.  I know that many of you want these opportunities for your student … while some of you prefer that your student stay at home and learn remotely. My goal is to provide an array of different options, so that you can make the decisions that are best for your student and your family.

Some of our student organizations are holding socially distanced meetings … our students can now go climbing or bowling at Union South … make art in our Wheelhouse Studios … and hang out on the Union Terrace.

We also have three recreation and wellness facilities where students can make a reservation to work out (or take virtual class) – including our beautiful new Nicholas Recreation Center – better known as The Nick – which opened just two weeks ago.


Points of pride

This isn’t the way any of us wanted to start a new academic year, but the good news is – whether we’re operating remotely or in person – UW-Madison is an amazing place with world-renowned faculty and an outstanding reputation.


Each fall, we receive data that tell us something about student success and how we stack up against other universities.  I want to share just a little of this information with you:


  • Our freshmen retention rate – freshmen who re-enroll for sophomore year – is more than 95%. That’s well above the Big Ten average and it says that our students are having an outstanding experience.


  • In fact, 91 percent of our seniors rate the academic quality of UW–Madison as good or excellent, compared to an average of 82 percent at our peer schools.


  • And our students report higher-quality interactions with faculty and academic advisors than students at other schools.


  • Our graduation rates are at an all-time high. Our six-year graduation rates place us among the top 10 public universities in the U.S,  And the average time it takes for an undergraduate to complete their degree dropped again this year.   which is important to keeping student debt levels down.


  • More than half of our students are now graduating with zero student-loan debt … far better than the national average.


These numbers reflect the investment we’ve made in scholarships and in academic and career advising, as well as our focus on high-quality undergraduate education.


A campus of breadth and scope

UW-Madison also has a breadth and scope that is hard to find anywhere else. Lots of liberal arts colleges promote themselves by claiming that ‘small is beautiful.’  But when it comes to universities, I truly believe that ‘bigger is better.’


Your student can study 58 different languages here at UW (though we might counsel them to focus on just one or two). And they’ll be able to choose from about 130 different majors (including a new major in Global Health that just opened this fall) .


Our course selection changes and grows to reflect what’s happening in the world. This semester, for example, we are offering two specially designed courses that many of your students are enrolled in – one on pandemics and one on social justice movements.  Both include scholars from across many different academic fields, and they’re generating some fascinating discussions while also helping the students get to know one another.



Making this campus a place where all people feel welcome is a top priority – and that feels particularly important right now, as we are seeing a social revolution in this country created by millions of people who have taken to the streets in cities including Madison to demand justice and an end to violence against people of color.


I want to see UW take advantage of this historic moment to make some important strides toward building a more diverse and inclusive campus.


Diversity is important for a 21st century education.  The opportunity to get to know people who are different than you, and see things from new perspectives, is part of what makes a university experience so special – and it’s important to preparing your student to succeed in a global economy.



Let me close by sharing some advice.  There are really only three key ingredients your student needs to succeed here.


First, they need to study hard and take academic work seriously.

This is a challenging place.  The classes are rigorous, and the college experience can, for some students, seem overwhelming at times – and that’s especially true for freshmen learning remotely.

They need to know it’s OK to ask for help.  There are many resources available to assist with any issue – academic or personal.  You’ll learn about many of them, including our mental health services, this weekend.  I hope you will encourage your student to reach out if things aren’t going quite right.  The worst thing that new students do is struggle alone without asking for help.


The second ingredient for success is a community of friends.

That means encouraging your student to connect with classmates – even if it’s just a Zoom meeting – and to take part in one of our student organizations (there are nearly 1,000 to choose from, and many of them are now online).


The third ingredient for success is to take care of their health – not abusing alcohol or other drugs or taking foolish risks in the middle of a pandemic.

We have worked hard to ensure that every student understands how to comply with the public health rules, and the consequences for non-compliance. But as we move further into fall and the weather turns colder, the risks increase.


We need your help to reinforce these messages. If your student does not follow the county health guidelines, say by hosting or attending large parties, they can face fines.

That’s in addition to consequences the university will impose for violations of the code of conduct – for example, repeatedly failing to wear a face covering.

Parents and families have an important role to play in helping to keep our students safe:

  • I hope you will take advantage of this virtual Family Weekend to learn about the resources we have available to your student
  • I hope you will stay connected with us through our Parent and Family Program, and let us know your concerns
  • And I hope you will continue to be our partner at this very challenging time.

Thank you for raising these happy, healthy, students who choose to come to UW,  And thank you for all the homework help and the carpools and the sacrifices you’ve made, to make it possible for them to be educated at one of the world’s greatest universities.

I am so happy to welcome you to the Badger family.  I look forward to the day we can meet in person. Thank you for being here, stay in touch, and On, Wisconsin!