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The following are my 2019 Opening Day Convocation remarks and address, shared with the faculty and staff of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s three campuses on Sept. 3 at the Culver Family Welcome Center. You can see the full recording of the Awards Ceremony and Convocation HERE

 

Good morning. It is my privilege to welcome you to the start of the 2019-2020 academic year at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh!

Welcome to our Fond du Lac and Fox Cities campus colleagues joining us today. Welcome to Oshkosh colleagues as well. And welcome to everyone watching through live streaming video.

It is hard for me to believe this is my fifth opening day convocation. I stand before you today and continue to be inspired by the dedication, the professionalism, and the heart exhibited by you, the faculty and staff of this great institution.

I share my gratitude to all of you for the hours, days and semesters of your lives you have given to the success of our students. Through the ups and downs of family life… Through the demographic crests and troughs… Through unceasing budget pressure… and ever-changing attitudes toward the work we do.

You persevere with pride in what you do in serving the mission of this university; to intellectually and emotionally develop the whole person, to create new knowledge and applications, to be the best stewards of our communities.

Thank you.

And now onto our Opening Day custom. It is time for our very loud and proud thank you to the hundreds of staff, faculty, students, alumni and other volunteers who made this weekend’s Move-In a success. If you participated in Move-In, please stand so we can recognize you!

Many employees and volunteers spent their holiday weekend joining forces with facilities and custodial staff, people from our business office, police officers and CSO’s, student affairs representatives, and, of course, our residence hall staff to keep our Oshkosh campus move-In as the best experience of its kind in the UW System.

So, thanks to Director Rob Babcock and his team for making the Move-In experience so positive for students and families. I also want to thank Jennie Hartzheim, Coordinator of New Student and Family Programs, and her team for holding 20 or so Titan Takeoffs and a fabulous opening weekend for our students.

And, another Titan was busy over the holiday weekend, supporting our mission in a different way.

You may have read in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Kinesiology Professor Dan Schmidt’s bike ride from La Crosse to Oshkosh to raise money for scholarships to support his program’s students. What a great story and spotlight on Dan and UWO. This is tremendous example of the dedication we all have to our students, their success and their futures.

I had the opportunity to ride a few miles with Dan yesterday between Wautoma and Redgranite. Here are a couple…

   

Dan completed his ride to Oshkosh yesterday. He’s not here this morning, but he will finish his journey in the campus mall between Albee and Dempsey Halls at about Noon today. If you can, please join us as welcome him back to the Oshkosh campus.

Bravo, Dr. Schmidt!

The beginning of a new academic year is a good time to start a new practice that is long overdue.

This academic year, UWO continues its commitment to create a stronger campus infrastructure for diversity and inclusion.

One of our priorities is to continue to build relationships with American Indian communities.

Our development of a land-acknowledgment statement is an important step to connect us to the history of the place in which we all learn, live and work.

Today, we recognize and honor Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of this land.

First, I’d like to welcome some guests joining us today. I hope they will rise when I call their names so that we may recognize them and thank them for their support in the development of UWO’s land-acknowledgement statement.

Please join me in welcoming:

  • Dave Grignon, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and Museum Director with the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin.
  • And Mr. Forrest Funmaker, Public Relations Officer for the Office of the President of the Ho-Chunk Nation.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining us today.

At this time, it is my pleasure to introduce Trinaty Caldwell, a member of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and a sophomore at the Oshkosh Campus of UW Oshkosh, majoring in Biology.

Trinaty serves as an executive member of the Inter-Tribal Student Organization and has a passion for issues that affect American Indians and Indian communities.

Please help me welcome Trinaty Caldwell to the podium to read the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Land Acknowledgement Statement.

And now, I’d like to introduce Provost John Koker to lead us in this morning’s faculty and staff awards ceremony.

___

Convocation Address

As I begin, I want to welcome some important people, our Shared Governance leaders for 2019 – 2020. Please stand when your name is called.

