With the end of the 2018-19 school year approaching, The Badger Herald interviewed University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank on a range of issues, including higher education funding, the campus climate and UW mental health services.
Below is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for style and clarity.
The Badger Herald: The 2018 elections saw Democrat Tony Evers win the governorship. Known as the “education candidate,” Evers campaigned in support of increased public education funding throughout the state, including for the UW System. Such rhetoric comes after former Gov. Scott Walker’s notorious cuts to UW’s funding throughout his administration. The governor recently unveiled his proposed budget, which includes a $150 million boost for the UW System. In light of these developments, how would you describe your relationship with the new administration? In your eyes, what does the future hold for the UW System under Gov. Evers?
Rebecca Blank: “Gov. Evers was a member of the Board of Regents by default in his previous role as the superintendent of schools in the state, so I’ve known him since I arrived [at UW]. And of course, he’s a three-time alum, and it’s always good to have alumni in senior state positions. I very much appreciate the governor’s support of higher education
I think one of the most important aspects of what he’s done as governor is that literally, almost every time he stands up, he talks about the importance of education to the state. And you often talk about higher education as a piece of that, you talk about UW-Madison, and that’s just really important to us that our senior elected state officials talk about the value of our institution and other related institutions to the state’s economics pathways, as well as just to the citizenship of the state. It is still unclear exactly how the split government between the governor and the legislature is going to proceed. I think they haven’t quite worked out where they’ll be able to cooperate and where they won’t.
So these next several months, as they’re working on the budget, there are a lot of uncertainties as to what will come out of this. The governor’s proposed state budget is really not very different than the budget the regents asked for, and I’m cautiously optimistic that however they end up resolving — and there’s some difference between these two — that we’ll end up in a good spot (i.e., no budget cuts, potentially a little bit more money). We’re hoping we’ll have a reasonable compensation increase for faculty and staff — all of that would be nice.”
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BH: A recent report showed that Wisconsin had the fourth-highest decline in per-student higher education funding over the last five years. What factors are at play behind this report’s results? Do you have plans to collaborate with the new gubernatorial administration to reverse this trend? If so, how do you plan to accomplish that?
RB: “One of the things Gov. Evers has talked about is that he wants to put more money into the [UW] System in part as a response to the comments we’ve received, so that’s some of the reasoning behind his budget, but that was also the reasoning behind the Regents’ request as well — and as I say that, those two aren’t actually very far off from each other. So, it’s an interesting question. We had some very deep cuts in the 2013-14 budget and the 15-16 budget. If you look over the last ten years — I go back to right before the recession, [up until] around a year ago — our cuts overall aren’t that different from many other states. What is different is the timing of our cuts.
Many other states took larger cuts closer to the recession. We didn’t have as deep of cuts then — we took cuts later. So, if you look at the last five years, we look very bad. Those were difficult years. If you look over the last 10-15 years, all public institutions have seen cuts of about the same size. There’s nothing particularly unique about Wisconsin that jumps out if you take a slightly longer viewpoint.
Now, having said that, these sorts of cuts to public education seriously compromise the ability of our institutions to work. I’ve got some other levers that I’m pulling to try and create institutional investments and dollars, but I don’t think we’re going to get a lot of additional money from the state over the year ahead. [Between] their demands for Medicaid funding and for roads and transportation and for prisons, every state of this country [is] facing enormous demands on their budgets.
Higher education has been a loser in that, and that’s true in the red states and that’s true in the blue states. So, the issue is: How do we advocate for the value of higher education and at least the absence of further cuts, much less a little more investment, in any state where we find yourself in this rather partisan, divided political environment? That’s where we are.
The last budget put small amounts of money back into the system. This next budget potentially — again if you go to the Regents’ request or the governor’s budget — would put a little bit more.”
National report shows Wisconsin had fourth-largest decline in higher education funding over five yearsA national report ranked Wisconsin as having the fourth-largest decline in per-student higher education funding between 2013 and 2018. The Read…
BH: How has this decline in per-student education funding affected graduate research students’ stipends? Consequently, what does this issue mean for the future of UW as a research institution and for higher education more generally?
RB: “I’d say just the opposite. In fact, we, even in the bad years, put money into graduate students. When I arrived, our graduate student stipends were at the bottom of the Big Ten, and I remember saying, ‘That’s just unacceptable.’ So, even in the midst of cuts, we put more money into graduate student stipends. We’ve gone from being in the bottom to being above the median, which is where we ought to be given the quality of our graduate programs.
