The Badger Herald sat down with Chancellor Rebecca Blank and Dean of Students Lori Berquam on Oct. 28 to discuss a range of topics including sexual assault, tenure policy, concealed carry on campus and diversity.
Below is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for style and clarity.
The Badger Herald: You’re now in your third year as chancellor and going off of how the past two years have been, how do you think your goals have changed now than they were coming into this three years ago?
Rebecca Blank: That’s a good question. I’m not sure that most of the fundamental goals have changed, I mean the sense of what is it this university needs to do to move forward in terms of its education mission and to move forward in terms of its research mission. I don’t think my sense of that has changed a lot. It’s certainly deepened and gotten a lot more nuanced as I’ve gotten to know the campus and our programs and the people a lot better.
It was really interesting because usually you do a first year and you go through everything and by the second year you say, “Oh yeah I did that before.” The second year with the budget in it was so entirely different from the first year. It was really interesting, it was just like a whole different job the second year than the first year. I’ll now find out in two more years if that’s the pattern or if it changes again. I think part of what I have learned is this is a little harder than I probably would have thought, and maybe hoped.
There’s just a lot more issues that need to be publicly discussed about what is higher education and what is the role of campus and what role do we play in the state and I think I’ve learned that I can’t take anything for granted about those issues. Because there are more people than I wished there were who clearly see those issues in a very different way than I think I do, or many people on this campus do. So the need to promote that discussion becomes very important.
The subsidiary piece of that coming out of last year is the sense that we really are facing a long term period, you know as the economy recovering, I think I was hopeful that we wouldn’t be in serious financial troubles because an economic expansion is often when states invest more in higher education. Because this state is not experiencing quite the same level of economic expansion or income growth, we are still in a time of economic contraction in terms of the state dollars into this university.
That in itself creates, more of my time has gone into that than I probably would have predicted initially coming in. Probably every public university president says that two years in.
BH: Coming away from the Gov. Scott Walker’s $250 million cut and removal of tenure and shared governance from state statute, how would you describe how that relationship has changed and what is your take on the university’s role in the state?
RB: The need to really talk at a pretty fundamental level about what is the university, why does it matter, what does it do for the state. And not to take any of that for granted, I think that’s important. I do think quite a lot of people in the state understand our role in education and particularly the discussion around training a skilled workforce. There’s a little less understanding of our role in producing a set of well-rounded graduates who are not only good workers but good citizens, and the role of the liberal arts. That’s an important thing to message.
I think very few people, and this is not unique to Wisconsin at all, understand what the value to their state is of a big research university. And what research is, what that means as an enterprise and how that benefits the state is something that we really do need to talk a whole lot more about. We are the research one university in the state. Many states don’t even have a single really major, prominent research institution and this gives an advantage in all sorts of ways to the businesses in the state and the economic development in the state.
We’ve got to be able to talk about that in ways that citizens can understand. I think the university hasn’t done a very good job of that. I don’t know that we’re doing a better job but we’re trying, even just raising it explicitly and talking about it.
BH: Where do you think the miscommunication lies?
RB: A lot of it is most people in their lives have no contact with research, it’s not something that folks are familiar with. They don’t know what it is, they don’t know, when you say that a faculty member spends half of their time on research, they only teach two classes, they don’t know what that means. Whether that’s hard work or whether that’s staring out a window.
So trying to tell stories, and I think [University Communications] has done, if you look at those regular stories on the front page of our website, they do a really good job of trying to talk about how does the research that we do here say something that’s of value to the world.
To the state, to the nation, to the world, to some group and that type of outreach and work is important. And you’ve got to keep telling that because most of the time those people aren’t listening. You’ve got to keeping saying it so when they do listen, they can hear it.
BH: What about your relationship and UW’s relationship within the System itself? There seem to be disagreements about tenure policy moving forward.
RB: I don’t know if there are disagreements. The system clearly wants to set an overarching policy. And then campuses will be able to write their own procedures as to how they are going to specifically carry out that policy. I admit that I would have hoped this would move forward a little faster because I would have loved to have this settled before we go fully into recruitment season here. But these things take time to do well and I suspect it will take us into the late winter or early spring.
I remain very strongly hopeful and believe that we’re going to be able to write a policy both at a system level as well as at a Madison level that is strictly around tenure, fully consistent with all of the AAUP type requirements as to what a first rate university supposed to be doing in terms of protection of its tenured faculty, but that does respond to the changes that took place in state law this last spring.