  • Dru Scribner, President of the Faculty Senate
  • Lisa Goetsch, President of the University Staff Senate
  • Melanie Marine, President of the Senate of Academic Staff
  • Marc Sackman, Chair of the UWO-Fox Cities Collegium Steering Committee
  • Carey Woodward, Chair of the UWO-Fond du Lac Collegium Steering Committee

Though they are not present today, I would like to recognize our student government leaders.

  • Jacob Banfield, President of the Oshkosh Student Association
  • Alley John, President of the UWO-Fond du Lac Student Association
  • Taisto Oney, President of the UWO-Fox Cities Student Association

I reaffirm my commitment to the important role shared governance plays at our university. In the weeks and months to come, I will call upon shared governance for input as we make key decisions about the direction and priorities of the university.

Additionally, I would like to introduce the Cabinet for 2019 – 2020. Please stand when your name is called.

  • John Koker, Provost & VC for Academic Affairs
  • Jim Fletcher, VC for Finance & Administration
  • Bob Roberts, Interim VC for University Affairs
  • Darryl Sims, AC & Athletic Director
  • Martin Rudd, AC for Access Campuses
  • Byron Adams, Interim AVC for Academic Support of Inclusive Excellence
  • Kate McQuillan, Chief of Staff
  • Alex Hummel, Special Assistant for Strategic Partnerships

And lastly, I want to welcome back someone who truly went above and beyond in serving as Interim Chancellor of UW-Whitewater – Dr. Cheryl Green, VC for Student Affairs.

As you know, Cheryl accepted President Ray Cross’s appointment as Whitewater’s interim chancellor last January and served into this summer. While President Cross’s call to service deprived us of Cheryl’s leadership for several months, others rose to help.

Art Munin served as our Acting Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs when Cheryl headed to Whitewater. Art’s leadership was seamless, thoughtful and the epitome of inclusive. He returns this semester as our Dean of Students. Thank you Art.

And that of course, sets off a reverse-domino effect, likewise returning Buzz Bares, Nate Scott, Jean Kwaterski and other Student Affairs professionals to their previous roles. Each of them stepped up, and offered stellar service and leadership.

Thank you so much to all for, without question, accepting new responsibilities and challenges and for helping UWO carry on.

Well… Last year was a year of transition. There was significant progress made on our first-year enrollment; our finances were brought closer into balance; our student success numbers continue to improve (the four- and six-year graduation rate has jumped 7 percentage points); we continue to put some difficult issues behind us, and we became a multi-campus university.

Three campuses, one university.

 

Thanks to our UMC team for developing that fantastic video! It is our way of saying thank you to all, from all three campuses, who worked hard to make this joining work. I also want to acknowledge and thank the access campuses’ leadership team, led by Dr. Martin Rudd. I ask Bethany Rusch, Bill Bultman and Martin to rise and be acknowledged.

Here is another important picture to enjoy…

That’s our new first-year class on the Oshkosh Campus, the Class of 2023—right around 1,670 students, about the number we welcomed last year. We added about 500 first-year students on the Fond du Lac and Fox Cities Campuses.

I want to thank all who are involved in recruiting, admitting, advising, supporting, and welcoming our new first year students. As the provost stated, this class is strong and adds to the continued reversal of the first-year student enrollment trend of previous years.

We know we have a continued uphill climb ahead given the slow-to-recover number of college-bound young people in Wisconsin. But we’ve seen our efforts with recruitment really bear fruit.

As I have always said, recruitment and enrollment are the responsibility of everyone on all three campuses of this university. Whether you ride a lawn mower or maintain our facilities, whether you support our students or ensure orderly administrative functions, and whether you are in the classroom, studio, laboratory, or field as you instruct our students, you all play an important part in recruiting and retaining our students.

There is a trinity of departments at the university who have the responsibility to operationalize our recruitment strategies. I want to thank the folks from Admissions, University Marketing and Communications, and Information Technology for working so well together to bring in this first-year class.

