The Badger Herald sat down with University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank on Dec. 2 to discuss a range of topics including sexual assault, campus diversity, faculty retention and out-of-state enrollment.
Below is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for style and clarity.
The Badger Herald: Now that the budget cuts have been in place for a year and a half and we’re moving toward a new budget season, what areas have the last round of cuts had the largest impact on?
Rebecca Blank: The system as a whole is facing this … this is another budget year. Budgets are biennial, so they last for the next two years. We, being the system of all higher education in the state, that includes us here at UW-Madison, have been cut in five of the last six biennial budgets. So that’s ten of the last twelve years and enormous loss of state revenue. And almost all of the state revenue cuts are focused on the educational side of the budget. The effect of that is we are down in both staff and faculty, we are down in advisors and class sizes are somewhat larger. There are a number of effects on other parts of the university. Our building maintenance is far below what it used to be, which in the long run is just going to end up coming back and adding more costs. So there are very real effects of this, and the combination of the budget cuts with the tuition freeze has meant for higher education universities across the state that there is not a lot of leverage. And I can promise you that while tuition may have been frozen and budgets may have been cut, my costs continue to increase. 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. The regents have put out a very strong proposal — about both dollars and capital dollars, tuition and financial aid — and I would very much hope that there is going to be support for that, and I will say that students have a very important role to play on this one because students often have credibility with their legislatures in a way that I don’t. I’m considered a lobbyist for my organization in some ways. There usually is, during the budget year, an active group through ASM and other students that join in that get involved in talking to legislators and being involved in all of this. That’s just a really important issue I want to put a peg into, and I’m sure we’ll come back to because the dollars alone don’t make a great university, but 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.
BH: What will UW’s main priorities be when it comes to lobbying at the state capitol this spring?
RB: Our main priorities are to say we want to support the regent’s budget, and that budget includes the following different pieces: There’s a request for about $43.5 million new dollars in money and that goes along with the request for … they put $50 million into our budget last time but didn’t give us our money, it’s called lapse dollars, so also a request to actually pay those lapse dollars, that $50 million, as well. So asking for more direct dollars is an important piece. Secondly, a capital budget. The capital budget funds are buildings, any reconstruction, any new buildings, and any maintenance. In the last biennial budget, for the first time ever, they did not even give us maintenance money. So when a steam pipe breaks in Bascom Hall, I took the dollars out of education. I just find it incredibly irresponsible that the state would just not give maintenance dollars to state agencies. In the long run, if you aren’t keeping your roofs up, if you aren’t maintaining your buildings, if you aren’t working on your infrastructure it will come back and bite you terribly. A normal capital budget, unlike what we got last time. Thirdly, there’s a request for an increase in state financial aid, which has been frozen for about, I think the last ten years, and as the number of students in the state has increased, in higher education that means less dollars per student coming in terms of state financial aid. That’s all aimed at low income students. And then there is a request around tuition to say that if you are going to freeze tuition, do so only for one more year. In the sixth year, so we’ve had four years of a tuition freeze, in the sixth year, the second year of this budget biennium, allow tuition to increase with inflation. You can’t keep it at a price freeze zone forever, that’s not an effective way to run an institution. And then the regents at their meeting in December will talk about faculty and staff pay plan, and that will be happening next week.
BH: Moving more broadly into Washington, obviously a lot is changing right now. To what extent might the UW administration change focus on lobbying-wise at the federal level?
RB: I have no idea. I think people just don’t know what the new administration is going to focus on, particularly in higher ed, which is not the topic for a lot of conversations. One of our biggest concerns, of course, is federal research dollars through places like National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. More than a third of our budget comes in from the federal government, most of it research dollars that our faculty compete for … very tough competition against their colleagues all around the country and maintaining strong federal research dollars to look at things like disease issues and new technologies and manufacturing. I just don’t know because this administration hasn’t had much to say about that. Clearly there are things they could do that would change our focus, but I just don’t know what it is they are going to focus on in the next several years.
BH: What are your main concerns of that big unknown?
RB: Well unknowns always create some degree of risk. Like most organizations we will continue to do what we are doing until things become clearer. But hopefully there will be more signals in the next few months. I’m not exactly sure what this administration is going to emphasize in terms of higher education.
BH: Branching off the research base, UW recently dropped out of the top five research universities. Why do you think that is?