It’s a process and as people work through it they keep seeing new things, “Oh, we’ve got to work on this, or we’ve got to settle that.” And that just adds to the time. I know that the Faculty Senate on Monday is going to at least consider a proposal for this university. The tenure task force of the system is moving forward. My guess is that they will come up to some recommendations to the Regents again some time in the winter.
After the Regents have passed that they will then turn to and consider individual campus proposals. A lot of faculty care very deeply, for good reasons, about the tenure protections at the university and this is going to continue to generate a lot of attention and a lot of press. It’s pretty inevitable.
BH: Were you surprised by the moves to remove shared governance and tenure from state statute?
RB: So let me say, I don’t think they removed shared governance from state statute, they altered the shared governance in a way that basically weakened it but it’s not quite, we still have actually, compared to most other places, which have nothing, it’s still sort of strong.
I knew that there were discussions around tenure and whether the state was going to take that on as part of this budget cycle. I did not know whether they were going to end up doing that or not.
So I can’t say that it was a complete surprise. I wish there had been more consultation with us upon doing that so that we could’ve worked a little more jointly. I do think what got us in the most trouble was that the Legislature opted to drop in this new language since they removed tenure, they had to put some sort of language in that covered tenure faculty from an HR perspective, right.
And so they dropped in the same language that we had for staff. Had they consulted with any of us on that, we would have told them that that language wasn’t entirely appropriate, and it’s that language in particular about dismissal around program discontinuance, etc. that has caused the most problems and that was a problem that didn’t have to be caused had there actually been consultation.
Budgets, they evolve rapidly, things get done late at night. Again, there’s nothing unusual about this process as a legislative process. I think there were some problems that we could have avoided had there been some more consultations in time and in advance notice.
BH: There was criticism from some faculty members saying that you and other System officials didn’t fight hard enough to save tenure, do you have a response to them?
RB: Well again I want to talk about saving tenure, the Board of Regents almost immediately put into regental statute the same language that had been in state statute, thereby putting us on exactly the same playing field as virtually everyone of our peers, all of whom have these tenure statements in their regental statute.
So, I don’t want to frame this as saving tenure. It’s the question of preserving tenure and state statute, as I say, I did not know in advance that that was going to happen in quite the way that it did. Once it happened, I don’t think there was a lot of opportunities to change it. The real question was how quickly was the System going to respond, and they responded almost immediately by putting into policy what had been in statute.
We can have an argument about whether you’re better off with these things in state statute or whether you’re better off in your board of Regents policy. The legislative process is always strange and wonderful. As we learned, these things can be changed at any time. I don’t have any problems with this being in regental statute. Every university I’ve been at for my whole life up until now had this in regental statute, there were strong protections.
The Regents are people who are around universities, they want to make sure that they are working effectively so. I’m not sure that putting this in regental statute gave us weaker tenure. The problem was around the language that was adopted in the budget and our need to then write regulations around that language. I realize that others can disagree with that and there are some faculty who really believe that state statute was a much stronger protection but, I would say, turned out not to be.
BH: There’s been some criticism over the removal of the out-of-state enrollment cap, and how that might intensify socio-economic divides on campus.
RB: So let me talk about that because I think that hasn’t been fully understood. Comment number one is, in exchange for lifting that cap, and it’s waiving it for four years so this is an experiment, we made an incredibly strong commitment to students in the state of Wisconsin. We committed to admitting a minimum of at least 3,600 Wisconsin freshmen in our entering class every year. That is approximately as many as we’ve admitted last year, it is more than we admitted on average over the last ten years which I think was like 3,550.
As the demographics of the state are shifting, and the number of high school students decline, the number of high school graduates in the state has declined by 10 percent in six years. It’s a huge decline. We will be admitting a larger and larger fraction of high school graduates at 3,600. So, not only have we made a commitment to being as strong as we had been, we made a commitment to being even stronger in the future. And we’re going to have to work to make sure that we attract the highest quality grads, so we don’t see quality decline.