Thanks to all of the department chairs and faculty members who participate in advising our new and returning students. The work of our Undergraduate Advising Resource Center under Liz Whaley’s leadership is much appreciated.

I am also grateful to Chad Cotti for serving as our interim assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management. Chad brought to his role a level of analysis and insight we simply have not previously had.

Today we have a much better understanding of the dynamics of enrollment and how they impact the university because of Chad. I ask Chad to stand to receive our appreciation.

I hope you have noticed the reenergized look for our three-campus University. I think it’s pretty sharp…

It says a lot about us. It’s not so much an overhaul of our brand, because marketing research conducted showed us that our brand is strong.

It’s a really fresh, new look for our three-campus university. It’s informed by the story and the values of the university, with a heightened concentration on access thanks to the mission and the dedicated colleagues at the Fond du Lac and Fox Cities campuses.

And as our marketing research also showed us, these are cities and a region where students feel empowered and connected.

Our research showed that students on the Fond du Lac and Fox Cities campuses perceive the value of their experience based on the benefits of access and transfer. They note the support they receive from faculty and staff in achieving their goals.

Oshkosh campus students perceive the value of their experience around quality of instruction and the city-campus combination. I was thrilled to report this to the Oshkosh Common Council last week, and I think councilors were pleased to hear it. This says a lot about how the community offers experiences you have integrated into the University Studies Program and other service-learning opportunities.

I want to thank Jenni Monroe and our University Marketing and Communications team for overseeing the marketing research that informed our naming and branding. Darren Brzozowski designed the new lettermarks. We took our time and invested in the examination that certified the identity and brand strengths of each campus community. The Board of Regents approved the naming changes in July.

Of course, over the last year, we have many notable accomplishments. Here are a few…

  • UWO analytical chemist Yijun Tang received a prestigious, $50,000 Regent Scholar grant in March for his development of new glucose sensors. Congrats to Yijun!
  • The Barlow Planetarium continues to expand its programming offerings as the premier regional university planetarium and received more than 30,000 visitors in 2018-19.
  • After a year like no other, the UWO Model United Nations team returned from the National Model United Nations Conference as champions. This has happened 37 times previously. We are a national powerhouse at any level in Model UN. Thanks to Tracey Slagter for serving as advisor of this great student organization.
  • The Fond du Lac campus celebrated its 50thanniversary in this past academic year and welcomed its first transfer student as the Commencement speaker.
  • The Fox Cities campus surpassed 150 total graduates with bachelor degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering in a collaboration with UW-Platteville, since its first degrees were awarded in 2005.
  • The UWO men’s basketball team claimed its first National Championship in the program’s 121-year history in convincing fashion last March, defeating Swarthmore College, 96-82, in the title game. Congrats to Coach Matt Lewis, players and staff!
  • The UWO-Fond du Lac Falcons women’s basketball team won the Wisconsin Collegiate Conference Championship.
  • We earned our 10-year Higher Learning Commission re-accreditation. As you recall, this process was delayed by a year. This achievement is thanks to the entire university stepping forward, making time to share voices and opinions and exude a confidence that is energizing and inspiring. Thanks to John Koker, Charlie Hill, and many, many faculty and staff members for making this possible.
  • UWO also earned its way off HLC notice. This also required a lot of hard work and documentation to demonstrate our efforts with UW System, the Board of Regents and our Foundations to recover from a logjam of litigation and emerge a stronger institution. This was all connected to the complex December 2018 settlement agreement with the UWO Foundation and financial entities and represented a tremendous step forward for us.

The settlement set in motion the ongoing talks between the UWO Foundation and the Titan Alumni Foundation, which are considering a merger. The settlement also secured the Witzel Avenue Biodigester and the place we gather today—the subsequently renamed Culver Family Welcome Center—as  university assets.