RB: I think it is very clear why that happened. As you probably know, we’ve had a lot of retention issues around campus as a result of particularly the last round of not just budget cuts, but the state tore up the tenure rules that had been embedded in state law, turned them over to regents to rewrite. There’s not a university in the country where that would not have caused convulsions among the faculty. People were very upset, we spent the whole year rewriting that, but the result of all of that was a whole series of headlines, nationally and internationally. Many of them, this wasn’t really true, but the way they read was “Wisconsin eliminates tenure.” That just made us an incredible recruiting target for everyone else … so close to 10 percent of our faculty had outside offers last year. We did amazingly well in retention, we retained over 80 percent of those faculty, but we lost 15 to 20 percent, and we lost some really top faculty. Last year was the real poster child for this, it’s happened in previous years with budget cuts. The very top faculty bring in tens and millions in research funds and it’s not just a matter of are you losing some faculty, but who do you lose and how do they compete and if you look at what characterizes us in comparison to other top places, is that we’ve lost few of our really top, big grant getters, and that feeds in overtime to our research rankings.
BH: What is UW doing now to increase retention and say this is where the top faculty should be?
RB: There are a couple of answers to that and not the least of which is stabilizing finances and really working on … and this is not just about the state. We have multiple sources of financing. One of the things I’m working really hard on is trying to build other revenue streams outside the state, so for instance the effort to increase summer classes to create a much more viable semester in that a good number of students are going to be on campus or stay on campus and take courses over the summer, creates a third semester. We are looking at a number of things that will increase other revenues in addition to state. We are also fighting very hard with the state, to say it’s time to reinvest in the University of Wisconsin — that’s our tagline. On the other hand, we also have to do some very research-specific focused things. One initiative we started this year … that drop in research rankings was not a surprise, we knew that was going to come given what’s happened here. So one of the things we started this year is something called UW2020. It’s a set of research funds aimed at colleagues who are getting together with people from other departments and other disciplines to do early stage research on something that they think is incredibly promising, not just in terms of an idea that can make a huge difference, but also a project that will have long term fundability from some source outside the university in the long run. We are giving them seed money to start this up and get it to a point where they can then go outside and bring in dollars to really support the project at scale and we’ve been very successful in putting together a series. The number of proposals far exceeded what we could fund, we got some great ones. If you haven’t looked at the list of projects we are funding through UW2020, it’s just fun to read through that to see what the faculty are working on, it’s exciting.
BH: How confident are you those retention rates won’t dip, especially if UW doesn’t get its whole budget passed?
RB: Well I worry about faculty retention for another reason, the other issue around budgets is our faculty are underpaid compared to their peers. Our faculty are paid about 12 percent less than their peers in the big ten, that’s not Harvard, Stanford or Yale, that’s in the Big Ten. We are working very hard with a mix of equity and market-based adjustment to bring people up, but again, we’ve got to put the money together to do that as fully and effectively as possible. I can’t guarantee that we are not going to continue to have retention problems. I can’t imagine we won’t continue to have retention problems until we can actually, as I said, increase other sources of revenue, invest in some areas we really need to invest in for the growth.
BH: Shifting gears into more college affordability questions, many people have found that the college affordability package President-elect Donald Trump described surprising expansive. How do you feel about that?
RB: You know I’m not quite sure what Donald Trump’s specific proposals are, so I don’t really want to comment on them because it was not very specific. Until we see something more specific it’s just so not useful to speculate about what it might include and what it might not include.
BH: How will you ensure that UW remains a financially available school for low income students while budgets continue to place strain on the university?
RB: So we’ve actually done two things that I think are very, very important over the last six to eight years. As I’ve noted, the state funding for students has gone down and one of the requests in this budget is to increase that again. Federal funds have been pretty flat through pell grants and other things. We’ve done two things in response to that. First of all, over the last eight to 10 years, we’ve put $30 million dollars of internal funding into financial aid, that is a huge commitment. It means we are not spending that money in other ways and that has more than made up for the decline in state funds. So we are putting more money into financial aid now, despite the budget cuts, because we considered that very important. Secondly, in the current campaign All Ways Forward, you see the signs with our donors and alumni, one of the things we emphasize is student scholarships. For instance, I suspect you’ve heard about the Nicholas Match fund, which we’re very close to closing out … put a $50 million match for anyone who wanted to pay for half the cost of the scholarship, they would match the other half, and that’s undergraduate, graduate-level scholarships. Basically we are very close to getting full match for that, that is $100 million dollars in endowment, right in endowment for student scholarship. So that will be another $4.5 million in financial aid. But having said all that, we still do not cover full need for many of our students. And that is a real problem. That is why I continue to want to talk about financial aid and the need to increase those dollars.
