Board of Regents President Chuck Pruitt’s Farewell Speech (June 10, 2011)

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June 10, 2011

Board of Regents President Chuck Pruitt’s Farewell Speech

“I wanted to use my final report to the Board to offer a few reflections on the journey we’ve been on over the last year.  It was a year ago last July that Jay Smith and I authored a paper entitled “Principles for Progress and Prosperity.”

Jay and I offered no earthshaking or dramatically different observations than many of us and many of our predecessors on this Board have been making for many years now. We talked about Wisconsin being at a crossroads. 

We know that to thrive in a global economy where innovation and knowledge are vital, our state needs more college graduates and more jobs. We also know that the people in the University of Wisconsin System – all our campuses and all our faculty and staff – are ready, willing and able to help on both counts.

We talked about how the business model between the state and the university was a broken business model.

We urged candidates and office holders to reinvest in the university as an engine for economic growth. 

We encouraged a new commitment to financial aid so we can educate more low- and moderate-income students, and free their families from crushing debt burdens.  

And we called for new management flexibilities that would enable our chancellors to manage their campuses more effectively, pay their employees more competitively, and make limited dollars go further.

When the Governor’s budget was introduced last February, I think it would be fair to say that it was not exactly what we were hoping for. 

As I was thinking about the journey of the last four months, I recalled that one of my favorite quotes from Robert Kennedy is when he was reflecting about the Gross Domestic Product and all that it measures and all that it does not. 

Kennedy lamented that while the Gross Domestic Product measures many things, it “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.”

“It measures,” Kennedy concluded, “neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country.  It measures everything, in short, except what makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”  (Unquote)

Our debate over the last months about governance and boards and separations reminds me a bit of Kennedy’s view of the Gross Domestic Product. This debate has been about many things, but not about the most essential things that really matter.

I hope we can take the opportunity now to get back to those essential things.

Because the ties that bind us are far stronger and more enduring than whatever short-term arguments or disagreements that may temporarily divide us.

In recent months, we’ve had a bit of a family argument.  I don’t know about your family but mine has lots of them.  And after we’ve cleaned up the broken dishes and cooled down in whatever rooms we stormed off to, we return to the dinner table with a renewed appreciation for our commitment to each other, a recognition that we care about each other and a realization that to move forward as a family, we have to understand that we are all in this together.  

The same is true here.  What brought us together as a University system and a university family 40 years ago  – and what will hold us together in the next 40 years – is the Wisconsin Idea, and a deep and abiding commitment to the 182,000 students and 30,000 faculty and staff who depend on us. 

It is time now to move forward and understand and appreciate that central commitment.  And I sincerely hope we will spend far more time in the months and years ahead in making our case, in a strong and united way, for the central role this university can play in the life of our state and the lives of our students. 

We need to commit to speaking clearly and in one voice to the state and all our stakeholders, that continued deep cuts in state support are a short-sighted strategy for our state and our students. We need to get back to what is really important – making the case for why the state needs to reinvest in its public university system. 

Ten years ago, students and their families paid 38% of the cost of their education. Today, they pay 60%, and at a time when we need to be educating more and more low- and moderate-income students, that trend is unsustainable.

We all know that the compensation for our world-class faculty, staff, and academic leadership does not measure up to the competitive national and international markets within which we compete.  We will lose more and more talented members of the academic community unless we make our case and turn these trends around.

On October 8th, 1971, Governor Pat Lucey signed the legislation creating the University of Wisconsin System and he said, “This is the beginning of a new era in the education of Wisconsin’s young people. Merger is now a reality and we will all benefit because of it, through the new University of Wisconsin System.”

Forty years later, anyone would be hard pressed to say Pat Lucey got it wrong.  UW-Madison has become one of only four public universities in the top 20 universities in the country.  UW-Milwaukee, as we have learned anew in the last two days, is on a startling and exciting upward trajectory.  UW-Oshkosh, Stevens Point, Green Bay, Stout, and all our other campuses are unrecognizable today from where they stood 40 years ago.

This did not happen by accident.  It happened because the union was strong, it happened because we all stood together, it happened because our predecessors understood what really matters. 

The last four months have been interesting ones indeed, but they have renewed my faith in both the importance of this mission and the critical need for us to stand together.

I would hope it could be said that in these most challenging of times, this Board of Regents, these Chancellors and this System President kept the faith.  We stayed the course, we shared our commitment to a simple but powerful idea – the Wisconsin Idea – and to a vision Pat Lucey worked so hard to realize 40 years ago.

Dr. King used to remind us all about how important it was that we “keep our eyes on the prize.”  In a few minutes, we will honor the recipients of the Regents Awards for Teaching Excellence. It reminds us all what this enterprise is really all about and it’s the prize that we ought to be keeping our eyes on in the months and years ahead. 

I had the privilege of serving on the Teaching Awards selection committee when we chose John Koker from UW-Oshkosh. We’ve kept in occasional contact over the years and, in the midst of our efforts a couple months ago, John sent me an op-ed piece he submitted to the Oshkosh Northwestern.

In it, he wrote the following:

“If nothing else, recent events in our state have more than ever heightened awareness and solidified the consensus regarding the precious value of education.  We at the University do not try to teach students what to think; rather we strive at every turn to teach them how  to think.

“We use the power of arts, the humanities, the sciences and the social sciences to present students with the knowledge and skills to navigate through these complicated and uncertain times.  No one wants to leave our children and grandchildren in debt.  Simply leaving them debt free, however, with no means to think critically, problem solve and learn is a short-sighted goal, one that may make us feel better now but leaves the future population unequipped to deal with issues that seem eternal.”  (Unquote)

John Koker has his eyes on the prize in Oshkosh.  I’d hope all of us can add our eyes to his in the days ahead.

I want to conclude by simply offering my own deep and heartfelt thanks. 

First, to my colleagues on this Board who stood together, unified and with one voice.  That unity and your commitment made everything else possible.  And I want to especially thank Mike Spector whose wise counsel, brilliant mind and steady hand have been invaluable over the last four months and the last two years. 

To our President Kevin Reilly, who demonstrated once again just how fortunate all of us and all of Wisconsin are to have him at the helm of this university system. 

To the System staff  – I started to compose a list and it got so long that I was sure I was leaving someone out so let me just thank you all.

I do want to specially acknowledge Jess Tormey, who played a vital role in shuffling between lots of offices in the Capitol over the last four months. 

And, for the last year and a half, a special thanks to Jane Radue and her team. Two weeks into my term as President, I somehow managed to do what 12 other Presidents failed to do – I chased Jude Temby into retirement.  We miss Jude but Jane Radue and her team haven’t missed a beat and their support of all of us is really quite remarkable.

And to our Chancellors and Deans – you are the stars of this entire show. Talk about standing together… I am in awe and so deeply appreciative of all you do in the most difficult times to lead your campus and what you have done in the last four months to preserve this 40-year union. That work will, I believe, be something for which you can take great and enduring pride.

So this concludes my last Report as President.  It has been an honor to serve.  In looking back, I can only promise that we did our best and, especially given the importance of this cause, I hope our best has been good enough.

Thank you.

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Related: Return to the June 10 (day 2) news summary