The following are my 2020 Opening Day Convocation remarks and address, shared with the faculty and staff of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s three campuses on Sept. 8 both virtually and at the Culver Family Welcome Center.
Good morning. It is my privilege to welcome you to the start of the 2020-21 academic year at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
Tomorrow will mark the first day of class for the 149th year for this institution. I will make the argument that this 149th year will go down as the most challenging year in our history.
A search for past crises in UWO’s history yields a number of devastating events and defining struggles that might rival today.
We cite the fire of 1916 that consumed “Old Main” the then-Normal School’s only campus building, forcing classes to move into Oshkosh churches. Only one day of instruction was lost. Dempsey Hall was constructed the very next year.
There was the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic. The institution closed from Nov. 13 to Dec. 3 that year and again from Dec. 13 to Jan. 6. There was no mention of this event in the “Quiver”, the Normal school’s yearbook.
There have been disruptions in enrollments and financial stability during and after the 20th Century wars.
As we recently commemorated, there was the 1968 expulsion of 94 black students for staging a protest in the president’s office. Black Thursday, as it became known, serves as the starting point of decades of social justice triumphs and defeats at this university.
Honestly, it simply may be the truth that nowhere in UWO’s 150-year history have things been more challenging than they have been in the 149th. In this year.
And there isn’t another group of faculty and staff that I would rather serve with during this crisis, who are more devoted to the success of this institution and its students, to see us through this.
I consider it an enormous achievement that we reach this day with students living and learning on our three campuses.
In any ordinary year, the beginning of class would be a significant event in the lives of our students, faculty, and staff. This year, the opening is nothing short of remarkable.
In the midst of a world-wide pandemic, schools across the country are reopening under almost impossible circumstances. Most will open their campuses successfully. Many will not. We are all keenly aware of the possibility of being overcome by events and forced to go completely online.
Our goal is to successfully open our campuses safely and keep them open the entire semester, the entire academic year.
The COVID-19 virus itself is but one adversary. Uncertainty and self-doubt are a few others. At every level of our educational system we are challenged with a series of difficult choices influenced by rapidly changing conditions.
In spite of this, we know we must be safely open, for an on-campus experience, for the sake of our students. New students arrive with a world of possibilities ahead for them while continuing students push forward on their journey to complete a degree that will forever elevate them to better opportunities. The students overwhelmingly want to be here. They want to be present.
We know we can do this.
We feel understandable anxieties and uncertainty. But let me cite some sources that do give me comfort and confidence in our decisions, in our return and in our future. They are our students.
I hope their words, their hopes, might help answer the “why” of our return.
It probably comes as no surprise to you, that, since our world dramatically changed in March, I have been receiving emails and seeing social media posts from UWO students, parents and stakeholders sharing all sorts of uncertainty and asking all kinds of questions.
“… Will you refund my residence hall and dining fees? … Can’t I take a few more classes face to face? … Is there any chance we can find a way to pull off an alternative Commencement in person later this year?”
“Why are you closing?”
“Why are you reopening?”
With so much change since March, these are certainly fair questions. Students and families have been forced to improvise. Many have lost jobs and income. They have asked for help and wondered what kinds of “normal” we, as their university’s stewards, are able to preserve.
When the questions come in, I am so proud to see colleagues drop what they are doing and offer answers and resources.
Our Titans Rise campaign, coordinated in partnership with the UW Oshkosh Foundation, has raised more than one-hundred-thousand dollars since March to offer our students grants and some infusion of stability. Our goal is to keep Titans on the path to their degrees. Titans Rise has made a difference.
One senior Marketing major said:
“Due to COVID-19, I got laid off from my part-time job and lost my summer internship. This posed financial struggles for me regarding rent, utility bills and food. I am very grateful for the Titans Rise emergency grant’s selfless donors who are willing to help students like myself. This unprecedented time is so uncertain and it helps to know that UW Oshkosh and the Titan community are coming together to help each other.”
I share my thanks, too, to everyone who has given to Titans Rise. Thank you to the UWO Foundation for being our partners to raise these funds. And thanks to Vice Chancellor for University Affairs Bob Roberts and his team, led by Lynn Kleman, for helping manage the campaign.
And just a few weeks ago, I got this message from a social work, Spanish and Indigenous Studies student:
“Greetings Dr. Leavitt,… These past couple of months have been wild to say the least, and I wanted to reach out to thank you and everyone at the University for providing so much support throughout the trials of both last, and this upcoming semester. Your efforts to keep us students safe, informed, and encouraged have not gone unnoticed. Although myself and many others are hesitant to return to campus as there is so much unsure right now, I appreciate knowing that my school works hard to create the best environment for us students. I have no doubt that this semester will be great regardless of the craziness of the world!”