BH: What effort is the university making to provide more affordable housing options for students and even emergency housing options for students?
RB: Our dorms are obviously our backup and if indeed a student is identified as being homeless, we will do everything we can to try to provide some immediate housing. The dean of students can give you some specific examples of that. I am not the one who does that on a regular basis so I can’t describe the exact process. On the other hand, housing in this area is cheaper than it is if you live on the coast, but it’s still expensive. I must say, I think there is some misreporting about these big apartment buildings that are going in that are relatively high end, luxury. Any basic economics will tell you that if supply-demand expands, it actually should have [the] effect of bringing price[s] down in other parts of the market. So if indeed students are moving into those houses, which it’s not entirely clear to me — I don’t know what the mix is as these new buildings come up between students and young people working for Epic and recent graduates — there should be some outflow in this whole area of houses and apartments and other things. And indeed if you walk around those areas, you see in the middle of a semester “room for rent” signs which you did not see my first year here. Expanding the housing stock is not a bad thing at all, particularly if one of the effects of it is [that] it opens up slightly more affordable housing elsewhere. Now we could argue about what exactly happens where. Everyone would like to pay less for housing — I understand that. On the other hand, housing at this university is not much more expensive than it is at many of our peer schools. It’s an issue everywhere. It is what it is. I think the best response to this is — for students who really are low income and need assistance coming here, we have got to try to provide them with financial aid that is necessary that can make it affordable. That is something that is within my control. The housing stock in Madison and the private market with landlords is not really in my control.
BH: How do think enrollment, particularly for international students, will be impacted by this past election?
RB: I don’t know. This is another open question, right. I would guess that people are going to ask questions about whether it’s harder to get into the U.S., but on the other hand, U.S. schools have been in such high demand for many international students, I think it’s just not clear whether it is going to have effects on us. There may be effects on other … universities that are lower down in quality than UW-Madison, I think that’s quite possible. I think students who come here are pretty set they are going to go to a U.S. university and if not us, somewhere else. So we’ll see.
BH: With the strain of budget cuts obviously having a big impact and now with UW’s out-of-state enrollment cap lifted, will UW be placing a higher emphasis on out-of-state recruiting?
RB: There are two pieces to that cap. They lifted the cap in exchange for us making a commitment that there will be a minimum of 3,600 Wisconsin students, in-state students, in every freshman class. Thirty-six hundred is above the average number of students we have … actually had in the class every year over the last 10 years so we’re actually making a commitment to the state that we will have a large Wisconsin class. And as the demographics in Wisconsin are showing a decrease in the number of high school graduates — at 3600 we’re actually committing to admitting an increasing share of Wisconsin high school graduates over time and that’s a really strong commitment to the state of Wisconsin. In exchange for that, they raised the cap, which says that if you would increase our class size by 100-200, and we’ve done some marginal increases in class size, that would be a out-of-state front where we have very, very strong applications and far more applications than spots. That ratio is far bigger for out-of-state than it is for in-state. So the question of where are we putting our efforts? We actually don’t have to put in more efforts recruiting out-of-state students … the applications go up every year. I think they’re going to go up again this year- as we go onto the Common App, we’re going to have even more applications coming in. Where we are putting our efforts are actually around that 3,600 because what we are trying to do in the state of Wisconsin is bring more of the really top-scoring students who look nationally at a set of universities, as opposed to just looking in the state, to interest them in coming. To staying in the state and going to Wisconsin. If you go to the coast for college, the likelihood of you coming back to the state of Wisconsin to work after that is lower, and we like to keep more of those people in the state. And we are the university in the state that’s going to keep them. They’re not going to go to one of the comprehensive schools. So we’ve actually started a campaign … aimed at students whose ACTs are 30 and higher, called the Prime Campaign. And it’s not that we’re doing anything less in our recruitment of other students but we are particularly doing something more in our recruitment of the really high test score students in the state of Wisconsin … doing some special actives for them, doing some recruiting, mailings … to see if we can get even a slightly higher of those shares staying in the state and coming to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So that’s actually a big change in our recruiting.