We’ve got more of the top students who apply to us but might end up going out of state, we want to them keep in-state, and keeping them in-state has all sorts of advantages for the state. So that was the commitment we made and in exchange for that, given declines in numbers of high school graduates, they therefore have lifted this cap. It is very hard as you look forward to say, for every out-of-state student you admit you have to admit three in-state because that gives you no room for expansion because the number of in-state students is declining out there. So I actually think that this is very strong protections for the state as well as giving us a little more flexibility if we’re going to grow some, to grow on the margin where there actually are more students instead of less students.
BH: Of course the university will try to expand but in what ways can that university make sure that it doesn’t push out?
RB: Yeah, and that’s a serious concern, and we obviously share that concern. Over the last 10 years, the university has grown by 600 students in terms of the freshmen class. You know over that time period, we’ve continued to see declines in time to graduation, increases in graduation rate, increases in retention rate between the freshmen and sophomore year.
So there’s nothing, believe me, that says by growing some, you’re going to reduce your outcomes. In fact, as we have grown some, and not by a lot, our outcomes have steadily improved, and we’ve worked at that. And I intend to keep working at that and we’ve got a number of initiatives moving forward.
So, the question is, how do we grow. We’ve got to pay attention to some of the big departments that have had a lot of students coming up and that will be a problem whether we are growing or not. The number of students taking chemistry has dramatically increased far beyond what would have happened even if we had had no growth whatsoever, chemistry lab availability would have been a problem. So those are problems we’ve got to solve in any case. And we’ve got to pay even more attention to them if we’re going to grow a little more on the margin.
One way in which I hope to grow which doesn’t result in those problems, we have seen an increase in the number of transfer students from outside the state, seeking to come to Wisconsin, meaning that most of them are coming in their junior year. And of course that says that there’s very little pressure on the dorms, very little pressure on those big intro courses.
So we do want to look at that population without in any way reducing our in-state transfers, asking whether we can expand our out-of-state transfers at the junior year point. Just because we’ve got an opportunity there of increased applications. But we’ve got to make sure we keep quality up in doing that. It’s a great way to expand without hitting exactly the problems you’re talking about. And this new policy allows us to take advantage of that.
BH: But some of the criticism has said that, bringing in more out-of-state, and I’m out-of-state, I have the Powers-Knapp program helping me, in what ways can the university …
RB: So let me talk about the diversity issue. As you know, we raised out-of-state tuition this past year. And I have said this every time I’ve talked about it and people often don’t hear it, you always have to put up to 25% of any tuition increase back into scholarship aid. Because you have to guarantee that tuition increases don’t shut off your flow of lower income students, that’s just given. And similarly, if you’re going to expand out-of-state, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the resources to keep attracting the diverse mix.
Given what Wisconsin is and what Wisconsin looks like, a high share of our diversity comes from out-of-state. We work hard at in-state diversity but we have to attract out-of-state diversity if we want a Latino population here that is largely going to be out-of-state. Not entirely, but largely. We’re not Texas or Florida or California.
One of the reasons why a little bit of expansion of out-of-state is good is it’s not just ethnic or racial diversity but diversity in terms of experiences and where people come from increase diversity. That type of diversity is an important part of the educational process. And it’s really one reason why virtually every university is quite committed to trying to admit diverse classes.
I actually see the expansions in out-of-state admissions conditional on having the financial aid, which is a really important condition on the diversity front. One reason why we’re working so hard in the current fundraising campaign to increase scholarship aid is precisely that. If we’re going to try to increase our out-of-state admissions we need some more scholarship aid to keep the diversity in that group.
I mean it’s absolutely the right questions to ask, and the best thing I can say is watch what we do on this one because we will be held accountable for the mix of students that we bring in and the access of this university to lower income students, both in-state and out-of-state.
BH: Last year, we saw UW campus mobilize in a way we hadn’t seen since Vietnam War protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. That issue came knocking on our own front door when we had to deal with the death of Tony Robinson by an MPD police officer. What do you think the role is of this university and of university students at state institutions in these movements and holding this discourse?
RB: I’m going to let Lori answer this but let me take a crack at it, because she’s very involved in trying to do some of the student programming that pulls people into this.
Yea, I mean it was a fascinating moment in time particularly after the Tony Robinson death here in town and the number of people who became deeply involved in this issue and really putting time into it, clearly this was the issue on campus for many, many people in the community.
As a university you’ve got to take notice of that in several ways. First of all, this is a teachable moment, we’re about teaching about society and what happens and finding ways to pull more people into this conversation is an important part and Lori was very involved in doing some of that.
