The following are my 2021 Opening Day Convocation remarks and address, shared with the faculty and staff of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s three campuses on Sept. 7 both virtually and at the Culver Family Welcome Center.
Colleagues, good morning.
It is my privilege and honor to welcome you to the start of the 2021-22 academic year at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. This year marks the 150th Anniversary, or Sesquicentennial, of our institution. This remains one of the best days of the year for me.
Opening Day is about beginnings, the renewal. Commencement is about the finish line, the celebration. And this year, we’ll have a few more celebrations in between start and finish. There’s a lot to look forward to, and it will once again be my joy to serve alongside you and experience the moments ahead at the Fond du Lac, Fox Cities and Oshkosh Campuses all year long. I want to begin today with some expressions of celebration and gratitude. They echo a lot of what I shared at Opening Day last year. This academic year, I am again challenging everyone to be a source of the light and reason our students and this world needs.
But, make no mistake, this year is different than the last.
To, UWO—the institution—let me be first to officially say, Happy Birthday! There are 150 candles on the cake. In that spirit, let me ask you to please mark your calendars: I hope you and your families will join us this coming Sunday, Sept. 12 from 11 a.m. into the later afternoon for our Community Sesquicentennial Celebration.
We want hundreds and hundreds of people to join us for this mainly outdoor event staged in the Oshkosh campus core, from Reeve Union all the way to the Arts and Communications complex. We’ll have food, bands, kids’ activities, the Humans of UW Oshkosh 150th project display and a short 1 p.m. program. Bring family and friends. The entire region is invited. It truly looks to be a great day. Again, this coming Sunday, Sept. 12, starting at 11 a.m.
As I shared in a recent UWO Today story, I wish I had a time machine. I’d go back and invite some of the Oshkosh leaders and residents from the late 1860s who fought so hard to earn a state normal school in their community to join us in the future and see what their teacher’s college has become. What a difference it has made, and continues to make, for the city and region. I think UWO has become everything they hoped and more. We’re all a part of that realized vision and success story. Of course, Sept. 12 is just the start. We celebrate 100 years of UWO Homecoming in October. We’ve got our first, full-fledged Black and Gold Scholarship Ball in November. And we encourage you to infuse the program, department, college and other activities and events you have this semester with the 150th theme.
I am very happy and proud to also see Downtown Oshkosh celebrating UWO with our “Titan Town” theme and welcoming students back during Opening Week with street pole banners, restaurant staff t-shirts and other gear in the central city.
That Oshkosh experiment and investment in a new teacher’s college 150 years ago has worked. People here are proud of this university, their university. They recognize its positive impact through the generations.
We have a lot to celebrate!
I want to start this year by reflecting on the extraordinary events of last year, not to dwell on hardship but to recognize resilience. The impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on UWO was profound, as it was for colleges and universities across the world. When I stood before you last year, the pandemic was just arriving on our campus, there were no vaccines. Innovative pedagogy was necessary. Remote working became the norm for many. There was a great amount of uncertainty and anxiety. And we were experiencing painful furloughs and a loss of revenue from a decline in enrollment.
In spite of all of this, I believe last year was perhaps our finest. We mobilized the entire university community. I am so grateful to all of you for the contributions and adaptations you made last year. We rose together and worked hard to beat back a largely unknown virus, a threat to our way of life and life itself. We rose as a model for the fight against COVID-19. Our goal was to successfully open our campuses safely and keep them open the entire semester, the entire academic year. And we did just that.
For this, I want to thank the students, faculty, and staff for your incredible efforts to do what was necessary to achieve this. Working side by side with the Winnebago County, Fond du Lac County, and Menasha City health departments, as well as our healthcare partners from Advocate Aurora Medical Center and Prevea Health Care, and our colleagues at UW System, we executed an excellent Titans Return plan that outlined all of the necessary measures, from masking and social distancing, to disinfection and testing. We pressed into service our Emergency Operations Committee in January 2020, led by UWO Chief of Police Kurt Leibold.
For over 18 months, this committee met daily to continuously monitor, plan, and initiate actions to stay ahead of rapidly changing conditions. Daily data generated from testing and contact tracing were analyzed through the lens of changing recommendations from the CDC, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and our local Winnebago County Health Department. Outbreak clusters were predicted and then identified in residence halls so that isolation and quarantine could be deployed to keep others from getting the virus. It was hard. But it worked. And, at this time, I’d like to ask you to join me in saluting the leadership and members of our UWO Emergency Operations Committee for their work as leaders of our COVID-19 response.