I want to thank Bob Roberts for his continued management of these issues. I also continue to express gratitude to the all of the Advancement team as they continue working in uncertain circumstances.

As you heard Provost Koker report, together, we got through the second year of our three-year Plan for Fiscal Transformation.

It has been difficult. It’s been painful, but we are working through it with an eye toward the end. There have been a lot of sacrifices, and people continue to step forward and lead as we manage our fiscal house and confront our historic enrollment challenge.

We recognized and honored the Oshkosh 94 last November through “Black Thursday Remembered: 50 Years Later” and took another step in our work to address an injustice that seriously altered the lives of students 50 years ago.

I’m proud to see how the Black Thursday story and legacy are part of our classroom learning and our collective memory. And it is inspiring to see these alumni staying connected to student groups, professors and programs as mentors, teachers and donors. A tremendous thank you to Dr. Stephen Kercher, Grace Lim, Joshua Ranger, and our colleague and friend Dr. Sylvia Carey Butler who helped lead this monumental and historic effort.

On the Oshkosh campus, we reinvigorated our commitment to life-changing scholarship fundraising with the first-ever Evening of Black and Gold. In one March night, we raised nearly $60,000 to support students. And this year, we are reaching out earlier than ever to invite you all, through our Faculty & Staff Giving Campaign, to support student scholarships.

In the state’s biennial budget process, we secured $500,000 to support and advance final design and planning for a Phase Two of a renovated Nursing-Education building—what you’ve heard me call “Clow II.”

I’m going to be honest: The odds were slim. We were bumped off previous capital project list.

But we spent a lot of time standing up for ourselves and drawing attention to the dire need for K-12 teachers in Wisconsin. And we didn’t let up. With the support of Rep. Gordon Hintz, Rep. Michael Schraa, Sen. Dan Feyen and other legislators, we helped resurrect the project and get planning and construction back on track for a 2021 groundbreaking.

Of course, the biennial budget also offers a 2+2 pay plan over the next two years. This gives us the power to, once again, recognize solid performing faculty and staff.

Colleagues, we have a challenging year ahead; and, honestly, it has less to do with what we can control but more to do with the charged, national atmosphere we continue to learn, live and work in.

There is a lot in motion. There is a state free speech bill focused on our campuses. Upcoming national elections will assuredly lead to campaigns and candidates knocking on our campus door in the months ahead.

And incidents like those involving homophobia and racism that we saw erupt on the Oshkosh campus and on social media may emerge again in this academic year and our test civility and inclusive values.

I am certain, in every instance, our individual and collective actions and responses will be monitored. People and organizations here, around the state and in the country, will be watching and waiting for us to somehow falter, rather than do what we usually do when challenged: we model inclusivity, we practice democracy, we pursue justice. We shine a light into darkness. That is what a university should do.

So, how will we prepare, what will we plan for… how will we respond and emerge stronger when our response is called for?

I have a few thoughts.

We will, as always, continue to work hard to create and preserve the conditions and the public square where free speech is welcome.

We will continue to learn, live and work by recognizing and practicing our values. There are some very gray lines when it comes to speech, academic freedom and other principles that guide what we do. But, in my mind, there is no ambiguity when we see, hear and experience the targeting of students, faculty and staff members and our neighbors based on their identity. We will not tolerate it.

An institution can honor its obligation to welcome and nurture free speech as it condemns that speech which targets people because of who they are, where they came from, what beliefs they practice – their identities, their very being. To say and do nothing is to endorse the disruption of learning, the disruption of lives. That would be contrary to our daily work and our mission.

My office got a very powerful reminder of this intersection and the kind of student leadership needed a little less than a year ago.

Dr. Heidi Nicholls’ students in her Quest I course, settled on a class project titled “I Am, I’m Not.” Students translated some important classroom discussions and learning into interactive wall art. It incorporated their handprints and “I Am, I’m Not” statements. That art now resides on a wall in the Chancellor’s office. Rather than tell, I’ll show…

Students offer statements like this one… 

… And this one…

… And this one…

… And this one…

It was very moving and galvanizing to listen to the diverse students in this course explain the genesis of the project and share their hopes for more contributions. And, did they get more contributions.

