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Transcript: The Daily Cardinal sits down with Chancellor Rebecca Blank

The Daily Cardinal sat down with Chancellor Rebecca Blank to discuss budget, freedom or speech, direct admits and more.

Image By: Katie Scheidt

In a budget year we talk a lot about investing in Wisconsin and investing in UW. I heard that the UW System actually generates $24 billion in revenue for the state, I was wondering if you could talk about how UW generates revenue and how that is a good investment for the state?

There's a number of direct ways in which we generate revenue for the state.

We employ some 2,200 people here directly, not to mention our student employees and our students who come in, and the number of ways in which people participate in our arts events and our athletic events, all of those are tax revenue. Other ways are hotels and restaurants, and just spending in the state.

Then there are indirect effects; if you're an economist there's these.

When I go to the grocery store, that not just generates income for me but that also generates further income for the employees and the owners. There's a multiplier on this and that's where those numbers tend to come from, is the combination of those two.

Can you talk a little bit about how business connections with the university work?

We have business connections in a lot of ways.

One of the most obvious is the businesses in the state are our major employers of students. So we are a major client of theirs in some ways.

We have a whole variety of connections to the business community through our research and industry partnerships and places like Johnson Controls or GE Health have big partnerships, so with Engineering or with our medical school, and we do shared research together—so that's secondly.

Thirdly, because of our involvement in the state we are one of the reasons that attracts businesses into the state and works with them on common problems.

Beyond just research partnerships, for instance, the Business School runs a variety of networks with different groups on business groups throughout the state on different topics. There's one network that focuses on purchasing issues; it's a group of companies that have some shared concerns and they meet semi-regularly and create networks among the companies and we facilitate that and talk about what are the most recent innovations and best practices in this area.

It's sort of the combination of education, research and outreach which all translates into the business community.

We have worked very closely with the business community, particularly in the last several years, given some of the real budget we've had on the state.

The business community, I will say, I think has been our biggest and most important supporter and vocal advocate with political leaders in the state for the importance of a strong university system—particularly since the last budget where the university and the system itself took very deep cuts, going to elected leaders and saying, "You cannot cut the higher education programs in the state like that again. You need to be investing in these.” So we also do have that political relationship with them.

Can you touch on the business community being advocates? What is their reasoning for being advocates?

Let me step back. If you look at high-technology business—where there's high-tech manufacturing or sort of cutting-edge bio things, health care or finances—increasingly if you ask where is the growth of these businesses clustered, they are clustered near research institutions and research centers.

Just look at where there is really rapid economic growth in this country, there's a big research institution—if not two or three—in the middle of all of that.

We are the one reasons businesses come here, one of the reasons they stay here, for all the reasons we just discussed.

So, why it is they go to the governor and talk about the importance of higher education, is because we have very real and immediate impacts on them. They want our engineers, they want our recent graduates, they want our good writers and journalists for their communications departments, and they want to be nearby the sort of research that we do to stay in touch [with] what are the coolest new technologies that are going to impact us and that we need to pay attention to and even be a part of helping to explore.

You kind of touched on the budget, so with a large increase in funding possibly coming from performance-based metrics, how is that going to make UW System more internally competitive and how is this going to affect UW-Madison's relationship as the flagship institution with other schools?

In the last six budgets we've had pretty big cuts in five of them. It's been a really rocky—since the budget's biennial—a rocky 12 years. This budget, in terms of the dollars, this isn't going to be huge dollars, it's not like it's going to make up for all of the cuts in the last 12 years, but it's a positive budget with real new dollars coming in.

Some of those are tied to performance metrics, some of those are not. I think it's going to be a debate inside the Joint Finance Committee as to exactly what they mean by performance metrics.

I know that Ray Cross was the first to call these outcome measures, because it's very clear we should be measuring outcomes, not inputs, and how much of the proposed 43—the governor asked for 43—whether all of that goes into performance measurement distribution or not I think that's all still to be finally determined. It's also still to be determined what we actually mean by this, what's on the table and who gets to decide these and there's a strong push to say the Board of Regents and the system working with the chancellors ought to be the ones that finalize what are the set of output measures and how do we weigh them and all of that.