- Kurt Leibold – University Police and Chair of EOC
- Chris Tarmann – University Police.
- Kim Langolf, Michelle Bogden-Muetzel, Lori Welch – Risk & Safety
- Elizabeth Hartman – Economic Development and Community Relations
- Peggy Breister, Trevor Clementi – University Marketing & Communications
- Buzz Bares – Office of the Dean of Students
- Juliana Kahrs – COVID Response Team
- Angela Hawley, Karen Sanchez, Nate Scott – Student Health Center
- Patrick Vander Zanden, Marc Nylen – Residence Life
- Mark Clements – IT
- Wade Peitersen – Athletics
- Chad Cotti – Academic Affairs
- Frank Mazanka – Custodial Services
- Missy Burgess – Reeve Union
Thank you for your dedicated work to keep us open and safe. Also, not a part of the EOC team but an essential piece to our success, is the Albee Hall Testing Center run by Tara Zochert and her team. For the 2020-21 academic year, the testing center administered 51,545 COVID-19 tests. I’d also like to again recognize Kim Langolf for her leadership and deserving recognition of this year’s UW System Board of Regents 2021 Academic Staff Excellence Award. Kim was the architect of testing efforts at UWO—efforts that earned CDC collaboration and approval. University colleagues pitched in to help with contact tracing, disease investigation, staffing the testing center, and providing other support to our Titans Return effort. As an example, most of our colleagues from Athletics (coaches, administrators, and trainers) were deployed into these jobs that had nothing to do with what they normally do. We could not have done this without them.
We took care of those students who fell ill, first in Webster Hall, then in Gruenhagen Conference Center. Marc Nylen, the Gruenhagen team and the entire residence hall staff provided a level of attention and care to our recovering students that, quite frankly, makes me a bit emotional, as a father. Great care was also extended by Karen Sanchez and her staff in monitoring the real time health of these students. And then there were the community needs that UWO stepped up to meet.
It all represents the Wisconsin Idea in action.
Universities are powerful institutions with great brains and brawn that can solve problems. We opened and ran a widely accessible and successful COVID-19 Community Testing Center out of The Culver Family Welcome Center. With our Federal partners we administered over 36,500 COVID-19 tests. When vaccines became available, we partnered with Advocate Aurora Healthcare, to offer vaccinations to the community. The Surgeon General of the United States of America personally came, along with Governor Tony Evers and UW System President Tommy Thompson, to open the center. The vaccination center was open for months and administered 19,400 vaccination doses. UWO received praise from the community, state and nation for our efforts. I want to recognize Vice Chancellor Bob Roberts and staff, and once again Chief Leibold, and Kim Langolf for their leadership in also making the community sights at the Culver Center a reality and success.
Faculty and Instructional Academic Staff continued to astound me with their dedication to student learning under the most difficult circumstances. Preparing multiple modalities for a single course was a herculean task. Students could go online at a moment’s notice when they fell ill. They had the support of their faculty and instructional academic staff. You made it work and I am grateful.
Many of our employees were unable to work remotely due to the nature of their work. To the custodians, police, facilities staff, residence hall staff, and others who continued to serve on our campuses, I say thank you and well done. To all of our employees who served so well this institution and its students remotely, thank you for your inventiveness. As you can imagine, there are far too many people that should be acknowledged today in the time I have. Just know a grateful institution thanks you for all you have done.
And as I close out this look back, there is one more acknowledgement I must make.
We worked alongside our UW System partners, led by President Tommy Thompson. I want to thank President Thompson for his extraordinary leadership in guiding all of the UW institutions to this day and beyond.
President Thompson provided more than just the badly needed resources to open. He provided the necessary confidence and hope to all of the UWs to inspire us to be successful.
And it just so happens, we have the honor of his presence today.
So, please join me in welcoming UW System President Tommy Thompson to share a few words…
[PRESIDENT THOMPSON TAKES PODIUM AND SHARES REMARKS]
Thank you, President Thompson!
I stood at this podium last year and said 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 was right then. And I’m right to say it again this year.
And now for this year.
Yes, our state, nation and planet have struggled to manage the pandemic. It’s frustrating. But this university proved something in the last 18 months. This year, we confront the virus again, but this time, we have full benefit, from the start, of a new weapon—vaccines. They have had a huge impact on us already. We must once again make our campuses as safe as possible and make true this statement: A UW Oshkosh classroom is the safest place to be, other than your own home, due to the measures we have put in place. We start the year in masks indoors. It’s not what we hoped, but we’ll do what needs to be done to protect people and the UWO experience. We’ll also require weekly testing for unvaccinated students and employees who learn, live and work on our campuses.