BH: With that, would you see Wisconsin’s overall acceptance rate go down?
RB: Probably — if you got more applications from those top end students. They’re really looking often at other schools and they’re going to go wherever they’re going to go so it’s possible that you’d actually get more of those students applying and the effect of that could be a slight decline in acceptance rates. It’s really hard to predict. I think you just don’t know … our acceptance within in-state students is more than two thirds.
BH: How will UW continue to ensure that students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQ students will continue to remain safe here in Madison? There’s been, as you know, a slight increase in hate and bias reports recently.
RB: This is not a problem unique to our college campus here. Unfortunately, all college campuses are dealing with it. This past year, as a result to some of the things that happened last spring on campus, [we] have … a number of diversity efforts in place. We had this large diversity report that was completed in, I think, 2014 that our Chief Diversity Officer Patrick Sims is in the midst of implementing. We came back and said, “What else can we do and what else should we be doing?” And there’s a set of additional things that we have started, which include something like the Our Wisconsin Program … which we ran as a pilot program this year. We should be getting the evaluations in sometime in the near future and deciding how we tweak that and whether that’s in a position to expand to all incoming freshmen. We expanded what we were doing in the Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration program around inclusivity. Every week they’d insert a mailing, a video, an article or something to all of the incoming freshmen that talked about community of some sort or another and inclusivity and diversity. We are doing training for Teaching Assistants … for dealing with more diverse classes. It’s not training that we’ve ever given to TAs about diversity and inclusion. We’re working on a Black Cultural Center. Patrick Sims is in the midst of a climate survey of undergraduates to look at their issues and where we should be focusing future efforts. All of this is about climate change and culture change and that isn’t something that is fast. 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. I am really concerned about some of these climate issues. I’ll be honest, I’m less concerned in some ways about our own students though there certainly… are things in terms of our students that we have to be doing, but also concerned about the larger community. I know that there are students who don’t feel safe. I can tell you that crime rates are lower on this campus than any of the other Big 10 campuses [but] that doesn’t reassure people that are not feeling safe in general in this society and they are not feeling safe in the place that they live here. I can do what I can for climate change. We are working on that really hard. I can’t change the larger conversation going on out there and I just worry that this could get worse before it gets better.
BH: How does UW continue to make sure students feel safe exercising the right to free speech if they are in a minority opinion?
RB: I think that we have to continue to speak for the value of free speech on campus and I want to be clear that free speech is a concept that is not well understood by a lot of folks. We are a public university that sits on public land and a lot of the campus, not all of it, is public space and people who want to express their opinions in that public space with appropriate permits and notification and all of that, can do so. 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. I would say the same thing about our events. All student events are open to the public, they can’t be closed if they are a registered student organization. I know that there will be speakers who folks disagree with … can you protest this without trying to disrupt the event and if disruption occurs, we will do everything we can to keep the event from being closed down. We recently had this event with Ben Shapiro and I have to say I think that was, in some ways, I realize there was a lot of controversy about it, but the students who wanted to protest came, they protested. The protest lasted, I’m told, about six minutes, and it was sort of ugly with everybody yelling things back and forth to each other, and that wasn’t the best video in the world. But the students then left and the event proceeded. Having said all of that, there are spaces on campus that are not public spaces. The dormitories are the best example of that, which really are people’s living rooms and bedrooms. 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. That is a form of unacceptable individual assault and behavior that we have to respond to. The way you treat things that happen inside dormitories and in people’s personal living space is necessarily different. It is not an assault on free speech — if someone comes up and puts swastikas on your bedroom door — for us to say that is inappropriate and we’re going to take disciplinary action. That is different from someone expressing really vile ideas out here on Bascom Hill. We worked hard in putting together a set of policies about what we would do. There’s an organization who, it’s a free speech organization, and they looked … they’re doing this on a lot of campuses … they looked at our policies and said, “We’re only giving you a yellow light.” And we said, “What would you need here?” And we worked with them and talked to them and they gave us a green light on our policies. And we have to enforce them and talk about them and make it clear what they are. There are clearly people who are not happy with free speech provisions. There are people who are not happy with … who want to expand free speech to absolutely everywhere. And we just have to sit in the midst of that uncomfortable balance at this moment in time.