Secondly, when confronted with those sorts of big social problems, I think a university absolutely has to ask itself how are we involved, not just in teaching about this, but how are we involved in directly responding to and addressing these problems and we come back and talk about how are we engaged in schools here, how are we engaged in criminal justice and one of the things I feel good about this university is the number of ways in which we are in the community on a whole set of at least very closely related issues.
Whether it is the work that we do in the South Park neighborhood in our sort of campus away from campus out there, we’ve got a location down there in one of the lower-income neighborhoods. Whether it’s the legal aid clinic that our law school runs or their Innocence Project.
It was not by chance that we picked the Just Mercy as our readable book for this year. It wasn’t by chance that we had five times the crowd that we’ve ever had, I know that’s probably an overstatement, but a much bigger crowd, we’ve had some big crowds for our Go Big Read books, the crowd that night, we ended up turning I think 500 people away, told them to go home and look at it on there. We had multiple overflow rooms available and they weren’t enough.
So I think one of the reasons people are still engaging in this, they understand this is an issue we need to know something about it and we need to be talking about it and thinking about how it affects us and how we can be part of the answer. That’s both taking advantage of the teachable moment, but also trying to push the question of what should we both as individuals and we as an institution be doing about this.
Lori Berquam: I think one of the exciting things for me, and I think you probably also witnessed this, is just the level of conversation and discussion that ensued — in the classroom, outside the classroom, in forums, and I think that to me, that demonstrates the passion that we have to learn about this and what do we want to do about this.
I think one of the things that we’re also excited about is the continual evolution of the diversity framework and how some of the things that we have been discussing will find their way in the diversity framework and will be part of our institution, our fabric, moving forward. I will say one of the things I appreciated was the level of passion and involvement in our students, and it’s what Madison is known for, so I was very happy to see it. I was also very happy to see how it led to productive conversations, and that it wasn’t destructive.
And I hope those are continuing, I hope that now that we’re in a new year it’s not ending. And there’ve been conversations, you’ve probably been down to the [Multicultural Student Center] and have heard some of them that have transpired and others that are continuing around campus. The diversity forum is next week, where again, conversations will continue.
I think the Just Mercy book was phenomenal, and I’ve heard from more students this year than ever, the number of classes that are engaging with that particular book and the conversation, the actual emotion that it’s also producing.
RB: I think one of the larger questions, and this is a large social question to me. I don’t want to jump in to say “oh, what a great teachable moment” — you start by saying, why is it that we have to have tragedies before you create that type of mobilization, and create those sorts of moments. Because this grew out of the terrible tragedy of the death of a young man, who no one would’ve wished would’ve died, and of course many other young men and older men elsewhere around the country.
I think one of the questions that should confront us in the midst of this is how do you mobilize against injustice of this sort, without having to have people die before it happens?
LB: Before it’s an injustice, how do we all stand up? I will also say a couple of thing to take away that are continuing, our Multicultural Center students are working with UWPD to create a training video for new officers and continuing officers so it demonstrates both the partnership our police department has with the Multicultural Student Center and our students of color. But I think to the larger Madison community it really demonstrates also, the value that UW is offering here as a teaching ground, as a training opportunity.
That’s only one example of others that are happening and I think are good indicators of our interest in continuing to keep this conversation alive and it is based out of a tragedy and it’s too bad that that has to happen.
But now let’s make the most of that and help our campus and our students particularly, because you’re our future leaders. You’re the ones that’ll be out there long after we’re gone…leading the change that needs to happen.
BH: A recent survey showed that 27.6 percent of students will experience sexual assault while on campus, and there’s been a lot of dialogue going on and UW is hosting listening sessions for students to give their input. What are some of the findings, plans and strategies for the university?
RB: As I’ve said, perhaps I shouldn’t say I’m surprised, I’m very disappointed in the survey, but they’re numbers that are reflected in other campuses across the country and what this survey gave us was much clearer evidence of at least certain aspects of who is most affected and where is a lot of this occurring.
On the one hand there’s some of the larger issues, how do you get people engaged in this issue, it’s not unlike the last one we just talked about because it’s very clear that me making announcements saying that I don’t want any more sexual assault on campus will accomplish nothing, right?