There’s been a 42 percent increase … [over] the last six years in graduate student stipends, which has moved them up substantially. That is out of a commitment to the fact that we do want to adequately fund graduate students and we do want to attract high quality graduate students.
Another initiative we’re trying to implement is transitioning away from year-to-year graduate awards when admitting new graduate students. So, if you came in, you might be given one year of funding, but you have no idea what’s going to happen the second year. Most universities are now doing four and five year funding packages when you arrive. Seventy-six percent of our departments are now offering some four and five-year funding packages, and we hope by the end of this next year we’ll be at 100 percent.
So … we put more money into graduate students, in terms of increasing [funding], at a time when faculty and staff were getting no compensation increases at all because we just needed to do that. I know that there are issues around graduate students. The right way to handle this is to make the basic stipends at the right competitive level, not to exempt anyone from a fee structure which all the students pay and which supports basic structures and basic services — like buses, the health service, childcare for students (which is almost all used by graduate students) … We’ve made enormous commitments here, and I think we’ve been quite responsible about that.”
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BH: A February, student-led research project reported that Hmong students feel excluded and unwelcome at UW. This report’s findings are complemented by the creation of new cultural centers on campus, such as the APIDA and Latinx Cultural Centers. However, these centers have been dubbed “startup spaces” with perceived impermanent status, which has created a cause for concern among students that these spaces might be revoked or suffer under a lack of resources. What are your impressions of these developments against the backdrop of the campus climate report? What is your role in chancellor in creating a welcoming and inclusive campus?
RB: “So, we have explicitly created a number of those centers precisely in response to concerns that there aren’t places for people with some shared common identity to gather [or who] feel a little more isolated on other parts of campus. I’m not sure what the comment on start up centers is — I don’t know what that comment is or who made it or [in] what context. We have been starting up some of these new centers. I don’t think there’s any sense that this space is impermanent. It’s in the Red Gym, it’s where we do student programming, it’s where I expect we will continue to do student programming. We have renovated those spaces to make them appropriate for these centers, so this is a pretty strong commitment that we’ve put a substantial amount of renovation money behind. It’s not temporary.
BH: In the last year specifically, how has your administration worked to address the concerns that have come out in light of the campus climate report? What are your plans going forward?
RB: “The campus climate report was not the first thing that suggested the concerns that you’re all aware of. These concerns have emerged over the last five to six years — particularly five years ago, when there was a death here in the city of a young black man shot by the police. That really — and for similar things happening around the country — [caused] this surge of concern about inclusivity, diversity and isolation of students of color.
We have been taking on an agenda over time, and one of the things I’ve been quite clear about is that rather than saying, ‘Well there are 20 things we need to do, we need to do them all,’ [focusing instead on taking] two or three things a year and getting them started and doing them well and then saying, ‘What’s next?’ So for instance, one of the first things we did … is the Our Wisconsin program [four years ago]. We’ve been tweaking that in a number of ways ever since to try and do more as students come onto campus to talk about inclusivity and multiculturalism, and how you work with people who come from different backgrounds, and how that’s important. So that’s one of the things we’ve tried to implement.
This past year, we rolled out a program called Targets of Opportunity, which is aimed at faculty hiring. The idea here is to incentivize departments to look for targets of opportunity of people who they might be able to hire from underrepresented areas in their department. They have to make the argument of what underrepresented means. There are departments where underrepresented means, ‘We need to hire more women.’ In many of our departments, of course, underrepresentation would be of people of color. There are few cases where people have made arguments about particular perspectives on discipline and on the world in certain experiential backgrounds they want people to have. And so people are making these proposals. I think we have certified 36 hires. These are often hires to people who are highly competitive and successful individuals, so we’ll see what our yield rate is this first year. We have eight acceptances, and 12 of those offers are outstanding. If we’re able to hire 15 to 20 people off this program, we made a five year commitment to start with. We’ve put a lot of money into the program, paying a lot of the resources centrally.
If we can, over the next five years hire 15 to 20 people out of this program on a regular basis, that will change the complexion, the visibility and the face of our faculty on this campus in many places. I’ve been delighted at the responses of schools and colleges. We’ve had proposals across campus. A number of places are telling us they’re not making proposals this year, but what they’ve been doing is strategically trying to identify targets of opportunity, talk to them, and invite them in for a seminar and set this up for another year to offer then. That’s one of the things we’re doing.
