UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank met with representatives of the school’s two student newspapers Tuesday afternoon to answer questions and share her views on the current semester.
“We’re in the midst of three crises,” the Chancellor told the Daily Cardinal and Badger Herald, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university’s financial woes and the “social revolution” brought on by the killing of George Floyd and enduring cycles of racial injustice.
Throughout the interview, Blank defended her administration’s decision-making and preparations in reopening campus amid the pandemic and called for more enforcement of public health guidelines from local authorities in Madison and Dane County.
The Chancellor also expressed her willingness to listen to and work with students of color to improve the experiences of marginalized groups on campus, but she pushed back against demands posed to the university by student activists, calling some of their asks “nonstarters.”
A Smart Re-Restart?
“The first week ended up in a bad place,” Blank said, referring to the spike in COVID-19 cases on campus in the days immediately following the semester’s start.
Just a week into instruction, the university’s plan to re-open and hold face-to-face classes fell apart, as UW reported nearly 1,500 positive tests among students and staff and county officials pleaded with the Chancellor to send students home. Instead, campus underwent a two-week pause, where all classes went remote and two residence halls were locked down.
“We took all of these health protocols even more seriously,” Blank said. “And it worked.”
As of Monday, with reported cases declining, that pause is over. Students and staff will return to the classroom.
Blank said that the university is more prepared now to handle the virus’ spread than it had been at the start of the semester. With UW’s Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory now able to process tests, the Chancellor said that testing capacity is up and wait times are down. Those living and working in dorm buildings, where attempts are being made to “de-densify,” will now be tested on a weekly basis—twice as often as had originally been planned.
Despite the restart, many classes have not returned to in-person instruction yet, and some will likely remain virtual for the remainder of the semester, Blank said.
“It’s going to depend on faculty’s willingness to teach (and) students’ willingness to attend,” Blank said. “But I do hope that there will be some ongoing in-person opportunities for those students who want them.”
Blank also declined to give specific criteria for when campus would be shut down again, saying the university monitors cases, positive test rates and signs of spread throughout the community for decision-making.
"If we think that we couldn't enforce the health protocols to safely have students here on campus, we would act," Blank said.
Blank said that she has been working on-campus from her office in Bascom Hall at least three days a week. She has not spoken in any in-person classes since the semester began, but said she “would almost surely say yes” if given a relevant opportunity.
“If I’m going to ask other people to be on campus, I need to be on campus,” she said. “It’s easy for me to say that, because I’m not currently teaching, but I would certainly hope that I would be one of the teachers in the classroom under those circumstances.”
The Chancellor also stressed that the decision to re-open campus was not a financial one, despite widespread criticism that the decision aimed to collect on tuition and housing checks.
While acknowledging that there would have been lost revenue from university housing contracts, Blank argued the rest of the university would have been unaffected by a virtual semester. She went so far as to say the university had made a costly decision to hold in-person classes, citing preparations that included investments in labor, personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
“We would honestly be saving more money if students were not on campus,” Blank said.
Removing Lincoln, defunding UWPD are “nonstarters”
Sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in late May, protests and calls for change shook Madison throughout the summer. As campus reopened, those renewed calls to end injustice—and for answers from the systems that allow it—have descended on the university as well.
Chancellor Blank acknowledged the frustration and anger that many students of color feel in the current moment.
“It’s clear that students of color are frustrated and angry. They’ve had a difficult summer,” Blank said. “They are not just looking out (at society), but they’re also looking in here at the university and want to say, what are you doing differently? In what ways are you showing institutional racism and implicit bias and white privilege? That’s a fair question, that all of us on campus need to be asking.”
Campus organizations like the newly-formed BIPOC student coalition have made demands of the university, including the removal of the Lincoln statue on Bascom Hill, increased funding for Black and minority student organizations, defunding of the UWPD, and revisiting the demands of the 1969 UW Black student strike.
Chancellor Blank said she has read the list of demands and met with representatives from the Black Student Union and Native American student group Wunk Sheek before the start of the semester, but has not met with the coalition. Administrators have had regular conversations with student activists, she said, but the university does not plan to fulfill all of the coalition’s demands.
“There are a number of those that we’re working on,” Blank said. “There’s some of them that are nonstarters.”
One such nonstarter is the removal of the Lincoln statue, which some students have called a symbol of American racism. The statue, depicting a president who endorsed the doctrine of white supremacy in his debates with Stephen A. Douglas and ordered the largest mass execution in American history of 38 Native Americans, now sits on traditionally Ho-Chunk land.