We have to engage the individuals who are part of the behavior and change behavior on the ground and some of that is an educational process with things like the Tonight video and I think we’ve done a lot of things on campus that I hope are helpful. But it’s clear we’ve got a big agenda in front of us so one of the things to come out of the survey is, there are a good number of incidents in the residence halls. Not just proportionate relative to the number of students who live there, but that says something about where we need to focus some attention and training and there are a number of incidents in the Greek System, I think we might have suspected that but now we have data on it.
So we’ve gone out to the Greek community, and said to them, we want you to come to us with a set of proposals as to how you’re going to address this and let’s engage this conversation because you’ve got to own this. It’s not like we’re going to come to you and say you do this or you do that, and it’s one of the reasons one of the big focuses here is on interventionary behavior, the ‘It’s on Us’ type, as opposed to the ‘If you see something, say something,’ — If you see something, do something’ – you know, try to intervene. Keep someone else from getting in trouble if it looks like that’s happening, now that’s not always easy to do, there are a lot of incidents where there won’t be anyone else around, but this is one where behavior change is really hard.
To make progress on this, we’ve got to talk about behavior change, and whether that is abusive use of alcohol, which affects both the offenders and the victims, whether it is the view of sexuality and how you can take advantage of people in certain settings. What’s particularly striking and not a surprise to anyone who knows something about this issue is this is not stranger rape, of someone jumping out of the bushes. Now that did happen on the path here east of town, a horrible event, but that’s actually the less common form of sexual assault for women on this campus.
It is students with students, and talking to people both about how you say no, to clearly hear it, how you say it and how you hear it and how you engage in conversation to not get to the point where it gets said and not heard is really important.
LB: The thing that I think is most important is it’s going to take all of us, it’s not the administration saying do this or do that, it takes all of us working together.
There are additional prevention opportunities, there are educational opportunities, there’s also policies that we have to continue to keep our eye on. There was a listening session on Monday for looking at our code of conduct. Do we have enough victim advocates to advocate for students who find themselves in this situation?
All of those are opportunities, but we want it to be a partnership because I think that’s when it will be the strongest. It’s not that we go to the Greek community and say ‘ok well do this’ because that may or may not be the right thing. But, what is the right thing, is that we come at this together.
And that bystander component or “stand upper” component, I don’t know what the correct term is, that’s critical. It’s not just in the instance or in the heat of the situation. That’s before that even gets there, to engage in conversations about how we treat each other with respect, how we’re able to communicate our needs, how we’re also able to confront each other and say ‘hey that is a degrading joke about women’ or ‘that is racist’ or ‘that’s homophobic.’ All of that feeds into a climate of sexual violence, and that’s the systemic part of this that we want to have addressed.
RB: And that’s hard.
BH: You mentioned trying to work with fraternities and sororities, what is the university’s pull with Greek life and when can we expect to see their proposals?
LB: Well first of all let me say that the Greek life really stepped up and have had more meetings than anyone else in wanting to address this issue. So I applaud their efforts, their risk management team, their new member education all have been groups that have been meeting about this topic and have heard and reviewed all of the statistics and now we’re in that formation of what can we do? What would make the most sense to do?
We know that they’re very interested in doing another level of training — what does that training look like? Because, in reality, through the conversations that we have, it’s not necessarily Greeks doing this to other Greeks. Frankly, it’s maybe people who aren’t Greek, who want to maybe try to belong to our campus and go to the Greek community, and then find themselves in that situation. So, that training piece probably has multiple sides to it.
RB: And I do want to give a shout out to some of our athletes in trying to promote the right messages on campus. And athletes do have a visibility on campus that many other athletes don’t. And I’ve been really pleased to see that as well.
LB: And I know our band is interested in doing the same thing, so, it’s clear to me, similar to what we’ve been talking about in the Tony Robinson situation, our campus is ready to take action.
BH: Is there any specific ideas in mind that you have, I know that the administration for the most part has focused on trying to decrease the consumption of alcohol to decrease sexual violence and sexual assaults but is that a policy that you will continue to try and focus on or, is this multi-faceted approach of taking on the Greek community, taking on residence halls, taking on individual perceptions.
RB: So I think this has to be a both/and. We have every intention of continuing the education and the focus around alcohol abuse and around sexual assault.