Students will notice big changes as they return. Though we have worked hard to bring about some sense of normalcy, students are nevertheless impacted. Perhaps none more than our student-athletes.
As previously announced, the Council of Chancellors from the NCAA Division 3 Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, with the guidance of an advisory group of athletic directors and students, opted to cancel most fall sports this semester. This comes on the heels of the decision to cancel spring sports last semester.
This was an incredibly difficult decision with a hard outcome for student-athletes. But they will persevere, and we will help them. Our athletic coaches know their roles are not merely on fields, courts and courses. They coach Titans through learning and life—any venue, any circumstance. I am proud of our coaches and of our student-athletes.
One of the greatest moments of my professional life occurred last spring as I watched faculty, staff, and students pivot from on-campus learning to completely online learning in just two weeks. Not in our wildest dreams (or nightmares) would we ever design and plan something to happen this way.
But we responded nevertheless.
There was a can-do spirit and a laser focus on accomplishing a task that would normally take years. No one complained. The resilience and ingenuity of everyone involved was inspiring as we all learned what we are capable of doing under seemingly impossible circumstances.
Since that time, scores of faculty, staff, and our community have worked throughout the summer to open our university safely. Faculty voluntarily “went back to school” to learn new skills and strategies for teaching in an online or hybrid format. The campuses were physically transformed to prepare for the safest possible environment.
Working side by side with the Winnebago County, Fond du Lac County, and Menasha City health departments, as well as our healthcare partners from Aurora Medical Center and Prevea Health Care, we have crafted an excellent Titans Return plan that outlines all of the necessary measures, from masking and social distancing, to disinfection and testing.
Speaking of our healthcare partners, I personally want to thank Dr. John Newman, President and CMO of Aurora Medical Center in Oshkosh and Dr. Ashok Rai, President and CEO of Prevea Healthcare.
You have now seen Dr. Newman twice in our Town Halls answering your questions and addressing your concerns. He provided and continues to provide much appreciated medical feedback on the development and implementation of the Titans Return plan. Dr. Newman gave us the confidence we needed to reopen our campuses.
Dr. Rai and Prevea Healthcare are our partners in providing COVID-19 testing. We have the capacity to administer up to 2,800 tests per week, and the generous assistance and expertise from Prevea make this possible.
We also worked alongside our UW System partners, led by President Tommy Thompson. I want to thank Gov. Thompson for his extraordinary leadership in guiding all of the UW institutions to this day and beyond. Gov. Thompson provided more than just the badly needed resources to open, he provided the necessary confidence and hope to be successful.
This plan is robust yet flexible and sets the goal of completing the entire semester while remaining on our campuses.
A UW Oshkosh classroom is the safest place to be, other than your own home, due to the measures we have put in place.
Moving through the summer, we were asked again to do the near impossible: prepare to open the university for on-campus instruction, living, dining, and learning – Safely.
I hope you will enjoy this video that provides the message of safety we need to remain on campus and also highlights some of the extraordinary work of faculty and staff to prepare the university for our students.
So, a few special thank yous are in order for some UWO colleagues who, in my opinion, have gone far above and beyond, driven by a care and a commitment to serve all of us and this institution. They are just a few examples of the many whose commitment makes this day possible. My apologies for not naming all that deserve recognition. The list would be very long.
Thanks to UWO Police Chief Kurt Leibold, who has led our emergency operations and Titans Return plan implementation efforts. Kurt led a team of dozens of people from all corners of the institution that helped us get here today and remained flexible in doing so. In short, Kurt has been the architect of our institutional efforts to successfully open the campuses and keep them open. Thank you, Kurt.
Thanks to Director of Risk, Safety and Sponsored Programs Kim Langolf who, as an expert, and a UWO double-alumna, has drawn from her spirit of service and dedication to science to help us develop a rigorous, validated testing protocol to help us monitor the wellness of our university. She has worked closely with UW System, Prevea Health and other partners to build the strong, smart, safe playbook and operational foundation we launch from today. Thanks, Kim.
Thanks to College of Business and Economics Professor Chad Cotti. At every turn, Chad made sure we channeled our Titans Return planning and implementation energy and solutions through the lens of faculty experience. All summer, Chad has checked our decisions and actions for scientific and statistical validity, but also ensuring we are humane, and aware of and aligned with national and global trends. Thank you, Chad.
