Content warning: This story contains information about sexual assault.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison held a first-year student convocation ceremony Tuesday amid a series of incidents that put UW-Madison into headlines, including Memorial Union’s pier collapsing and a violent sexual assault on State Street.
Tuesday’s ceremony welcomed thousands of students to campus at a time when UW-Madison and the UW System are entangled in discussions over free speech and belonging.
UW-Madison faced criticism from top state Republican lawmakers this summer regarding its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. GOP legislators thwarted significant budget proposals while reducing the UW System’s funding by $32 million. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the funding cuts matched the amount of money UW campuses spend on DEI programs.
UW-Madison administrators in speeches during the convocation ceremony Thursday encouraged free expression, similar to statements made after a video depicting a white UW-Madison student saying violent racist remarks surfaced in May.
“Embrace this diversity and be comfortable with the uncomfortable,“ said LaVar Charleston, UW-Madison deputy vice chancellor for diversity & inclusion.
Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin centered free speech throughout her remarks.
“There is no doubt that freedom of speech is a heck of a lot easier to believe in when you agree with the speaker, but it’s probably most important when you don’t,” Mnookin said.
The chancellor then focused on first-year students, who she claimed “are part of the tapestry who makes us who we are.”
The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin took center stage for a portion of the event, following an initial land acknowledgment that recognized the historical "forced removal of the Ho-Chunk people" from Wisconsin.
“This place has good energy,” said Annie Jones, a UW-Madison professor from the Menominee Indian Tribe, who shared positive qualities that Badgers represented in her tribe. “Know that ancestors want you to do well and be well here.”
Additionally, Mnookin in her speech addressed Sunday’s sexual assault with a somber tone while lending support to the victim.
“We are holding the student and her family in our hearts… this is certainly not the way we hoped to begin this school year,” she said. “No place is completely safe, including Madison.”
The event ended with a positive tone from the administration.
“We won’t all be together again until graduation day,” Mnookin said. “You will leave here a very different person than you are today.”
Jasper Bernstein is the Associate News Editor for The Daily Cardinal. Follow him on Twitter at @jasperberns.