But adding to that, some specific focus in areas that we know are particular problem areas around campus as well as talking about the behavior, the bystander interventions. I guess it’s all of the above. What makes this complex is that there’s never any silver bullet that changes behavior. Different people hear things in different ways, there’s some people who look at that Tonight video and ‘wow’ and ‘well we won’t do that’ and some people who just, it goes in one ear and out the other.
And that’s where having multiple conversations matter. So one of the things I know Lori was talking about was doing more of those conversations, particularly in the residence halls, so it’s not just you watch the Tonight video in the first week but there’s follow-up, in a number of ways, in later weeks.
LB: Right, so what we know is that we offer the Tonight video and that’s before students even get here to campus. So once they’re here on campus we want to have a second opportunity to understand what sexual assault really means and what it looks like once you’re really here. So, that’s one of the things we’re doing in the residence halls.
The other thing we’re doing in the residence halls, specifically, or what we will be doing in the fall is, and we did a great job this year in training our student staff and housefellow staff in how to address situations both as they may see them sort of spiraling, but also then how to be an advocate and how to be there, as a resource for students who find themselves in that situation.
And that’s a combination, as the Chancellor said, of both educating the residents and the students, but it’s also making sure that we have that net of support. So should something happen, the staff are trained, and highly trained, to be able to respond.
Can I add one other thing, just because this is something that I’m very passionate about. Are you familiar with Badger Step-Up? So that’s a program that all student organizations have to send two of their members of their executive board or their leadership team to participate in to be a recognized student organization.
Right now it focuses on leadership and there’s some alcohol components, there’ll be another module next year that will be about sexual violence, sexual assault. intimate partner violence as another module to that. Do we move this into ‘every single student?’ We don’t really have the capacity yet to do that, but it’s one of the things that we hope that student organizations, and we have a thousand of them, will actually engage their members to talk about this.
Whether it’s the chess club or whether it’s campus crusade, every group should be talking about this. I know we had some campus ministers do a sermon about sexual assault in their church, to the participants of the church and we had great conversation.
And I would hope that we can also look to the newspaper for that sort of community buy in and having those conversations, using the information from the climate survey to engage in the discussion and continue the discussion.
BH: Our issue last week was actually fully centered on sexual assault and sexual violence.
RB: Yes, I read that. I thought it was a good issue.
BH: I wanted to talk about a legislative bill that’s recently been proposed, which would allow concealed carry weapons inside university buildings and this bill was proposed about the same time that UWPD sent a campus-wide email about what students should do in case of an active shooter on campus. UW System almost immediately came out against the bill and said they were also working with the legislators who crafted it. What are your thoughts on it, especially in a time where we hear about a mass shooting at a university campus on a very routine basis.
RB: I don’t think there’s anyone on a college campus that doesn’t look at those shootings and say, but for the grace of God, that could happen here at any moment. As I have said, I am absolutely opposed to allowing concealed handguns into classrooms, into dorms, into Camp Randall.
I should note there is no specific piece of legislation yet, so we do not have language. There’s simply an intent to to co-sponsor. So we are waiting for a bill to drop to know exactly what’s in it.
But UWPD, a number of groups around campus, a number of groups around the System and other schools I think have almost uniformly expressed their dismay. My hope is that if there is a bill that comes forward that looks like it could go somewhere that we would also be able to mobilize parents, because I think parents may be one of the most critical voices here in the state.
I’m the mother of a sophomore at Northwestern University. I wouldn’t send her to a school where she could end up in dorm room where someone with someone with a gun in the room, I just wouldn’t do that. And I can’t be the only parent who feels that way about safety on campus particularly given the sort of shooting incidents, combined with the problems that we and every other campus have on alcohol abuse, on large crowds.
Imagine Halloween night out there on State Street with people, more people with guns than currently have them. And, this is one that we have to talk very directly with our legislators and mobilize as many voices as we can to talk about the potential risks that we’re running.
LB: Every student I’ve talked to has been like ‘Seriously, I could be sitting on a bus next to a student with a gun in the bag?’ Every student I’ve talked to has been in disbelief.
RB: And faculty have concerns, our mental health staff who deal with students in crisis have concerns, the UWPD, everyone who works at games and is part of athletic events. This is one, I must say, defies common sense.
BH: You recently helped unveil the All Ways Forward fundraising campaign. Since you became chancellor you’ve been vocal about the value of a UW degree, how does this campaign advance those goals? How does budget cuts impact this fundraising campaign and does it make it even more important now?
