Office of the President
Remarks by Kevin P. Reilly, President, University of Wisconsin System
May 18, 2006
Wisconsin Associated Press Editors Annual Meeting; Wausau, Wisconsin
Good evening. I want to thank Mark Baldwin and Lee Hughes for inviting me to be here tonight. Over the past two years, I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of you, as well as many of the reporters who work for you.
Now I realize it’s presumptuous of me to believe that reporters actually work for anybody. In that regard, they’re like university faculty. And come to think of it, that makes you all kind of like a university president — a suit, an empty suit! What I mean is — they say being a university president is akin to being superintendent of a graveyard. You have a lot of people under you, but nobody’s listening!
Let me acknowledge two of your guests — and my colleagues — who are here tonight with their earplugs firmly in place, Dean Jim Veninga of UW-Marathon County, and Mark Bradley, vice president of the Board of Regents.
Tonight, I hope to share some ideas about the university that may not always make it to the front page, as well as some insight about those things that consistently appear above the fold.
Here’s my lead. … Dateline, Wausau. If Wisconsin is to have a fighting chance in the knowledge economy, the UW System must lead the way.
Before you pull out your red pens, I’ll back that up with a few thoughts about the state of the university, and about our plans for the future. I want to leave plenty of time for a dialogue about whatever is on your minds, as well.
I’d like to begin by discussing a couple of surveys that have made headlines in recent months. First, a survey made news this Spring for finding, ostensibly, that Wisconsin residents do not have a very favorable picture of their public university system.
News about the survey said 70 percent of the respondents think the UW has more administrators than we need.
70 percent also said they think UW campuses spend too much on things we don’t need, and not enough on educating students. And 75 percent said they could not afford to send their child to a UW campus without scholarships, grants, or loans.
Not great news. We know that access and affordability are among our greatest challenges, and I’ll elaborate a bit tonight on what we’re doing to find solutions. These select survey results were, in some respects, obviously, disappointing. But some of the news about them was quite incomplete. There was much more to the story.
For example, some of the articles I saw did not mention that 60 percent of the survey respondents thought a UW education was good or excellent when compared with the cost. Nor did those stories report that 80 percent said the UW System does an excellent job of providing a good education.
We’re proud of the quality of a UW education, and I was pleased that this survey found Wisconsin residents feel the same way. In the end, some of these also-accurate and more-positive results did make it to news pages, but it was sort of late. The incomplete story had already made it around the state.
It’s nothing new, of course, for people to speak harshly of colleges and universities, particularly about the individuals at the helm. Harold W. Stoke, who served as president of three universities during his tenure, said this:
“Two opposing views of college presidents prevail. Some see them as fervent, dedicated men… (pardon President Stokes’ outdated language!) Others see these same presidents as furious promoters, hucksters of the educational world, timid or pompous as the occasion requires, and with no real appreciation for the work of scholars and teachers.” He went on to paraphrase Tom Paine, saying that people are “puzzled as to whether the college president has abandoned good principles, or never had any.”
Of course, such rhetoric is not only reserved for leaders of the academy. Journalists receive their fair share as well. General William Tecumseh Sherman once said: (and when I tell you what he said, you’ll hate him almost as much as Southerners do!) He said:
“I hate newspapermen. They come into camp, and pick up their camp rumors, and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are. If I killed them all, there would be news from Hell before breakfast.” His words, not mine!
Fast and “Shermanly” furious news coverage has indeed been part of what has been a year of intense scrutiny of the UW System. We’ve dealt with the effects of tough budgets, complex problems, and in some cases, solutions to those problems that were too-long delayed.
No doubt, you’ve also read — or authored — one or more editorials that were critical of the university’s performance when it comes to diversity. I’ll come back to that topic. Your newspapers also often reported this year on a few instances of wrong-doing on the part of members of the university staff — in several cases, now former university staff.
I don’t make excuses for the transgressions of these individuals, but I do want to emphasize that they are not examples of the behavior of the vast majority of our students and employees… who, I’d add, are also your readers and members of your home communities.
We do admit to mistakes. We found some things that were broken, and we moved quickly to fix them. We take our responsibility as stewards of taxpayer dollars very seriously.
The Board of Regents and I have worked in recent months to ensure swifter investigations of felony charges, and to suspend new so-called “back-up” appointments. I now have to approve any employment settlement that a UW institution would deem necessary, and we are working closely with our campuses so we can better handle egregious situations of employee misconduct, in the rare instances when they arise.
The UW also now has a stronger internal audit function to make sure fewer of these mistakes happen in the first place, and our employees must follow what is now state government’s most stringent sick-leave policy.
As the Janesville Gazette noted in an editorial praising Regent Roger Axtell, who left the Board this month after seven years of outstanding service, if the university were a city, it would be the state’s third-largest. There are stories of all stripes to be told in a city this size.
Which brings me to another survey. This survey, also conducted late last year, found that 93 percent of Americans want to see more good news coverage. And 77 percent don’t feel that news media devote enough coverage to good news.