BH: I know ASM just passed legislation asking you and President Cross and the regents to make UW colleges and universities sanctuary campuses. I know that’s not your prerogative necessarily, but do you think that a proposal like that has a chance? Is there a possibility of the UW system schools becoming sanctuary campuses?
RB: It’s very unclear what being a sanctuary campuses means and indeed under federal law, and again I am a state official and we are a state agency, federal officials for whatever reason, whether they’re enforcement officials or not, who have appropriate documents such as a warrant have to be allowed on campus to execute those warrants. That said, we are reviewing our policies and there are a variety of statements that we’re going to make quite strongly, so all students on this campus, all students are protected by the same privacy rights. Those rights are embedded in the Federal Education and Rights Privacy Act. That says that we do not release personal information about any of our students at request to anyone, unless someone has a very specific … a document that holds the right of law on that. Similarly, I will note that our police officers … we have limited budgets. We do not assist the federal government in the enforcement of federal law. If U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is going to enforce federal law on campus that is up to them, that is not what our police officers do. The extent we are legally possible, we will work to protect any student on this campus. Students on this campus are here because we want them to be here, we want them to complete our education, we want them to feel safe on the campus. I can’t declare myself closed to all federal agents, that’s just not legally possible as a state institution. But we will protect identities and protect students as fully as we possible can with this.
BH: Shifting gears to matters of sexual assault, how can you ensure that students feel safe on this campus especially with the recent and relatively horrific cases of sexual assault, one of which did take place in a residence hall?
RB: We did this survey of sexual assault on campus a year and a half ago and released it last fall. One of the things that I know we foolishly felt good about was that, compared to many of our peer campuses, we actually had a higher share of students saying they knew where they would report and they’d be willing to report. And then of course you have a situation like this serial rapist situation, this accused individual, where you then have a series of students once the name comes out who tell terrible stories and did not report them. And I must say my heart just goes out to this one. Education is clearly a piece of this and with the Tonight program, with trying to push information about where do you go, how do you get help, how do you not put yourself at risk given there are people out there who are looking for victims, how do you act as an effective bystander when you see someone at risk. That’s all on us to try to push out. 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. They’re going to change because of grassroots changes in behavior by students and one of the things that I’ve been very pleased about and we’ll just see what difference this makes in our numbers over time, is we’ve got a number of student organizations working on bystander intervention and working on sexual assault prevention. It’s not us trying to pass things out — it’s students being the initial front people and there’s a really creative program that our fraternities and sororities are working on together that they’re rolling out this year that I’m really proud of. As you know our athletes have been involved in this. There’ve been a number of other groups. This has to be a partnership, it can’t just be the administration it’s got to be the administration together with grassroots groups doing this and speaking about it as well. 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 providing as much support as possible to students who experience it. I am open to all good suggestions for this. It’s one that keeps me and others here up at night because we clearly are not yet where we need to be.
BH: ASM has increased mental health funding by $1.2 million yet it still takes about 2-3 weeks to get an appointment with a counselor. UHS has seen an 11 percent increase in students seeking mental health services. What steps can be taken to support UHS’ mental health staff and make services more accessible to students?
RB: They’re still in the midst of hiring additional people — they’re not fully staffed up with the new money that is coming in. So there will be additional people coming on and I think that is the most important step here. I would also note that this increase in demand for mental health services is happening on every campus across the country. That one is not unique here and clearly we have to make sure we’re staffed at a level that can deal with initial response. All of that said, and I don’t want to sound hard-hearted about this but the question is how far can you go, just as with physical health problems. If you really have a long term chronic, serious physical health problem, our local health services clinic can only help you somewhat and at some point you have to go get help through your parents’ insurance or through other forms. And similarly, with mental health services, we can be the front line, we can provide [some counselling sessions] but someone who really needs substantial, ongoing and very regular, long term care in terms of mental health does need to find some alternative sources of health care. That just isn’t something that we as this point have the capacity to provide at the university.
BH: Do you think that it is the university’s responsibility to provide those services?
RB: It never has been in the past. Either for physical or mental health. It is very expensive to provide those services and we don’t at this point have the budget resources as you probably know, it is student resources that largely fund our student health services. It would require additional fees on students to expand those services substantially beyond where they are right now. That certainly a conversation I’m willing to engage in, but we’ve got to figure out how we cover the cost.