University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank has had a tumultuous 2016.
With high-profile sexual assault cases and a spike in hate and bias incidents — ranging from swastikas on a dorm room door to a Halloween costume of President Barack Obama in a noose — UW has found itself in the national spotlight. Meanwhile, Blank and the system dealt with the fallout from the last state budget, which cut $250 million from the UW System and took faculty tenure out of state law.
Blank sat down with The Badger Herald to address topics ranging from diversity on campus to faculty retention.
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Blank said university administration alone won’t be able to end sexual assault and the movement needs to be a partnership between administration and student grassroots groups.
“At the end of the day, behavior on Saturday night at parties off campus are not going to change because I tell people to behave differently,” Blank said. “They’re going to change because of grassroots changes in behavior by students.”
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Blank said education initiatives, like the Tonight program, an online prevention program about sexual assault and dating violence, are one piece of what the university can do to end sexual assault.
A number of student organizations, Blank said, are working on bystander intervention and sexual assault prevention. These initiatives allow students to be the initial front.
“This has to be a partnership, it can’t just be the administration,” Blank said. “It’s got to be the administration together with grassroots groups. None of us are ever really going to stop sexual assault in this society. That is unfortunately, at this moment in time, I fear the reality. But we need to be reducing the numbers, we need to be proving as much support as possible to students who experience it.”
In the days following Donald Trump’s November presidential victory, thousands of UW students gathered at the Capitol to protest sexual assault, and what they see as Trump’s marginalization of minority communities and neglect of women’s rights.
In the week after the presidential election, UW received 16 bias incident reports, according to a UW statement. In comparison, there were 66 incidents reported in the first half of the 2016 fall semester. Blank said the rise in bias reports is not unique to UW.
Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate Patrick Sims is currently implementing diversity efforts that were put in place after a 2014 diversity report. UW has also expanded the SOAR program around inclusivity, Blank said.
“All of [these efforts are] about climate change and culture change and that isn’t something that is fast.” Blank said. “We are in a world where the expression of dislike, of challenge between different groups is as strong as I’ve ever seen it. Whatever is going on out there is going to come back here to this campus.”
In addition to making sure students feel safe on campus, Blank said UW also has an obligation to continue to speak for the value of free speech. Because UW is a public university on public land, much of the campus is public space and students who want to express their opinions in that space have the right to do so, she said.
“Whatever those opinions are and however obnoxious and abhorrent they may be to other people within our community, that is what public space is about and we have to protect that and speak to that,” Blank said.
Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, spoke at a UW event last month. Blank said though there was a lot of controversy surrounding the event, it was a good example of both students in support of and against Shapiro being able to express their opinions.
While free speech in public spaces is a student’s right, Blank said there are spaces on campus that are not public, including the dormitories. UW has an obligation to respond to these instances and take disciplinary action.
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“If I come up to you and get in your face and say nasty and threatening things to you individually, that is different than public speech stated generically out here on Bascom Hill,” Blank said. “That is a form of unacceptable individual assault and behavior that we have to respond to.”
While there are currently students against free speech provisions and students who want to expand free speech provisions to everywhere on campus, Blank said at this moment in time, UW has to “sit in the midst of that uncomfortable balance.”
In exchange for the state lifting the out-of-state enrollment cap, UW agreed to accept a minimum of 3,600 Wisconsin students in every freshman class. Over the past 10 years, the average number of Wisconsin students in every incoming class has been fewer than 3,600, so Blank said the agreement is indicative of the university’s commitment to the state. She also noted since Wisconsin has experienced a decrease in high school graduates, the increased minimum means that UW will include a greater share of Wisconsinites graduating from high school.
Since the cap was raised, UW will accept more out-of-state students by increasing the freshman class size. Blank said the university receives far more applications from out-of-state students than it has spots to accept them. The move to the Common Application will likely increase applications, so it will not be necessary to direct greater recruiting efforts out-of-state. Instead, Blank said UW will be putting greater efforts into targeting strong in-state candidates.
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Blank said the university wants to become a stronger recruiter of top performing Wisconsin high school students, who usually end up applying to other top national schools instead of UW. The goal is to retain their skills in state since the likelihood of them returning to Wisconsin to work after attending an out-of-state university is low.
To do so, UW launched a campaign that targets students who score 30 or higher on the ACT called the “Prime Campaign.”
Since five of the past six state budgets, which the legislature passes every two years, have included cuts to the UW System, Blank said loss of state revenue has significantly impacted UW for a decade. The majority of cuts were focused on the educational side, causing a decrease in staff, faculty and advisors and an increase in class sizes, Blank said.
“At a time when almost all the other states around us are increasing their higher education funding and investing, every year that we are filling budget holes rather than investing in new ideas and new issues and new opportunities for students, we are falling behind our competitors and that is a problem,” Blank said.
There are four priorities included in the Board of Regents’ 2017-19 biennial operating budget request for the UW-System. Blank said it requests more than $40 million in new money and $50 million in lapse dollars, which were included in the last budget but never given by the state. It also includes a capital budget with funding requests for building, reconstruction and maintenance. Blank said for the first time ever, the last biennial budget did not allocate any money for maintenance costs, and called its exclusion “incredibly irresponsible.”
The Regents’ proposal also includes a request to increase state financial aid, which has been frozen for about the last 10 years, Blank said.
Additionally, if the Legislature decides to continue the in-state tuition freeze, which has been in place for the last four years, the Regents request that it remain in place for only one more year.
“Tuition freeze is a budget cut by another name and I’m very much hoping that in this coming year we are going to be able to have a very different conversation with the state Legislature than we had in five of the last six years,” Blank said.
Despite budget cuts, Blank said over the last eight to 10 years, the university has put $30 million of internal funding into financial aid. She said this has has “more than made up for the decline in state funds.”
Faculty retention rate
UW recently lost its National Science Foundation ranking as one of the top five research universities, a stumble that Blank links with Wisconsin’s political climate and a loss of faculty.
Nearly 10 percent of UW faculty received outside offers last year, which Blank said is a result of budget cuts and the national media storm after changes in state tenure policy.
She said when the state “tore up” tenure rules and gave Regents the responsibility of rewriting them, many faculty members were upset and the media misled people to believe tenure was completely eliminated.
The yearlong rewriting process made UW an “incredible recruiting target” for other universities in search of faculty, Blank said.
Of the 10 percent who received outside offers, UW managed to retain more than 80 percent of them, she said.
UW’s top faculty bring in millions of dollars in research funding, so the loss of certain members can have a significant impact on the ability of the university to compete in the research field. She said UW lost a few of its top grant receivers and these departures contributed to UW’s falling ranking.
To maintain faculty, Blank said she is working to build other revenue streams outside of state funds, like increasing summer classes to make it a more viable semester with more significant enrollment.
In addition, the university launched UW2020, a set of funds for early stage research on campus. She said the university is giving select proposals seed money to conduct research to a point where it is attractive to outside funders.
Despite the university’s efforts, Blank said she can’t guarantee it won’t continue to have retention issues. She said she imagines they will continue to struggle until there is an increase in sources of revenue to account for the lower pay most UW faculty members receive compared to other Big Ten schools.
UW faculty are paid about 12 percent less than their peers in the Big Ten, she said.
“That’s not Harvard, Stanford or Yale — that’s in the Big Ten,” Blank said.