This survey was conducted among a thousand Americans by The Segmentation Company, a division of Yankelovich.
What do these Americans mean by good news? 99 percent said good news might be about acts of heroism. 98 percent said good news could be about medical advances that can help improve the quality of life. And 95 percent said that, to them, good news reports economic progress that makes life better for the average person.
Your news editors will be delighted to hear that there are literally thousands of good news stories like these waiting to be told within the UW System. Party-school rankings and perpetual students make for interesting feature stories, I suppose, but as front-page news, I fear they miss the point.
There are 40,000 stories of hard-working, dedicated faculty and staff who teach and support UW students. Many of these teachers are minor heroes in their own right, going above and beyond to help students achieve academic and personal success.
Members of our academic staff work every day to make sure our campuses are safe, healthy places to live and learn, and to support our students as they navigate through their college careers.
Our world-class university researchers are making groundbreaking discoveries in a wide variety of fields… you might be surprised to learn about the quality of the research happening at your local campus.
You know about the breakthroughs in stem-cell research at UW-Madison, but how many of you know about WiSys? That’s the statewide organization that helps UW faculty and researchers in your communities work on developing their intellectual property for commercialization. And researchers are doing just that at places like UW-La Crosse, UW-Stevens Point, and UW-Milwaukee.
There are 160,000 amazing stories in the big dreams and remarkable accomplishments of our students. And there are more than a million stories just waiting to be told by the citizens whose lives are touched through university outreach and extension contacts of all kinds. All of our faculty and staff are in some way responsible for carrying out the Wisconsin Idea… bringing university resources to bear on pressing issues in communities around the state.
I won’t go on in this vein, other than to point out that in the Wisconsin Newspaper Association’s monthly newsletter, a columnist urged editors to keep this “good news” survey in mind. He notes that your job is to cover the news, but reminds us that uncovering positive stories is part of that job.
As a public university, the UW System must be held accountable for how it invests taxpayer dollars. Since I took over as President, I have pledged that the university will be as effective, efficient, and transparent as possible. So let me give you three “big” transparent facts about taxpayer dollars and efficiency.
In the past six years, we’ve cut more than $400 million from our biennial budgets, and we’ve eliminated more than 1,000 taxpayer-funded positions, almost all of them administrative — while at the same time, we’ve added 3,800 more students. If that’s not productivity, I don’t know what is!
I know your newsrooms are also doing more with less. And like you, our commitment to serving the public interest remains as high as ever.
I recognize that in many ways, I’m preaching to the choir here. Editorial boards around this state have been some of our greatest, most thoughtful champions in recent years. You have demonstrated that as the state’s investment in its public university drops off, you do truly understand what is at stake. Your editorial positions were also crucial to persuading our Legislature not to enact a constitutional limit on state revenues and spending — which would have devastated our university. So I thank you for your attention to helping protect the university as one of the state’s most valuable assets.
Now, I’d like to look forward with you for a few minutes.
The Board of Regents, and the Chancellors — whom some of you know well — have joined me in recent months to develop a Growth Agenda for Wisconsin, to be led by the UW System.
This Growth Agenda can be narrowed to two goals. First, over the next several years, we will increase the number of Wisconsin residents who have four-year college degrees, and the knowledge-economy jobs that employ those graduates. Second, we must grow our financial capacity so we can support more student enrollments. We know that achieving these goals can be among our major contributions to the economy. Governor Doyle joined us for the Regent meeting earlier this month, and I was pleased that he took the opportunity to lend his strong support for this agenda.
The Board of Regents is considering a number of ideas to advance the agenda in the long-term. Our institutions have proposed plans to address the unique needs of the communities and regions they serve, based on their own institutional strengths. Some of the initiatives get at the need to increase the research capacity of the state in certain regions, thereby growing the economy; and to increase the ability of our institutions to address statewide worker shortages, and contribute more to the development of spin-off companies.
Collectively, these ideas could allow us to add 2,800 new students in the next biennium, and an additional 7,700 students over the next six years.
Let me give you just a few examples.
- We want to expand teacher education to address the needs of urban and small, rural K-12 schools in the state, and to accelerate nurse education so we can get more nurses in the field.
- Institutions in the Chippewa Valley want to build education in science, technology, and math, and in doing so, assist businesses in the region.
- UW Colleges and UW-Extension will work together to expand educational opportunities for adult students, and UW-Green Bay wants to increase access for students of color, first-generation college students, and for those in high-demand programs.
- UW-La Crosse wants to generate its own funds by setting more-competitive tuition rates – a plan that would require no additional money from the state.
- UW-Oshkosh wants to expand its own high-demand programs, and UW-Parkside intends to better support students at risk of dropping out of college.
- UW-Platteville is set to extend its electrical engineering education to the Fox Valley, and its mechanical engineering education to Rock County.
- And we expect to hear more at the next Regent meeting at UW-Milwaukee about how that campus wants to step up its research and student retention efforts.