You’ve probably heard about our incentives to encourage student vaccination. If we reach 70 percent vaccination in the student body, all students who have been vaccinated are eligible for a drawing of several $7,000 UW System scholarships. On top of that, thanks to the generosity of our UWO Foundation, any UWO student who gets vaccinated is eligible for a drawing for 10 $1,000 scholarships. We aim to giveaway UWO gear, too, to encourage people to do the right thing.
There are a lot of reasons to do the right thing. But, I’d like to stress this: We are going to be steadily monitoring vaccination rates and COVID-19 infection rates as we go. If we and our local community health partners see significant improvement, and we agree that conditions are safe, we may sunset our public health provisions sooner than later. I would hope students, faculty, staff and other stakeholders could agree that that is the real prize.
We can earn it.
We know our way out of this.
Again: this time, we have vaccines already at the ready, on our side, thanks to good, caring, effective science. You’ll hear me as the loudest advocate for vaccination at UWO. This time, we can and must close the COVID door behind us. If you are not already, please get vaccinated as soon as possible. Go to our webpage to find more detail.
So, stay nimble. Help us encourage vaccination. Ask for help as you need it. Even though we successfully came through last year, I want to acknowledge the tremendous toll taken on the mental, emotional, and physical health of faculty, staff, and students. If you are struggling, I encourage you to seek assistance through our Employee Assistance Program, or EAP. Now more than ever, we must care for and support one another. We still have work to do to get this pandemic behind us.
We have been operating as an institution in crisis mode for the past 18 months or so. As we put the pandemic behind us, we must return to a semblance of regular order. It is important for us to reflect, plan, and act – moving forward. There were positive gains made as a result of the pandemic: Experimentation with teaching modality, a more coherent and consistent approach to communication, an increased urgency to accomplish what needed to be done. There are many other examples, and I hope we will continue to integrate those qualities that give us strength and eliminate those that sap us.
On the communication front, virtual town halls will be the way to go. Before the pandemic, I held “Coffee with the Chancellor” up to six times per semester with an average attendance of perhaps 60 people per session. I now hold monthly virtual town halls with an average of over 300 people logging on. I am also committed to holding a monthly face to face town hall on the access campuses. It is important that I am present at the Fox Cities and the Fond du Lac campuses to continue to have situational awareness.
Meanwhile, Provost Koker and I meet weekly, on Mondays from Noon to 12:30 p.m., with an expanded shared governance leadership group. This includes Faculty, Academic Staff, University Staff leaders and Collegia leaders from the access campuses and the three student governments. This was started at the beginning of last year to share the latest information and glean insight and guidance from Shared Governance in real time. We will continue the practice indefinitely.
And speaking of Shared Governance, I want to thank leaders for their very constructive partnership in managing the institutional response to the pandemic and keeping us moving forward. UWO’s Shared Governance leaders for 2021 – 2022 are:
- Dr. Jen Szydlik, President of the Faculty Senate
- Linda Koon, President of the University Staff Senate
- Erin McArthur, President of the Senate of Academic Staff
- Dr. Scott Emmert, Chair of the UWO-Fox Cities Collegium Steering Committee
- Dr. Kristi Wilkum, Chair of the UWO-Fond du Lac Collegium Steering Committee
And I would like to recognize our student government leaders:
- Jacob Fischer, President of the Oshkosh Student Association
- Nicholas Rommelfanger, President of the UWO-Fond du Lac Student Association
- Hyun Ju Cheon, 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.
On to Strategic Planning. The strategic plan for an institution is critical. It provides the platform on which a shared vision can be developed. A good plan not only articulates the necessary strategies needed to achieve goals and objectives, it provides an opportunity to have university-wide conversations about the collective values and vision for the university through the process of planning. Transforming UW Oshkosh is our current strategic plan. It has run from 2016 and sunsets at the end of 2021.