“Abraham Lincoln is probably one of our most honored presidents, and did a number of things that really affected this country, not just the Emancipation Proclamation,” Blank said. “Like all people of his time, he did some things that people consider a little less honorable 150 years later.”
The Chancellor said that rather than removing the statue, the university should seek to contextualize Lincoln’s legacy within the complex time that he lived.
Blank was also concerned by criticisms of UWPD, the university’s police department. The Associated Students of Madison, UW’s student governance body, was scheduled to hold a vote of no confidence in UWPD Tuesday night, after the Chancellor spoke with reporters. That vote passed.
“I’m disappointed at the vote of no confidence, in part because it is pretty early in the semester,” Blank said, saying that such a vote should only occur after “a series of conversations” between the department and student leaders.
That vote was proposed in response to students’ concerns about UWPD officers assisting Madison police during protests where tear gas and other crowd controls measures were deployed this summer, in addition to UWPD’s alleged resistance to proposed reforms. ASM members met with representatives of the UWPD before proposing the vote, but say they were unsatisfied with the response.
Blank went on to emphasize that the size of UW-Madison and the realities college life necessitate a law enforcement presence campus. She called the UWPD a progressive force, citing their early adoption of body cameras and de-escalation training.
“I have not heard from any students who had an individual story to tell about a negative interaction with a specific police officer on campus,” Blank said.
The Chancellor also emphasized that the university is working to increase diversity on campus through its admissions process. This semester’s freshman class is the university’s most diverse ever, she claimed, as 13.5% of its students come from underrepresented ethnic and racial groups.
Disputes with local officials as football season looms
Blank also called for greater enforcement of existing public health guidelines by local officials. While the university has threatened punitive action up to and including suspension for students caught violating guidelines, they have little to no way of enforcing those rules off-campus, where the vast majority of UW students live.
In order to ensure that students are responsible for their off-campus behavior, Blank said that local officials, including the Madison Police Department, should exercise their authority to break up social gatherings and enforce limits on bar and restaurant occupancy.
That call comes as Blank and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi have exchanged pointed press releases in recent weeks over the lack of cooperation between the university and local officials. Parisi has twice asked for campus to be shuttered and students sent home, and he claims that the university’s reopening ran contrary to the advice of local health experts.
“The county executive is not very happy with us, and I have tried to say let’s sit down and talk together,” Blank said. “I don’t think we generate any help firing messages back and forth with each other. If we aren’t in partnership with each other, we’re not doing our jobs.”
Blank went on to claim that there is no evidence from local officials of COVID-19 outbreaks on campus spreading to affect the greater Madison community. While this is true, Public Health Madison and Dane County has also written that, due to the difficulty of proving how virus spread takes place, “you will probably not ever hear us say there is clear-cut evidence of spillover.” Total cases in Dane County have soared since campus opened, driven by cases among UW students.
The Chancellor also said she thought the criteria set by local officials as to when local schools would shut down again were too cautious, citing the inevitability of rising cases when on-campus testing ramped up.
“I am particularly unhappy about the fact that Dane County has chosen some very low numbers of case limits to decide whether to allow K-12 to start back up again in person,” she said. “I have asked that the county should revisit some of those K-12 limits.”
One particular area of concern with off-campus spread is the return of the Badger football games and the tailgating events that will inevitably come with.
“While we all love our football Saturdays, the festivities that come with them are going to serve as new spreading events within our community,” Parisi wrote in a statement after the Big Ten announced that its football season would resume in late October.
On Tuesday, Blank defended the choice to restart the season, which she and the other heads of Big Ten schools agreed upon unanimously. Before that decision was made, she said, a Big Ten Medical Advisory Group supplied a list of recommendations with which a safe season would be possible, and that the schools will implement those recommendations.
The Chancellor also said that there would be no fans in attendance at Badger football games.
“There’s no way you can have, even if it’s only one quarter of your stadium, 20,000 people walking in and standing in line for the restrooms,” Blank said. “There are no fans in the stadium this year.”
Blank ended the call by emphasizing the agency of students in behaving responsibly and limiting the spread of the virus.
“People have said to me, well, what did you expect? They are students,” Blank said. “My reaction to all of that is, I do expect our students to be adults.”
She emphasized that the vast majority of students have followed public health guidelines, and that the recent drop in new COVID-19 cases on campus indicates that stopping the virus’ spread is possible.
“This isn’t going to last forever,” she said. “If people want to complete this semester, if they want to be with their friends, if they want to be in Madison … these are the health protocols we have to follow. And, you know, I’m quite sure we can do it on this campus.”