I’m excited about the potential here. It will be up to the Regents to decide which plans to move forward when, but it is clear that these ideas can increase higher education and job opportunities, and thereby, bump up the proportion of Wisconsinites with a four-year college degree.
Why is this goal so important?
It's simple, really. The more Wisconsin citizens who hold college degrees, the more we can attract high-paying jobs, bolster the state tax base, and improve the state’s economy. It is no secret that one of the reasons the Wisconsin economy has not been as robust as it could be is that, when compared to other states, a lower percentage of Wisconsin residents have college degrees – just 24 percent, compared to 27 percent, nationally. We rank 35th among the 50 states in that regard.
In neighboring states, like Minnesota and Illinois, highly educated residents bring in higher incomes, attract business investments, and make greater returns to the state. Workers with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, approximately one-third more than those who did not finish college. And they earn twice as much as workers who have only a high-school diploma.
Many of these Growth Agenda ideas will actively seek to improve diversity within our system. We have made some progress on our diversity goals since we first articulated them several years ago, but there is still much work to be done. To put it bluntly, we are not at all where we want to be, as several of you have noted in the editorials I mentioned earlier.
Diversity is a major part of the Growth Agenda. The state’s economic future rests on our capacity to help more state residents earn college degrees, and to attract knowledge-economy industries and businesses, and the high-wage jobs they offer. It will be to our collective benefit, then, to make it a priority to educate many more people of color, who comprise the fastest-growing populations in this state.
This must also be our mindset if we are to reach out and build college aspirations among more students from low- and moderate-income families. We cannot attract and serve more adult and nontraditional students if we don’t target diverse populations of potential students. We still have a lot of work to do, but I’m optimistic about where we go from here.
Part of my optimism stems from the commitment of my President’s Diversity Council… a group of extraordinarily talented, experienced, and diverse leaders in their own right. I appointed this Council to help the university shift its thinking, to learn from the private sector — which is in many ways far ahead of universities in this regard — and to learn from our peers in higher education. Mark Baldwin is one of the leaders on the Council. He’s bringing his expertise about the growing diverse populations in Marathon County to the table as we learn what we must do to better serve underserved students all across the state. Mark, thank you again for your service.
The Growth Agenda will be a major focus for the Board of Regents as we enter the next state budget cycle. We have cut, and consolidated, and found new ways to contain costs in the last several years. It’s time now to reinvest in strategic areas for the future.
Those strategic areas include preserving student access to the UW System. We need state support to make sure we have enough faculty to teach students, and enough staff to help students with things like advising and financial aid.
And we must pay these faculty, staff, and academic leaders well enough to keep them in Wisconsin. I know that’s a controversial statement in some circles. Let me explain. Faculty “poaching” has become a real challenge for many of our campuses. We just have not been able to keep up in terms of compensation – and other, better-financed universities have been able to draw away some of our most talented faculty. But, you might wonder, doesn’t the university’s budget grow every year? Yes, as a whole. But the portion of that budget that comes from the state has dropped precipitously. The state now contributes less than 25 percent of our budget each year – meaning that there’s far less “public” in our public university than there used to be.
The growth in our budget comes largely from private and federal grants for research and unique programming, and from gifts. This funding is a tribute to the still world-class stature of our university, but these funds come with strings attached. We generally cannot use grant dollars to pay for English professors, or to keep down the price of textbooks, or to reduce tuition. When we accept outside funds, they must be used for specific purposes. Our core funding for basic education still comes from our partnership with the state.
We want to expand that partnership with the state to help students from low- and moderate-income families, and adult and nontraditional students, afford to attend the UW. A program like the Wisconsin Covenant can help. At the May Board of Regents meeting, Governor Doyle described the Wisconsin Covenant as an “exchange of promises.” As we’re envisioning it, the program would cover tuition for financial-aid eligible students to attend any UW campus if students, and their families, pledge as eighth-graders to finish high school, keep in good academic standing, take college-preparatory classes, and be good citizens. We will expand the program to technical colleges and independent colleges and universities, as well.
So, I leave you tonight with some good news. If Wisconsin recognizes this need for investment… the UW System will do its part. We will produce well-educated citizens in sufficient numbers to confront the challenges of this state’s future.
We can continue to ensure your hometown colleges and universities contribute to the economy, and the quality of life in your communities.
We can build the human capital necessary to succeed in the international knowledge economy. We can keep Wisconsin competitive.
These goals are what will drive the university over the next several years. I look forward to working with leaders like you to make sure we can accomplish what I trust are mutual goals. And we appreciate your attention to our work to serve students, and your communities.
The Regents, Chancellors, and I thank you for inviting us to meet with you from time to time. We encourage you to put your best Woodwards and Bernsteins on the higher education beat. Continue to keep us accountable. And when our good work accounts for real value-added in the lives of your readers and communities, please keep adding those stories to your enterprise priority list.
Thank you for listening this evening. I’d be happy to take your questions.