I have no concerns at all in saying that we need to be accountable for things like graduation rates and retention rates, and how we're doing on the research front and how are we doing with outreach, and that's the nature of all the output measures being proposed.

The devil is always in the detail, right? There are good ways to do these things, and there are bad ways to do these things. We have a number of examples in other states that have put various output measures in place in a bad way and we shouldn't do that. A number of those states, as a result, have taken those out.

For instance, I believe it was Indiana, put a variety of output measures in place that basically said, "You'll get money depending on how much improvement you have in, say, graduation rates." Well, there were some schools in Indiana, historically, that have very low graduation rates and they probably should've been doing a better job. Then there's the flagship university that already had a graduation rate of 85 percent or higher and they didn't have a long distance to go. Suddenly, the flagship was getting no money and all the money was going to schools that, quite honestly, were struggling with a variety of things, some of which they needed and some of which they probably could've shared with places that were already quite excellent.

You didn't want to destroy excellence by putting money into your lowest-end schools, right? That's an example of not doing it well.

I think we're in a lively debate, I think there is going to be some amount of choice and discretion at the system and the Board of Regents level about how we do this.

I have absolutely no problem if the output measures measure the things that we ought to be providing to our students and to the community around us.

I have no problem having output measures being at least part of the ways in which funds are distributed.

What will matter is what is that actual formula and what are the measures and how are they going to be used to distribute the money, and we're a long ways away from knowing that. Does that worry me a little, yes, because there have been places that have done it badly and I don't want us to repeat that experience.

The legislators demonstrated that they want to ensure academic freedom, especially having conservative views present on a pretty liberal campus, so they have provided $10,000 in the budget to review and revise these policies. How will the university meet that request?

I don't know exactly what's going to come through and I'll say we haven't done much planning about exactly what this means.

The Board of Regents, last spring, adopted a freedom of expression statement. What they adopted was very close to something that the University of Chicago put out a few years ago that has been widely adopted around the country and I thought was a very good statement. The proposal by the state is to incorporate something very close to that in the state law.

I would say my own opinion is we already have a policy, we're all following it, we're all under the authority of the Board of Regents, so it's not quite clear to me that putting this in the state statute is going to change anything.

I am not entirely clear what it is they would want to; $10,000 isn't actually that much money spread across—if you count the two-year schools, more than 20 campuses.

We have a pretty clear [policy]—both our own policies and policies from the system—and I think that we've been vocal about the fact that we do want to support the expression of a wide variety of opinions, and that includes conservative as well as liberal opinions.

We would like to protect it as well as the protests that might occasionally occur. You've got to allow space for both the expression of an opinion, however unpopular as it may be, as well as protest, you have to make sure the protest does not stop the expression of an opinion, and that's a very delicate balance. We've seen schools where that didn't happen in the recent past.

We had a Ben Shapiro event last semester and I actually thought we did that very well. We had a group of protesters and we talked to them ahead of time and said, "You can come in, but you have five minutes because this event must go on." The protesters came in, they disrupted the event—it actually went on seven minutes—and they left at that point and the event proceeded. The protesters were in the hall, making it very clear as people came and went, but I thought that was exactly, when talking about creating a balance, not a bad balance, and I was actually quite proud of our students on both sides of that event in terms of how they handled that. Mr. Shapiro got to give his full speech and at the same time it was very clear that there was controversy about this.

The governor's office recently took out shared governance and tenure by trying to put this in, what do you think they're trying to do by adding this?

I don't think this academic freedom statement is related to changes in tenure they made two years ago. I think these are different issues. I don't think these two are related, I haven't thought about it in that way.

What messages do you think they're trying to send by providing this money for academic freedom, which you’re saying is a small amount?

It's clear that there are some people telling us we don't have enough conservative voices on campus. I personally think they don't personally understand a lot of the voices that are expressed here, I mean I would guess that 90 to 95 percent of the presentations that go on on this campus have no political content whatsoever.