Thanks to Director of Residence Life Rob Babcock and his team. Rob has helped us reinvent how we manage residence halls in the age of COVID, and it has come at zero expense of our empathy and humanity. He remains responsive to students who require accommodations or simply have understandable questions as they account for family health conditions, everyday campus commutes and other needs. We had a very different move-in this year. Thank you, Rob and team.
Thanks to Frank Mazanka and our UWO custodial crews – the dedicated Titans who, from spring through summer, have been asked to redeploy throughout campuses, put in extra hours, learn new technology and equipment, and help ensure we do all we can to prevent COVID-19’s spread as we learn and live on campus. This has been a tall order, but Frank and his team have been so selfless in their work. Thank you, Frank and team.
Those are only a handful of names from the legion of people who have shouldered new responsibilities over the last several months and helped UWO, in many ways, become a different institution so that, in most ways, it’s still the same institution we know, serve and love.
Thank you all. I am moved by your resolve and courage.
In addition to our COVID-19 response, there are other important university matters to consider. I will address some of these important issues here.
I want to acknowledge this year’s Shared Governance leaders for 2020 – 2021.
- Dru Scribner, President of the Faculty Senate
- Lisa Goetsch, President of the University Staff Senate
- Liz Bannenberg, President of the Senate of Academic Staff
- Kelly Johnson, Chair of the UWO-Fox Cities Collegium Steering Committee
- Carey Woodward, Chair of the UWO-Fond du Lac Collegium Steering Committee
I would like to recognize our student government leaders.
- Ian McDonald, President of the Oshkosh Student Association
- Alley John, President of the UWO-Fond du Lac Student Association
- Cole Hansen, President of the UWO-Fox Cities Student Association
I once again reaffirm my commitment to the important role shared governance plays at our university. I have and 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 Chancellor’s Cabinet for 2020 – 2021. Each year I make changes to the composition of the Cabinet to best reflect the different points of view I need to best lead the institution.
- John Koker, Provost & VC for Academic Affairs
- Art Munin, Interim VC for Student Affairs and Dean of Students
- Jim Fletcher, VC for Finance & Administration
- Bob Roberts, Interim VC for University Affairs
- Darryl Sims, AC & Athletic Director
- Martin Rudd, AC for Access Campuses
- Damira Grady, AVC for Academic Support of Inclusive Excellence and CDO
- Aggie Hanni, AVC for Enrollment Management
- Kate McQuillan, Chief of Staff
- Alex Hummel, Special Assistant for Strategic Partnerships
I welcome Dr. Aggie Hanni to the Cabinet to strengthen the strategic emphasis on enrollment. I’m pleased to welcome Dr. Damira Grady to UWO and to the Cabinet. Hers will be a powerful voice addressing issues of diversity, equity, and student success across the university. Byron Adams served ably all last year as Interim AVC for Academic Support of Inclusive Excellence and on the Cabinet. A great deal was accomplished under Byron’s leadership and I am grateful for his service.
I want to thank each member of the cabinet for their excellent leadership, collegiality, and commitment to making UWO a better place.
On to Finances and Enrollment
You certainly cannot discuss one without addressing the other.
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly placed great pressure on our already difficult financial picture. Concerns about enrollment declines coupled with the uncertainty of the future of our state subsidy have forced us into a very conservative financial posture.
Coming off of a summer of intermittent and continuous furloughs for our 12-month employees, we are moving into another round of furloughs that will impact both 9- and 12-month employees through December 2020. The summer furloughs made a big difference in allowing us to finish the last fiscal year and begin this fiscal year in a stronger position.
In talking with many employees this summer, I learned of their stories of financial hardship and uncertainty created by the furloughs, especially the continuous furloughs. As the person who ordered the furloughs, I acknowledge the pain they caused and will carry it with me always.
While the enrollment picture has strengthened a bit this fall beyond what we anticipated, we will wait to see what the census numbers are on the 10th-day of class. We know we are down in our first-year class but only a few percent down on returning students. This is good news and a testament to all, faculty and student support staff, for returning continuing students under the most difficult of conditions. Thank you.
With all this said, I pledge to you that my first priority as our financial condition improves is to sunset the furloughs as soon as I prudently can and restore full pay for full work. Our human capital is too important to the future of this institution.
On to Diversity and Equity
An issue of great importance to the institution and to me is ensuring all students, faculty, and staff have the best possible experience at UW Oshkosh. While some progress has been made during my time as chancellor, more must be accomplished to create a supportive university culture that equally values and supports all students, faculty, and staff.