The art began looking like this

And, by spring semester’s end, looked like this

I’d like to invite you and your students to come in any time and add to it as we move into this new academic year. Our team will welcome you and invite you to add your statement.

Dr. Nicholls, would you please stand and receive our appreciation for your teaching and leadership?

I know that it probably seems like most of the positive news launching us into the new academic year involves our climbing our way out of a hole rather than up a mountain. I get it.

I continue to feel a sense of optimism and potential (and always will) as we recognize the work and sacrifice that has gone into stabilizing UWO and establishing this new identity as three campuses, one university to better serve a region.

The efforts underway to update the mission, vision, and values given our new multi-campus status are going well. Even with a solid five-year plan in place, a deeper look is needed. We must anticipate the changes to come and take them as opportunities.

As this hot economy cools and students who decided to forego any level of college, will come back to the tech colleges, the two-year campuses, and to the four-year campuses. They will be adult learners and will come in great numbers. We must be ready for them.

I have been thinking a lot about the next decade at UWO and what shape it takes. Given that change is the only constant, I believe the next decade will be an unprecedented time of change for higher education both in Wisconsin and nationally, driven by declining demographics, further-constrained public support, greater oversight, and changes in expectations from students on how teaching and learning will take place.

This should be a university-wide conversation. With that said, I have had some ideas about where we go next – what goals we pursue and peaks we resolve to climb together. You saw in the video and may have heard me asking the question: “What kind of university does this region need and deserve?” The students and region need an evolving university.

I continue to encounter thought leaders who are speaking on the threats and opportunities of disruptive forces such as artificial intelligence and machine learning and the increasing demand for new ways of delivery of courses and degree programs.

It’s becoming clearer to me that we must explore and develop new modalities and programs that will better align with future demand. It is also clear to me we must continue to emphasize those critical disciplines that develop essential skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, adaptation, communication, and cultural competency. As technology evolves at a blazing pace, these skills will serve as a constant foundation for our students for the rest of their lives. Liberal education is one of our foundational elements of the strategic plan and serves as the bedrock of all we do.

Given that UWO is a comprehensive institution, there is no better laboratory than us for the development and assessment of new methods and modalities of teaching and learning. If you don’t like what is being done in your field, invent something different. Be the disruptor, not the disrupted.

I often think of music as an analogy for the balance between excellence and disruption. Certainly, it’s critical to keep the masterpieces, the classics, the cherished songbooks alive and heard. And, certainly, we cannot go on only playing the same pieces all the time. There must be new composition – stuff that pushes the envelope and innovates, be it by sound, theory or instrument.

Here is another analogy. Please enjoy Russian artist Ivan Aivazovsky’s painting The Wave, painted in 1889…

As I look at this painting, a key question for me is “How do we adapt to the changing environment of higher education and disruptive technologies used in teaching and learning?”

To anticipate these changes is to ride the waves – rather than be overcome or overtaken by them if we act too slowly or not at all.

I say all this, not as an ominous warning, but to point to an opportunity where we can innovate, meet the needs of our students, gain control of our enrollment and thus gain control of our finances.

We must work together to ensure, no matter how the conditions change, that our values remain intact and our institution remains strong. I look forward to engaging in these long-range discussions with all who will have them. I need you to help shape the future for UWO.

I want to again thank you all for this, my fifth opportunity to address you at Opening Day Convocation.

I’ll conclude today by sharing my own handprint and “I Am, I’m Not” statement on the wall of my office…

I wish you a safe, happy, healthy year ahead, and I thank each and every one of you for making this institution—three campuses, one university—such an amazing place of transformation for all involved.

Thank you. Hail Titans!