There's a limited number of highly visible speakers who do take political and public policy stands that come to campus and they get all the attention, and it's a very small share of the public talks and events that happen here. A good number of those, I must say, come from quite a variety of backgrounds. It's on us to make it clear, first of all, how few of the events here have that sort of political content, but that those who do that we do have a variety, and I think we have not as good a job talking about that as we should.

There clearly is, therefore, a concern on the part of the legislators that we do not have enough conservative voices on campus. It's a valid concern to raise, we need to do a better job of talking about how to respond to that.

I think some of this is coming out of this, but I've been quick to say to people: Free speech and open expression involves listening to everyone on all sides, and it means the protesters also have a right to be present and have their opinions be known in a way that doesn't completely stop the expression of whoever the speaker is. You can't have one without the other.

In Ray Cross' statement yesterday, he talked about time to degree as an affordability measure and I remember recently you talked about how time to degree is really something you've tried to decrease since you've been here. Can you speak to that?

When I came I think it was somewhere around 4.5, it might have been a little higher, it's now I think 4.07 years, I think that's the last number I saw. We've made a substantial [cut] in time to degree, and that goes along with an increase in graduation rates, not surprisingly, and an increase in retention rates as well between freshman and sophomore year.

What are some of the things that Madison's done to get that number down?

My predecessor, Biddy Martin—this is almost unbelievable in today's current budget—actually did a deal with the legislator, maybe seven years ago, where we raised our tuition in a step function by $1,500 and put all of that money back into affordability and access.

We did three things: We hired a number of faculty in those really big course areas where courses often close out, we substantially beefed up our advising so we have more advisors per student and we increased financial aid—big increase in the internal financial aid dollars we started giving out.

It's a fine example of how increased investments can produce results. You can look at the data here that as soon as that program starts coming into effect you can see ... data that have been going the wrong direction suddenly starts turning, it's a very clear correlation.

By the time I came in we had done all of that and I sat down around the table with a number of our academic leaders and said: "How do we keep this going? We aren't going to have new money, so how do we do this in other ways?” It turns out there's a number of other important things that we have done ... We continue to work on this with things like it used out to be true that in L&S you never had to declare a major until the day you graduated.

That meant there were seniors who had a little bit of this, a little of that and weren't directed towards a major. L&S has now moved toward saying you have to declare a major at an earlier stage and if you don't by the end of your sophomore we're going to call you in and do a little more aggressive advising to help you.

One of the things we weren't doing—and I probably shouldn't tell you this—we were not enforcing prereq requirements ... it was on the books, but you could register for any class you wanted, whether you had the prereq or not. We have now loaded into the system the prereq requirements, so if you try to register for a class that you don't have the prereq you do have to go get permission from the faculty member before you can register.

The result of not doing that is we had people say "Oh, I think I can do this," and they'd take half the class and drop it. We looked at—the third thing we did—was look at all of our majors and plotted out how long it took people on average to graduate from that major and how that compared to our peer institutions and we had some data on that. [We] identified those where it was taking longer for people at Wisconsin to graduate than at our peer institutions. We sent people out to talk to those departments and say "What are you doing? Are there reasons for this?" In our engineering school because we have these extended fifth-year internship programs, called the co-op program, our engineering school said strongly yes we take longer to graduate but we graduate better students and for students who want to do this we really want to keep it. It's fine; they had a reason.

There were some other departments that, quite honestly, didn't have good reasons, and we've been pushing them to say "You've got to get your students through faster and do a better job of laying requirements and advising and getting people on track." We've taken on a number of things that didn't require new budget money—good thing because we haven't had a lot of new budget money—but which were all designed to give students better support, and in a few cases some nudges, and to create an organizational structure that did more to push through for on-time graduation, and it's continued to show up in the numbers.

You mentioned that putting money toward affordability has lowered time to degree, but it's also been said that lowering time to degree then makes college more affordable. Is it a chicken-or-egg situation?

The big increase for most student who actually complete college, if they're going to come out with above-average debt, the big time they take it out is the fifth year. Students who don't graduate on time end up with more debt than students who do it particularly that fifth year, because most everyone pans for four years, right? But then when you hit a fifth year and you're going to come back and spend another semester or two, that’s when you say, “Well I guess I have to go borrow,” or borrow more.