RB: We started in planning this campaign literally on my first day here. And we had two years of the “quiet phase” before public launch. So yes this started well before last year’s budget and there are all sorts of reasons to do this regardless of budget because the gifts by alumni, by and large, are not gifts that go to replace state dollars.
In fact, very few donors want to give to something that was funded by the state. They want to give to something that would not happen, adds to events, programs or students on campus that is somewhat unique and they can say ‘look, I did that.’ You often think about alumni fundraising as a margin of excellence: it lets you support internship programs, study abroad, or help researchers through faculty named chairs, they have money that can start their research before it’s ready to go out for grant proposal, things that are important for the functioning of the university but are add-ons to the classic things you can spend tuition or state dollars on, or federal research dollars for that matter.
There isn’t an institution of higher education in the country that isn’t pursuing alumni fundraising as a major part of their financial plan. You think about it as four legs to the stool of the finances of the university. Of the public university, state dollars, tuition dollars, federal research dollars and alumni private giving at a big research place. And this campaign is about encouraging donors to find things on campus they are passionate about that they can add to the margin of excellence. They can do something that wouldn’t otherwise happen.
In all of my experience with fundraising, nobody wants to give to a university whose funds are going downhill. Everybody wants to be a part of a winner. There’s an enormous synergy between state funding and private fundraising. If the state is investing the university, that makes our alumni even more excited about investing here because they have the sense that this is a place on the rise, this is a place going places and this is a place I’m going to put some of my money.
So I think about the state and fundraising dollars as synergistic, as complementary to each other, they’re not substitutes. And indeed if the state continues to pull money away from us, it will make fundraising from private donors even harder.
Budget problems of this past year have made it even more obvious that private fundraising has to be part of our set of tools about financing the university, but I don’t want people to think about private fundraising as we’re substituting these dollars for state dollars because we largely can’t do that. That’s not what our alumni are good to pay for. You couldn’t run a university on that basis. It’s why you have to have state, tuition, federal research dollars.
Alumni fundraising lets you do things you can’t do with those other dollars, they don’t substitute for them. I’m not going to get an alumni to help me paint the walls and sweep the floors, fix the steam pipes and even pay my basic faculty for introductory courses. That is the job of other funds.
BH: Why might some people have supported Walker’s decision to cut the UW budget?
RB: Well there’s a question of why would you want to cut the budgets. I really did see what was happening in terms of budget cuts this year. I think it’s not very related at all to the fundraising campaign issues.
We had a very tight budget in this state. We were in hot for almost $700 million on the Medicaid front, we had huge transportation needs and the transportation trust fund was in serious problems and so they did a lot of borrowing to deal with that. There had been a variety of tax reductions and the forecast for the revenues that were going to come in were coming in a little under forecast.
So all of that meant that it was just a really tight budget year, they didn’t have the money and had to make some really tough choices. They were going to have to cut a bunch of things, which they did, and that included higher education. Did we get a little bit bigger cuts than I wish we would have? Yes. I think the main driver of those cuts was just a crummy budget year all around, it wasn’t like it was a great budget year. We got cut like a number of other agencies. All state agencies got cut this year. I realize that a $250 million cut sounds dreadful, and it is, but it could’ve been much worse.
We started with what was a $300 million cut plus another $50 million that wasn’t part of that base cut but was cut elsewhere in the budget. So we started by sitting on almost a $350 million cut and that got reduced down to $250 so that was a big win in many ways. And in part because so many people rode in and talked about the negative impacts of those cuts on the universities.
BH: How much do you think that Walker’s presidential ambitions played into the budget process?
RB: It’s always more difficult when you have a major leader in the state running for president because you get caught up in the politics of presidential primaries. And of course throughout the spring Gov. Walker was doing very well in the Iowa polls and there were a lot of people in the state Legislature who wanted to make sure they were seen supporting him. They thought that was the right thing to do both for his campaign and the state. That made a lot of discussions more difficult.
Whether it’s Gov. Walker or Gov. Doyle, you just don’t want to be caught up in presidential primary politics because it puts everything through a different lens than the sole question of ‘what should we be doing here in the state?’
It also gets caught up in how it affects the presidential election and it just made it a much more complex budget year and a harder budget year as a result.
BH: Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both suggested plans to federally subsidize higher education to make up for state cuts. Would you support these plans even if it meant losing some of your own autonomy?
