Wisconsin Counties Association

March 3, 2021

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to join you virtually today – I always look forward to seeing all of you and I hope that next time we’ll be together in person.

I know that 2020 was a very difficult year for Wisconsin’s counties – and 2021 hasn’t been a whole lot better.  I want to thank:

  • WCA for the work it’s done to help our counties weather this storm
  • The county administrators and county board supervisors and staff for finding a way to keep moving forward despite extraordinary challenges
  • And WEXA for all that they are doing to build understanding of the value of Extension and to help keep programs going in the midst of this pandemic.

Here at UW-Madison, we have faced some of the same challenges you are all facing – and a few that are unique to a big, public research university. 

UW-Madison update

I want to share with you several state budget initiatives for which I hope you’ll help advocate.  But first let me give you a quick update on what’s happening on our campus.

Good news

Even in an historically challenging year there is good news to share:

  • UW-Madison continues to be a ‘hot’ school nationally. We set a new record for freshman applications last month – they’re up 16% over last year with increases both in-state and out-of-state.


  • We’re now among the top 10 public universities in the country in 6-year graduation rates. And we’ve reduced time to graduation.  That’s good news for many reasons.  One is that it reduces debt.  57% of our undergraduates graduated last year with no student-loan debt.


  • We’ve also increased scholarship aid to expand access for low-income Wisconsin students. I’m particularly proud of a three-year old program called Bucky’s Tuition Promise that tells students:  If you can qualify for admission to UW-Madison and your family’s income is at or below the median in Wisconsin (about $60K), you will receive scholarship aid to cover all tuition and fees for four years.  One in 5 WI freshmen is now covered by this program.

I am proud of the quality of education and research at UW-Madison – but COVID has made this past year a particularly difficult one.

COVID-19 update


When the pandemic hit nearly a year ago, we sent students and most employees home and changed our entire instructional model in 10 days.  We redesigned 8,000 classes so we could teach remotely.

We re-opened in the fall with multiple new policies and new health protocols.  For example, we:

  • Reconfigured the ventilation systems in our buildings
  • Changed class times to limit the number of students moving through the hallways at one time
  • Purchased nearly 2 million masks and 7,300 gallons of hand sanitizer
  • And stood up systems for testing, quarantine, and isolation

Lots of people told us it would never work.  I’m happy to say we proved them wrong.  After a spike at the start of fall semester which we quickly got under control, positivity rates were consistently below the state and county through December and they continue to be low.

We’re now well into spring semester with twice-a-week testing for all students, and a special app called Safer Badgers that displays a green badge on the person’s phone when they’re current with their testing and they’ve tested negative.  Anyone who wants access to our buildings has to display the green badge to be admitted.

None of this has been easy or cheap.  Our COVID-related expenses now stand at about $50m.  But we have to keep our campus safe, and to make sure we catch infections when they occur so that we keep the community safe as well.


The best news this semester is that we have begun vaccinations.  To date we’ve given more than 7,000 shots (note:  do not say we have vaccinated 7,000 people) to those eligible in this first tier, and I hope over the course of this semester we will be able to vaccinate all of our faculty and staff.  And next fall, I want to be able to vaccinate any student who arrives without a vaccination.

That’s the only way we can plan on a more normal fall semester.


In addition to educating thousands of students, we are also running one of the 10 largest research institutions in the U.S.  We’ve entirely rearranged our laboratory work flows to make sure we can operate safely.

Our faculty have jumped into COVID-related research quickly.  We’ve brought in $51m for projects related to COVID in the past 10 months.  For example, our faculty are:

  • Developing better treatments for people who are hospitalized
  • Working to understand new strains of the virus
  • Designing systems for equitable vaccine distribution
  • Studying the effect of COVID on communities of color

Extension and Budget

This public health crisis and its interrrelated economic crisis have made the work of our Division of Extension more important than ever.

When the Cooperative Extension moved back to its original home here at UW-Madison 2½ years ago, we knew we had an opportunity to deepen and broaden the work of both institutions – but we had no idea just how vital that work would become.  Over the past year:


  • When counties faced questions of what to do with dairy and farm products in the face of market upheaval, Extension staff worked side-by-side with university researchers to come up with solutions – including direct assistance to farmers.


  • When families faced unemployment and were uncertain how they’d pay the mortgage and put food on the table, we worked to help them find assistance and manage their budgets.


  • And when communities had questions about the best way to communicate emergency orders to residents, we provided answers.


The Governor’s budget includes new funding to support Extension – as the Board of Regents requested.  Among other things, the proposal adds:


  • Additional faculty Extension specialists in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences who will work directly with farmers on new technologies to address a variety of problems.


  • Additional regionally based Extension specialists focusing on multiple areas – from cranberry and vegetable farming … to water quality … to improving health care in Wisconsin’s rural counties.


  • Continued state funding for the Dairy Innovation Hub which is a collaboration among UW-Madison, UW-Platteville, and UW-River Falls.


  • The Dairy Hub is bringing in federal research grants and private funding that’s allowing us to recruit top talent and build high-impact research and outreach programs that focus on helping Wisconsin to continue to produce the highest-quality dairy products in a way that is sustainable both economically and environmentally. For example:


  • One project is designing a user-friendly mobile app to help farmers apply fertilizer in a way that minimizes costs and environmental impacts.


  • Another is exploring the health benefits of yogurt and other fermented milk products to help producers develop and promote new foods.


It’s wonderful to see these projects take shape and to think about future projects, and I am grateful to Governor Evers for supporting new positions in CALS and Extension, and for putting forth a budget that will help us recover from the effects of the pandemic more quickly and return to the classroom in the fall.

UW-Madison is facing a loss of $320m as a result of the pandemic.  That includes a lapse of $51m in state dollars that were supposed to support (among other things) the Dairy Hub – which we have continued to fund by cutting other things.  Our staff and faculty are taking a full year of monthly furlough days, and we are implementing budget cuts across UW-Madison this year, in response to our financial losses.  A budget cut to UW System schools this next year, on top of the pandemic effects, would be extremely hard to cope with.

I know this pandemic also has been devastating to Wisconsin’s counties, and I am committed to continuing the university’s support for the work we do together.

I look forward to continuing to work with the governor and leaders in the legislature through the budget process.  I hope that all of you will stand with us to advocate for a state budget that invests in the UW System to allow us to continue to expand our important work in partnership with Wisconsin counties and communities.  I hope you will reach out to us with questions and ideas, and I look forward to our work together.  Thank you.