So there's a very clear correlation here between finishing on time and when you take more debt out. So if we can get people through in four years, for most people it’s not going to abolish debt but it will decrease the debt.

I should note, I'm sure you've seen our recent numbers, from last year to this year the percent of students graduating with debt has gone down, that's not true in the nation. And the average debt level of our graduating students has gone down, which also didn't happen in the nation, and I think—again, you don't want to make too much of one- or two-year trends—I think that some of this is related to our success with reducing time to degree.

Another thing that has been talked about a lot is more direct admits to specific colleges within the university, is that a trend we're going to see more at Madison?

Our business school and our engineering school are where we're going to see this most. And we're quite unusual compared to our peers in that many of them [direct] admit pretty much the whole class of the freshman year or a very, very, very, high share of them, we admitted almost no one in the freshman year.

And I think part of the argument there is that just to be competitive, because we lose some really good students, look at us and look at Minnesota, we’re equal cost for students from these two states. They can be directly admitted to the Carlson School [of Business] or they can come here and maybe they'll get in and maybe they won't, and they really know they want to do business. And we were losing some really top students in business and in engineering as a result of the fact we were doing zero freshman admits.

We're now doing a very small number of freshman admits, and I think we've talked with both schools about increasing that a little bit. I don’t think we're ever, at any time in the near future, going to be in a world where 80-90 percent of our class are admitted that way. Right now we're talking about several hundred out of multiple thousands of majors.

But there's a real advantage competitively for students who, if you look at their resume and you look at their interest, they look really well directed, it's pretty clear this is where they want to go and they've got the background for it and they aren't going to come if you don't give them some kind of assurance of that upfront.

How would [direct admits] affect transfer students coming in?

Well that’s one reason why you don't want to admit a really high share of your class [through direct admits] because a lot of your transfer students who come in want those colleges, and we've gotta preserve space for that. And have the transfer students have options to be admitted, just as we also want to do the same for students who might spend their freshman year pretty undecided.

I had a Roxy Reception at my house and I was talking to a student who had started out actually as an engineering [student] and decided toward the end of his freshman year this just wasn't where his passion was. And [he] switched gears and got accepted to the Business School in the middle of his sophomore year and is business now. You want to allow that really important right, because there are a lot of people that aren't that well directed. This is a both-and not an either-or.

Is UW-Madison, compared our peer institutions, more inclined to have transfer students because of our system with the two-year colleges?

I honestly don't know the answer, I haven't looked at the percentage of students that come in as transfer students and some of the other. Every state I know of, they don't quite call them two-year schools and technical colleges, they’re usually community colleges that combine both of that.

I was at Michigan for a number of years, and again it wasn't large number but it was a noticeable number of students transferring from community colleges at the end of the sophomore year, and I couldn’t compare the numbers.

It's important for us to have that option and we get very good students coming in that way. And we've benchmarked graduation rates among our transfers and non-transfer [students] and they're virtually identical. It means that we're letting the right people in, right.

One concern of the proposed metrics is while trying to meet one metric, we work against another. One of the metrics is increasing teacher workload. I’m wondering how, if that’s a metric that does pass, the university will ensure we are a top-ranked research institution?

This is one reason I want to say not performance metrics, outcome measures.

Teacher input is not an outcome measure, it’s an input and we should be measuring outcomes not inputs and we’re saying that very strongly as we talk about what measures we want to put in place. I would not consider teacher input a valid output measure.

But if it does pass, do you have a plan?

There’s nothing wrong with measuring workloads, most companies do it. The issue is you gotta measure [full] workload ... It would be very silly for a company where employees did five or six different things to say “we’re going to measure one of them and none of the others.”

If indeed we need to put a workload policy in place we’ll put a full workload policy in place, which looks at time spent teaching, advising, mentoring students. Time spent in research, there’s actually a lot of overlap between those particularly with graduate students. And time spent in administrative work and outreach in the state, and our faculty do all of those. We would need to measure and talk about all of them.