Diversity and inclusion will bring us great strengths. An institution that can achieve and celebrate diversity and inclusion at a high level will best serve the students and the communities from which they come. In just a few days time, our new Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Damira Grady, has already informed my thinking on how we should proceed.
It is my goal to create an institution where students, faculty, and staff from all areas of diversity (ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, ableness, neurodiversity, and their intersections) will be naturally drawn to our university to invest in themselves and in us. We must become the institution of first choice for all.
How do we get there?
We must acknowledge our own limitations in vision and understanding. The Achievement Gap is yet another leg of inequity woven into the educational fabric in our country. It’s what happens at the beginning of the educational race that sets students back for years and generations to come. Closing the gap will take resources and commitment. While this is a major focus of the Division of Academic Support of Inclusive Excellence, it is on all of us to help each student reach their full potential.
We must also conduct an in-depth review of our practices, policies, and procedures to ensure that they aren’t further contributing to the achievement gap. We need to ask ourselves – are we ready to receive the students we are recruiting?
We must continue to listen and respond to our students and colleagues of diversity. The listening sessions I hold with students have made a difference in bringing about change. I ask that students hold me accountable for this change.
We must hire people of diversity within all levels of the university – entry level, faculty, middle management, and senior management. Where appropriate, we should exercise our authority to make diversity hires.
Here are a few recent steps forward.
We created the cabinet level position of Chief Diversity Officer to give standing for a person to work across the university to improve policy and practices impacting diversity. Once again, I welcome Dr. Damira Grady to our university and my Cabinet.
I welcome Professor Mai See Thao as the inaugural Director of Hmong Studies. Provost Koker and I are committing to add another ethnic studies program to start next fall. We must add Latinx, Native American, and Asian studies to our program array over the next couple of years.
As recently announced, I have ordered diversity and inclusion training for the entire faculty and staff. The training will commence October 1 and will be repeated annually. I consider diversity training as a tool to set in motion an inescapable process that is reflected and supported in our work, within ourselves, and throughout the community.
We have renamed UWO’s dramatic theatre the “Theatre Arts Center” moving away from a name previously associated with a hate group. This was done so that the focus could be on the artistry exhibited on stage and not on the controversy of the name.
Later today our students will unveil a permanent installation of the multicultural mural “Same Song” by the artist Jason Anhorn. The mural resides on the back of Albee Hall on the Oshkosh campus. The unveiling will begin at 1 p.m. and will be recorded. The recording will be available for campus to view on September 9.
Let us capitalize on the current momentum of this great racial reckoning. This is our opportunity to show our commitment to making UW Oshkosh a place where all are welcomed and valued.
On to the Sesquicentennial
Celebrations are important. In our current situation, we will find ways to safely celebrate our numerous triumphs over COVID-19, both small and large. Today is one of those celebratory moments when we can briefly pause, look up, and acknowledge all that has been accomplished. I promise cake when it is safe to come together.
One celebration not to be missed will be our institution’s 150th birthday or sesquicentennial, originally scheduled to commence in January 2021 and run through all of 2021. Our Sesquicentennial Celebration Committee, chaired by Provost Koker, has recommended we condense the events into the Fall 2021 semester. We will host a Board of Regents Meeting, hold a community celebration, host the Black & Gold Scholarship Ball, Homecoming, and numerous other sesquicentennial events. We all hope and plan to be free of the impact of COVID-19 next fall. I am convinced that COVID will not dare to disrupt these plans!
And finally, on to the future
It is our collective hope that the COVID-19 pandemic ends soon with the introduction of a safe and effective vaccine. One certainty we can all agree on is that things will never completely go back to the way they were.
Nor should we.
What has been purchased at great cost in human life and economic hardship is the knowledge that we can move, change, adapt, and innovate at speeds and magnitudes no one imagined.
As we emerge from the pandemic, let us harness some of that knowledge and experience to be different as people and as an institution. One of the new realities is that everyone is online. That barrier has been pulled down.
The future of higher education will belong to those who embrace this reality and transform it through the infusion of the human element.
In order for our university to thrive in the coming decades, we must become equally fluent in face-to-face, hybrid, and online instruction. We must innovate – creating new teaching methodologies and modalities, degree programs, certificates, and credentials.
This can be done and must be done holding dear our commitment to liberal education. A liberal education is still the best hedge against change and uncertainty and is a foundational element of this institution.
For now – we focus on the task at hand – to safely open and operate our institution for all for the entire academic year.
Please do your best to support one another and to collectively lift up yet another generation of people, young and older, to achieve their greatest potential.
Thank you for all you do.
And Hail Titans!