That’s this year, and the year before one of the big things we’ve started was Bucky’s Tuition Promise … aimed at ensuring low income families from Wisconsin can come here. Part of diversity is having kids from dairy farms as well as kids from suburbs as well as kids from urban Milwaukee. Bucky’s Tuition Promise has people from 65 of the 72 counties, and you see rural Wisconsin, you see small town Wisconsin, you see Madison and Milwaukee all well-represented.
It says something about how well our admissions office has marketed this, that we’ve really drawn in quite a swath of people. My hope is that those effects will build over time as more and more people hear about this and know that if your child is a strong student, they should be thinking about coming to UW-Madison, and we’re going to work with you to make it possible to be affordable here.”
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BH: Students have repeatedly expressed concerns over the university’s mental health services, which are perceived as lacking in space, cultural competency, and accessibility and availability, among others. However, UHS is also regularly rated as one of the best university health services in the nation. So how do you square that disconnect and what measures has your administration taken to bridge that disconnect?
RB: “The context here is important, and both indeed can be true. The demand for university health services has soared at every university across the country. Everyone is sort of feeling like they’re running a little bit behind. We have historically had very good health services and I think we still do. But we have not kept up with demand, as has every other university. We’re all a little bit behind here.
The fact that we had an interim [director] and a failed search last year didn’t help us either. We now have a new director of the University Health Services arriving May 1. I’m very excited about this individual — they have the right background to take this over. One of his charges is to think about growth … There’s going to be some student fee money in this. We’ve said we will front end as much as necessary to hire 10 new professionals here.
We have historically had very good health services and I think we still do. But we have not kept up with demand, as has every other university. We’re all a little bit behind here.Rebecca Blank
As I suspect you know, Vice Chancellor Lori Reesor has appointed a mental health task force to look at what we do, what the needs are and to make recommendations. I asked that they make some short-term recommendations at the end of the semester. I’m expecting to receive those by the middle of May. But this is going to be a six to eight month process getting a fuller set of recommendations … It’s a really good task force with students, faculty, staff and a few outside people as well involved in it.
There’s some things here that are obvious low-hanging fruit, such as trying to do some evening hours [for counselling]. There are other things that are much more difficult, [like] trying to figure out how we serve students effectively in multiple models. Many people have a model that includes coming in and spending an hour with a counselor. What I will tell you is that neither we nor any university in the country can meet that level of demand right now.
And so we’re really trying to think about group counseling for some types of anxiety or depression, [where] group counseling can be as effective as one-on-one counseling. There’s some peer counseling models and peer mentoring that have been effective on other campuses. For certain types of issues that students come in with, there’s certain technology prompts and apps that people have done some pretty serious evaluation on. That can be useful — again, it depends on each students’ issues.
There are obviously some students for whom sustained counseling relationships are very important. Part of this is doing this sort of triaging and decision making when a student first presents themself, to identify what the issues are and what the appropriate response is — rather than just assuming, ‘Let’s just put everyone into a scheduled counselor visit,’ because we’re just not going to be able to do that, at least in the near future. That doesn’t mean we can’t serve a number of these students reasonably effectively.
So thinking about those alternative models, this has to be evidence-based, we have to be looking at things that really have been evaluated and that we know work. We’ve got a real agenda to work on here. I think we have a really good person coming in to lead this. We’re going to have some good recommendations coming out of this group. It will be an ongoing challenge.”
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BH: The Student Title IX Advisory Committee recently reported that the university decided not to implement Callisto software, which was determined to not meet student needs on campus. What did that review look like? How will the Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey results inform UW’s decisions to enhance sexual assault reporting on campus? Though the results for the survey won’t be available until fall 2019, are there any insights that can be given now?
RB: “Let me start with the sexual assault survey. We, three years ago in conjunction with 27 other major, big research universities, all collaborated through the American Association of Universities to run the same surveys of sexual assault on our campuses. The ability to run a survey that we can then compare ourselves to similar schools is important, because you had schools who were doing completely different surveys. You had no idea if your number looked anything like anyone else’s number because they were based on different questions and different surveys.
This was an effort to get comparable data that we could all look at and draw baselines from. That data was not pretty. It looked on our campus like it looked on many campuses. You had close to a quarter of women reporting that, in some form or another, they had experienced sexual assault. That runs from everything from rape to groping — it’s a wide range of behaviors and problems. The number is way too high.
That survey gave us information we had not had before, and we did a number of things based on it. For instance, I think all of us were surprised by the level of issues raised by graduate students, which had been a non-discussed issue here or anywhere else, so we have implemented a whole number of services, training, education — as we do with incoming undergraduates — that’s aimed at graduate students as well.