RB: Those plans are not very complete at this point. It’s very unclear at this point, so I admit I do not want to make any comments related to current proposals in the primary races.
BH: Concerning the athletics department, what is your process when coaches appeal admissions decision to you?
RB: So we actually have a pretty clear admissions process here which does not just involve athletics. The admissions decision, the admissions office makes decisions on candidates and sends them, and athletics obviously has a list of candidates.
This is true of a variety of schools — our music program for instance — often times very interested in recruiting people with particular talents and so if people apply, once the admissions decisions are made, those names are sent back to the departments that have interest in those individuals.
Those individuals can call for what is called an admissions conference to sit down with a set of admissions officers and talk about the case and what this individual will bring to campus and basically plead their case and the Athletics Department can do this, the music department can do this.
There are a couple of other places where there are particular talents that don’t always necessarily get fully vetted in the admissions process where they come back into these sorts of conversations. That conversation takes place and the admissions office makes a final decision. The final decision is always in the admissions office. I think in the vast majority of cases that are pled, end up with the individual being admitted. But not always. And I have to say I hire very good professional admissions professionals. I’m very impressed with that office and at the end of the day you trust their judgement.
BH: How would you describe your relationship, UW admissions’ relationship with the Athletic Department, do you wish there was more cohesiveness and communication?
RB: I don’t know that I think there are problems in terms of communications between the two. I meet with Barry Alvarez at least once a month. We often see each other multiple times in between that. There’s regular communication between his staff and our staff whether it’s on admissions or on regulatory standards or on licensing. There’s lots and lots of regular communications between what happens in the bowels of athletics and what happens in the bowels of other offices around Bascom and elsewhere.
I actually think we work together pretty well. Are there occasional tensions? Yes, as there are between us and the chemistry department, and us and student aid and us and communications.
Our Athletic Department, I will say, I think has done, compared to almost any of our peers, a superb job of being a first rate competitor. We do really well. Having students who perform well academically, our football team last year, this didn’t get enough press, was the top rated football team in terms of academic performance in Division I. They were better than Stanford, they were better than Duke.
In the Division I schools, we came out on top academically with our football team. And you know, we had a pretty good run. And we have had a clean program. We have not had NCAA violations for over a decade. And on top of all of those, the Athletic Department returns money back to the university which is also a rarity among our peers. So I have great appreciation for that department for what it does and for how it performs.
LB: I would just add that they have always stepped up — It’s On Us campaign, the You Can Play campaign, LGBT, Badgers Give Back. They have really stepped up and are very willing to always partner with others on campus and in the community I think to demonstrate the strength that they offer and the pride they have in being Badgers as well.
BH: Any additional comments?
LB: Actually voter ID because that seems to be something that garnering a great deal of interest. And just so you know, the cost of reproducing our IDs, because we have access control which other campus like UW Oshkosh don’t, and would necessitate a student getting those done every two years, because that’s the date of expiration for a voter ID, would potentially mean a student wouldn’t have access to their debit cards.
So let’s just say they forget to get it, because you know, who looks at the expiration date on their ID, and you forget to get it and you’re in a hurry, and suddenly you can’t get into the library, you can’t get any food, you can’t get into Rec Sports.
RB: And it’s probably that there’s a real cost to this and we’re talking about millions of dollars of producing a new ID and reproducing it every two years for students. There are also real best practices about what you want on a student ID particularly a student ID that’s a debit card and that has access into buildings across campus. And best practices say that you do not put a picture and a signature on it, which we would have to do as part of the voter ID.
I think we have all decided pretty clearly that our best option is to issue separate voter ID cards starting immediately, I think we’re already doing this. Every person who has to go get a new ID, which of course is going to be one-fourth of our campus by next fall because all the new students coming in, when they get that ID will be asked, “Would you also like a voter ID? We can produce one for you immediately.”
And anyone else who walks in will get this, we’ve really ramped up before an election, there’s an April election. There’s obviously going to be a November election. So that we can handle lots of students, we’ll be open that weekend before the election. I think we’re in as good of shape as we can be and I feel pretty comfortable. The voter ID laws in this country in this state changed. They’ve made it harder to vote. That’s a fact. But I think we’ve done, we’re doing, everything that we can to try to make sure that students who want to vote know exactly what has to happen to get the things to them that they need.