Chancellor Rebecca Blank has spent a lot of time thinking about long-term American competitiveness.
“I believe deeply that the UW is one of the most important institutions not just for the state of Wisconsin but for our nation, if we want to remain a world leader.”Chancellor Blank, 2014
As the former acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and now as the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s new chancellor, she is strategic about how America can stay on the front edge of a global economy in the next 20 or 30 years.
Her conclusion? Only two things matter: a skilled workforce prepared for 21st century jobs, and a drive to stay at the front edge of innovation and invention.
“There’s one institution at the center of both of those agendas: the big research university that educates lots of students and that serves as an ideas factory for the nation,” Blank says. “The big public university is particularly important, because, more so than the privates, it also has a mission of outreach to the state and the nation.”
Blank’s vision led the annual gathering of alumni who volunteer for the Wisconsin Alumni Association's grassroots advocacy network, Alumni for Wisconsin, under a mission to create a public dialogue about the importance of higher education in Wisconsin. The annual forum provides alumni volunteers deeper insight into university issues that impact relationships within the state.
This year, alumni learned about top university priorities from Chancellor Blank and Letters & Science Dean John Karl Scholz, and learned more about what the UW is doing to create jobs and grow the state's economy.
Challenges Ahead: Trust, Stability, and a Deficit
Blank said alumni voices can be vital to helping the university overcome challenges that linger from the difficult state budget process this spring, including a budget deficit. She said the UW System lost credibility by not effectively making the case for the university system’s choice to create reserve funds, while at the same time campuses were claiming serious economic problems and requesting tuition increases.
“With very few exceptions, our state leaders understand the importance of the University of Wisconsin to the state,” Blank said. “But there is some lingering concern about our transparency and our management. One of my primary jobs is to rebuild trust and respect with lawmakers, on both sides of the aisle.”
Blank said she'll work with the Legislature and the Board of Regents to restore plans dropped in the last budget for UW-Madison to gain flexibilities in its human resources policies. In order to attract and retain faculty and staff, Blank said, the university must be able to respond to national or international labor markets, not just the local or state environment.
Blank has also trained a focus on ensuring the university’s financial stability, in a time when state funds make up just 15 percent of UW's budget, having steadily fallen in recent decades from what used to be a 40 percent state share.
“I’m not assigning blame to anyone for that; states have faced a huge number of other high-priority financial demands that they had to address. This has happened in every state in the country,” Blank said. “While we must and will argue for additional state funds for high-priority needs, I don’t expect a big turnaround in state support in the future.”
To add to state support, Blank outlined plans to capture new funding from a variety of sources — from the federal government, from business partnerships, from tuition where appropriate, and through a major comprehensive fundraising campaign over the next decade.
“We Need Workers Who Can Adapt.”
The College of Letters & Science — UW-Madison’s largest college — is now under the leadership of Dean John Karl Scholz, who spoke with advocates about four values driving L&S initiatives -- remaining a research powerhouse, creating life-changing learning experiences, embracing the liberal arts, and fulfilling the Wisconsin Idea.
“What we do in L&S is fundamental to preserving and enhancing the excellence of the teaching and research mission of this great university,” Scholz said.
The College of Letters & Science is home to 39 academic departments, five professional schools and 70 interdisciplinary research centers. With more than 17,000 undergraduate students, more than 4,000 graduate students, and 41 percent of the university faculty, L&S teaches 60 percent of all credits at the university and 84 percent of the freshman and sophomore credit hours.
And, Scholz said: “We are really, really good at what we do.”
Scholz said Wisconsin’s liberal arts education — the weaving of social science with physical and natural sciences, and the arts and humanities with the biological and mathematical sciences — equips students to be globally engaged, informed citizens, and empowers the university and its graduates to live and advance the Wisconsin Idea.
For example, faculty and instructors in the part-time Masters of Social Work program are helping Wisconsin solve the shortage of social workers, providing flexible master's level training for working professionals who already have bachelor’s degrees. Since 1999, the School of Social Work‘s child welfare training program has graduated 148 skilled social work professionals who have contributed more than 585 years of child welfare work to the state.
In the Physics Department, Scholz said, L&S researchers, faculty and graduate students are working in Geneva, Switzerland, on the Large Hadron Collider. The Nobel Prize-winning experiment was designed and built in part by UW physicists and Wisconsin companies, and just last year, helped discover the elusive Higgs boson.
Yet, Scholz said the national dialogue continues to include a troubling narrative about the liberal arts, and he hears it from parents, business leaders, legislators and even UW’s own students.
“I’m sure many of you have heard it: the liberal arts are a luxury we can’t afford,” he said, quickly correcting the notion: “They are not a luxury – they are critical to the State of Wisconsin, the nation and the world. We need workers who can adapt."
To this end, Scholz is leading a charge to expand career support for his school's graduates, in part, to ensure future L&S alumni become part of the talent and workforce that can grow Wisconsin’s economy.
He's seeking to invest in a multi-year initiative to expand L&S career advising, develop connections to Wisconsin-based employers, and work with the 60,000 L&S alumni and business leaders to prepare students for the workforce.
“We will work to deepen the talent that Wisconsin companies draw on to thrive in today's economy," Scholz said. "I believe our alumni are willing and ready to give back their time and talent.”
“Your University Needs You More Than Ever”
Over the last several months, Blank has traveled around the state to communities with other UW universities, including Milwaukee, Green Bay, Oshkosh, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Stevens Point and Wausau. She’s meeting with fellow chancellors, business leaders, local media, and UW-Madison alumni who live and work in those areas.
“I don’t think we’ve always done as good a job as we should telling the citizens of this state about why UW is so important for them and for their communities,” she said. “Support for the University of Wisconsin should not be a partisan issue. We are a vital part of this state and our work should be a source of pride for citizens.”
For her part, Blank says she’ll ensure UW-Madison steps up communications to reach out. She wants the campus to engage even more with the state and Wisconsinites about UW’s work to grow the state’s economy and serve local communities.
But Blank also called upon alumni to be a part of that effort, not only with financial support, but also by sharing ideas, inspiration and eloquent voices.
“Your accomplishments tell the world that a degree from the University of Wisconsin reflects talent, dedication and passion,” she says. “Talk about your experience at UW. Help us recruit the best students from your community. Talk about the value of UW to the state. Your university needs you now more than ever.”
- Rebuild trust and transparency with elected officials.
- Secure state and federal funds for top priorities.
- Capture new streams of funding through partnerships and philanthropy.
- Seek flexible human resources policies to recruit and retain UW employees.
- Invest in networks and programs to prepare future alumni for the 21st century workforce.