This was an effort to get comparable data that we could all look at and draw baselines from. That data was not pretty. It looked on our campus like it looked on many campuses. You had close to a quarter of women reporting that, in some form or another, they had experienced sexual assault.Rebecca Blank
We’ll see whether that moves the needle. We’ve tried to improve our service outreach. There’s certain populations and locations that jumped out in that survey, particularly in the dorms, where we have a lot of control over what happens. I will be very interested in seeing whether there’s any sign of moving the needle between that survey and the next survey.
The other thing that came out of that survey which I was deeply appreciative of is that it mobilized a lot of student response. We had a number of student groups who said, ‘We have to take this on.’ I have to say, at the end of the day, sexual assault is going to go down because students are saying, ‘This is not acceptable’ — not because I’m standing at the top of the hill yelling, ‘You down there, don’t do that.’
We can do some things that are about education and bystander intervention and making sure that we’ve got the right services, but this has to be a cultural shift as well. So we’ll see what happened out of that survey, and it’s a reason to do the next benchmark. There are 33 schools in it this time, so there are even more comparisons. I don’t know what’s going to come out of that. I wish I could say, ‘Well I’m sure we’ve made a huge improvement.’ I’m not sure we have. This is an endemic problem across society. I would really like to see the numbers go down a little bit, but I’m going to remain skeptical until I see that data. I just encourage all your friends to participate in that survey — because the more people that respond, the more useful it is to us.
On the Callisto software — this was a company that is basically trying to sell its product at universities. Their model for how to do this is to provide a certain number of years of free service with the hope that you’re then locked in and will keep doing it. We did a serious evaluation — that’s a nice offer, you want to look at that. Our student services staff’s response was that this was not the best technological solution for some of the things that happen on this campus. I agree with that assessment from what I know about it. I don’t think that reflects any lack of attention to this issue on this campus. I think it reflects the fact that we’re doing a number of things, and this particular approach didn’t mesh very well with both what we saw our students saying and some of the other ways which we’re approaching the issue.
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BH: Anything else you’d like us to know?
RB: “As you may know, last Friday we announced a big, cross-campus Data Science Institute, which is maybe a little less interesting to undergraduates but which is really designed to create correlations across the entire university where every discipline is being affected by the advent of more data analysis or big data. This is an effort to draw collaborations across faculty, probably involving more graduate and undergraduate student researchers, and to serve the university better.
As you may know, that came out of a report that students, faculty, and alumni had written last fall. There was another major recommendation in that report around the reorganization and restructuring of departments that relate to computers and technological uses, and we’re in the midst of that. I’m hoping by the end of May, if not in the next two weeks — which I don’t think will happen — we’ll be making some announcements about the other piece of that report as well.
As you may know, in the last year, our number of computer science majors has soared. When I arrived, we had 300 computer science majors. We have 1,700 this year. It is the biggest major on campus. The level of increase is unbelievable. Our faculty hiring has not begun to catch up with that. If you add to that the increase in student interest among those who aren’t computer science majors, but who want to take a certificate or a set of courses or engage in some form or another with some degree of competence in this area and be able to say, ‘Yes, I’m an art history major, but I also can do digital stuff and here’s the courses I’ve taken,’ or, ‘I’m a chemistry major, but I’m really interested in how you analyze certain things and I’ve got these skills in data science’ — so we’ve got a big agenda there that I hope we’ll be talking about and working on.
We are working on putting a data science major together and hope to have some of the classes in place so that incoming freshmen and sophomores who are interested in that can start in on those classes this next September, even though it will take a bit to actually get final approval for the major. We’re making a big investment in the whole area of data-related academic issues — not just computer science, but the whole range of this.
This is not an investment in one department, though that’s an important department to us. It’s an investment in the full university, because if you’re looking out five and ten years as to where student interests are going, where all of academic disciplines are moving, and what we have to do to strengthen the university’s long-term reputation and presence and abilities — not just in these areas, but all the correlated areas — we need to be investing across the university and providing a deeper set of educational curriculum and a deeper set of supports for faculty, who are increasingly going to be using some of these techniques.
I’m excited about that, it’s one of the things we’re working on. American Family Insurance has given us $20 million to launch this Data Science Institute. Ten million dollars will endow it, which means it will be held permanently and the interest off that will be used every year, and $10 million is expendable money for research projects. It will be known as the American Family Data Science Institute.