Since the creation of the plan, we have added two additional campuses. Of course, the world has also changed. I have charged a group of colleagues, selected primarily by Shared Governance, who will bring forth the next plan in April 2022. The strategic planning committee’s work is underway, gathering input, and you will hear from them soon. The members include:
- Dr. Chad Cotti (COB) – Chair
- Dr. Jennifer Shuttlefield Christus – Vice Chair
- Brooke Berrens – University Staff, Oshkosh Campus
- Dr. Karl Boehler – Instructional Academic Staff, Oshkosh Campus
- Dr. Teysha Bowser (COEHS) – Faculty, Oshkosh Campus
- Dr. Rocio Cortes – Faculty, Oshkosh Campus
- Dr. Heather Englund (CON) – Faculty, Oshkosh Campus
- Dr. Damira Grady – University Diversity Officer, Cabinet
- Dr. Toni House – Faculty, Oshkosh Campus
- Grace Lim – Instructional Academic Staff, Oshkosh Campus
- Luiza Nelson – Student, Oshkosh Campus
- Joe Pirillo – Professional Academic Staff, Oshkosh Campus
- Dr. Pam Massey – Faculty, Fox Cities Campus
- Dr. Alayne Peterson – Faculty, Fond du Lac Campus
Full engagement in a planning process by internal and external constituencies leads to a greater sense of ownership of the institution. That’s what we’re after. I have asked that UWO’s four foundational elements remain in place. Upon these, we’ll build the new plan. They are: Liberal Education, Inclusive Excellence, Shared Governance and Sustainability.
I am delighted to reintroduce Dr. Damira Grady, AVC for Academic Support of Inclusive Excellence and our University Diversity Officer. Dr. Grady is starting her second year at UWO, using much of the first year to study our policies and practices as they relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The “In Action” part of “DEI In Action” is the key. We will rapidly move forward with very tactical initiatives that expand educational opportunity for our students, strengthen partnerships with local high schools, reimagine decision-making structures, lower barriers and further build a supportive and inclusive university culture for all. This work is underway.
Provost Koker will outline a few initiatives to bring our DEI In Action forward. I thank Dr. Grady and her team for her pro-active approach to make UWO a more equitable, just and supportive institution. Please be a part of this important work. It is my goal to help 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. Then we must support all to help them achieve their educational and professional goals.
While we have made progress, there is much still do to. Over the past 7 years, this institution has overcome a number of challenges. Start with the budget reduction in the 2015-2017 biennium, then add several consecutive years of declining enrollment due to a number of factors, layer on the issues related to the foundation litigation, mix in a very positive and work-intensive restructuring to incorporate our access campuses, and now top it off with a world-wide pandemic.
… Does anybody need a breath?
We have been through a lot in 7 years. As a consequence, we have very aggressively managed budgets, incentivized retirements, and implemented furloughs. All this to bring our expenses in line with our revenue. Due to the hard work and sacrifice of everyone at this university, I can announce today that have realized that goal. Now is the time we can begin to invest in our people, programs, facilities, and maintain sound reserves.
In his address today, Provost Koker will lay out approximately $6 million of re-investment, both one-time and on-going. These investments will be made during the current 2021-2023 biennium. Some of these will be tied to the new strategic plan to go into effect in July 2022. Our partners in Shared Governance Leadership are supportive of this current round of re-investment and will be engaged on the determination of future rounds. I want to thank the Vice Chancellors for their exceptional stewardship of the funds. As we gain further control of our enrollment, more investments will be possible in the future. Overall, we have put ourselves in a position that stabilizes us, offers some new investment and reestablishes some durability for future unknowns.
In closing, I want to again thank you all for this, my seventh opportunity to address you at Opening Day Convocation.
I wish you a safe, happy, healthy year ahead, and I thank each and every one of you for making this institution such an amazing place of transformation for all involved.
Please do your best to support one another and to collectively lift up yet another generation of students so that they may achieve their greatest potential.
And now it is my pleasure to introduce Provost John Koker to provide his convocation address.
[PROVOST KOKER SPEAKS, THEN TURNS BACK TO CHANCELLOR LEAVITT]
Thank you, Provost Koker.
Well, as promised today, it’s time to share the UWO story… A few quick reflections before we roll this masterful piece…
Our past, our pictures, show that we were overwhelmingly white. There were groups of people who were historically excluded or not supported for more than 100 years of the 150 years this university has existed.
But the university was not totally monolithic.
We were men and women. We were rural and urban. We were skilled. We were scholars.
As the university has evolved, grown, matured and diversified, we have learned to more intensely examine and aggressively challenge who and what we are.
We have nurtured programs to make certain they are open and extend academic and economic opportunity to all.
We have intersected very well and challenged isms to be culturally responsive to all the students who chose to come to our doors.
We have a history of facing crises and not only overcoming them but becoming more durable because of them.
We are all part of a place where it is welcome and valued to be first in the family to go to college, to recognize and celebrate strength in identities, abilities and neurodiversity—to see and celebrate individuals as they are, imagine where they can go and demonstrate what they are capable of achieving.
That’s why I love being a part of UWO. That’s why I love our story.
Please enjoy the video.