I was at the University of Michigan, at Michigan we all as faculty members filled out regularly timesheets that measured all of those and it was partly out of the state concern that Michigan collect that information. It’s perfectly doable, we haven’t done it here historically. But if that was something that [the state] legislature asks us to do we could certainly put that in place. But we would do a full workload measure, not one component.

Right now we’ve heard Madison is only hiring faculty at a retention level and not expanding the faculty. How does this affect students’ in-class experience and the quality of education?

Whether that’s true or not depends a little on which school or college you’re looking at. There are a number of schools and colleges that have had substantial increases in faculty. Engineering has expanded its faculty. Medicine has expanded its faculty. L&S is the group that’s there’s probably the most issues.

There are a number of departments, quite honestly, that have gotten smaller. One of the effects of budget cuts is people retire and we haven’t replaced them in some departments, in particular departments where student demand has gone down. People say, if faculty left and we gave money, why can’t you hire more engineers or chemists? And the answer is because we have budget cuts. It had to go into filling the budget hole rather than being reinvested someplace else.

So, our overall faculty numbers have been reasonably flat, but the relative numbers really vary. You have to look by the department to get that story. And it does reflect changes in student demand. There's been real shifts in where students are majoring over the last decade. Resources move slowly around a university because faculty are here for long periods of time and we want them here. But there are shifts that do follow faculty.

As the lead and the face of the university, how do you balance the voices of student organizations, shared governance, legislators, as well as your own personal voice and filter that out into the community?

One of the real challenges of being the head of a public institution—it’s not unique to universities, some universities have even more of these than others—[is] you have an infinite number of stakeholders.

I’ve got 43,000 students, 2,200 faculty and staff, I’ve got 400,000 alumni, many of whom think I should respond to all of them immediately. We’ve got the business leaders in the Madison community, we’ve got a governor and his staff, we’ve got 33 senators and 99 representatives, and then you got the citizens of the state. You hear from all of them. And the media is its own voice as well in all of this.

And all of them want different things from you and of course they often want very diverse things.

One of my biggest jobs here is communications. I consider the external communications about “What is this university, what are we trying to do, why are you hearing what you’re hearing, and is this good or bad, how are we really serving the state or serving the nation,” as important as the internal communications saying “What in the world is going on in the state legislature and why is this happening in the state and how is it going to impinge us, or what about those federal budget cuts.” Talking with, internally here, what do we need to do to change as the world around us changes and to understand that environment as this institution.

Those two forms of communication are really important. You will never, in doing that, satisfy everyone. Maybe there are times you don’t satisfy most people. You have to listen. Your communication should reflect that listening so people understand, even if you don’t do that they’re asking you to do in a direct way, you’ve certainly heard their complaint and are trying to respond to it in a way that you can, even if what they said you should do isn’t what you can do.

It’s part of the fun of the job and it’s part of the challenge of the job. The livelier the environment is, the more you get pulled in 15 different directions.

One of the particular challenges right now is we do have external voices often on the political side that are saying things quite different from at least what some group of internal voices are saying.

The debate over diversity is sort of [a] classic here where we got, for very good reasons, a number of people on campus, and I hope a very large number of people, really concerned about the ways in which we are or not living up to our professed goal of really being an inclusive and welcoming campus.

At the same time you’ve got at least some individuals from outside who are attacking us for dealing with diversity and my role in that, which is the communication role, is to say, particularly to the outside, that this is not about political correctness, and this is not about trying to give in to student demands.

This is about a fundamental educational need of our students as they go to work in the 21st century. They must be able to work in a diverse and highly differentiated environment with people from other countries, with people from other parts of this nation, and with people from very different racial and ethnic backgrounds. If they can’t do that, they will not be very successful in their careers.

That’s an important message to get out to those who are critical of what we’re doing. And it’s equally important for those internally to talk quite extensively about what we’re doing, why we can do this, why we can’t do that, what we’re going to do next year. That’s why I have an ace communications team.

Any plans to go back to D.C.?

I don’t have any plans at the moment. I think it’s unlikely that I’m going to get many invitations from the current administration. 

Peter Coutu, Madeline Heim and Andrew Bahl contributed to this report.

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