The following are my 2022 Opening Day Convocation remarks and address, shared with the faculty and staff of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s three campuses on Sept. 1 both virtually and at the Reeve Union Ballroom. You will find a full, captioned recording of our Convocation program in the remarks that follow.
Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Chancellor Andy Leavitt, he/him/his.
Welcome, and thank you for joining us for UWO’s Convocation and kickoff to the 2022-23 academic year. I welcome all from our Fond du Lac, Fox Cities and Oshkosh campuses.
To the new members of our university community gathered today and joining us online, welcome to UWO. And to returning colleagues, welcome back.
It is my privilege and responsibility, on behalf of UW Oshkosh and in a spirt of reflection, respect and justice, to recognize and honor Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of this land.
UWO’s Land Acknowledgement urges people of power and privilege to acknowledge the land we have come to possess after many injustices throughout history. It is with this knowledge that I share this message with you today, prepared for us by Indigenous students at this university.
As we begin this event, we acknowledge the traditional stewards of this land, the Menominee, Ho Chunk and Potawatomi Nations. This land encompasses the three campuses of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh in the Lake Winnebago region.
If we as a university are to claim this land as ours, we must acknowledge it is now our responsibility to care for it as indigenous people have for many centuries before us. Please take a moment to honor these ancestral grounds and celebrate the resilience and strength that all Indigenous People have shown worldwide. … Thank you.
This semester, I enter my eighth academic year at UWO. As I have done in every Convocation, I balance my update today with a bit of reflection. The work on our three campuses continues to inspire me as we positively impact our students, each other, and this region.
Though we have our challenges, we have much to celebrate and work towards.
UWO 2022-23 HIGHLIGHTS VIDEO ROLLS… (video below)
Please join me in thanking our team in UMC for yet another energizing piece today.
Before I get into what’s ahead for our university this year, let me introduce UWO faculty and staff shared governance leaders:
Jennifer Szydlik, President
Pascale Manning, President Elect
Senate of Academic Staff
Ane Carriveau, President
Karl Boehler, President Elect
University Staff Senate
Lauren Burgbacher, President
Brooke Berrens, President-Elect
Fox Cities Campus Faculty Steering Committee Chair (Collegium Leader)
Fond du Lac Campus Faculty Steering Committee Chair (Collegium Leader)
Meanwhile, Provost Koker and I continue to meet every other week with an expanded shared governance leadership group. This includes Faculty, Academic Staff, University Staff leaders and Collegia leaders from the Fox and Fond du Lac campuses. I meet with the leaders of the campuses’ student leadership regularly as well.
As I have stated at each convocation before this, I affirm 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.
Next, I’d like to introduce a very special guest who is making his first official visit to UWO. UW System President Jay Rothman.
In his most recent role, he served as the chairperson and CEO of the law firm Foley & Lardner LLP. Founded in Wisconsin in 1842, Foley has over 1,100 lawyers and approximately 1,000 professional staff members.
He is deeply involved in the community, having led and served on boards for Junior Achievement of Wisconsin, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Children’s Hospital & Health System (now known as Children’s Wisconsin) and Children’s Wisconsin Foundation.
He earned his bachelor’s degree from Marquette University and law degree from Harvard Law School.
He has had a busy day, touring the Oshkosh campus, meeting with students, shared governance representatives and regional legislative and business leaders. And we’re honored to share time with him at Convocation.
So, with that, please help me in welcoming UW System President Jay Rothman…
PRESIDENT ROTHMAN SHARES REMARKS…
Thank you, President Rothman.
President Rothman has graciously offered to stay after Convocation and meet you during our reception. We very much appreciate his time.
It remains the privilege of my life to serve with you at this institution, which is now entering its next 150 years.
We look to the future and must continue to bring innovation and adaptation to the forefront of our efforts in teaching, service, and research. We have a long and proud history in grounding our students in a liberal education as they seek their own way, either in liberal arts or professional degrees. They are ready for life, career, and a robust workforce in Northeast Wisconsin and beyond. Our graduates are prepared for what’s next. Our faculty and instructional academic staff have helped hone the skills of critical thinking, problem solving, resiliency, cultural competency, innovation and adaptability. And as our First Destinations job data reports consistently indicate, our alumni are sought out by employers and have often been hired well before they cross the commencement stage.
These qualities we imbue in our graduates must be embraced by the institution itself. UWO is a grand two-year and four-year liberal education, residential university with strong professional programs. We need to be more to sustain a stronger and more prosperous future — a future in which we both serve our students and become the university this region needs and deserves. This is a journey with no end since the needs of our region change rapidly. And the needs of our students change as well.
There is much discussion around the near one million Wisconsinites who chose to go to college but did not finish, or the high school graduates who have not chosen higher education.
A declining demographic in high school has been anticipated for years. Since we cannot rewind the clock, there isn’t much we can do about that. What’s more concerning is the decline in the participation rate of high school graduates in any kind of college. At our high-water mark in enrollment in fall 2013, approximately one out of every three Wisconsin high school graduates attended a UW institution. As we open today, that ratio is headed to one out of four. High school graduates are deferring any kind of college: two-year, technical college, private college, or us, given the opportunities available in the workforce. Many businesses have started their own training programs and recruit workers directly from high school.
I am often asked “What is the value of a college degree”? “Is it worth the effort and expense”? “Why go into debt when you can get a good job without college.” And I hear frequently: “Not everyone needs to go to college.” This, unfortunately, has shaped the narrative around higher education in Wisconsin of late. We must change this. It is time we shape the narrative around the value we know we provide to our students. We have so much to be proud of: UW campuses are less expensive than almost all other similar institutions in the Midwest. And the salaries earned by our graduates over a lifetime are significantly higher than folks without a degree. This says nothing about the richness in life a UWO experience leads to. In so many ways, we are worth it.
To state it directly, our main competitor for incoming first-year students isn’t another educational opportunity, it is the workforce. That same force also poses a challenge in retaining UWO students.
I am encouraged that we can begin to shift this tide by rededicating ourselves to thoughtfully make the case that securing an undergraduate degree significantly increases workforce options and economic prosperity. I know President Rothman is committed to engaging stakeholders in this college-value conversation. And so am I. So should all of us.
We must become indispensable to the stakeholders of our region.
While the hot economy and workforce demand are magnets to potential students, we cannot deny there remains competition for students among higher education institutions. It is fierce, and we are competitive.
We have made significant investments in building a sophisticated and effective enrollment management function to recruit, enroll, and on-board first-year students at this university.
As we start the year, our first-year class looks about even with last year. We will see ongoing increases from some new online-learner enrollments throughout the term. We are aggressively expanding our online options to meet the needs of non-residential students seeking more flexible options, and I’ll talk about that more in a bit.
We are offering new major programs, such as business analysis, networking technologies, medical laboratory science, software technology, strength and conditioning, and forestry; and new minors such as cybersecurity, microbiology, and web & mobile development to bring in more students and serve the needs of our region.
Co-curricular programs, including the new Titan Thunder Marching Band, along with our nationally competitive NCAA athletics program continue to attract students who, otherwise, might go someplace else. These aren’t just programs and experiences. They represent community. And building community in college creates staying power.
There is a greater effort to market the institution to prospective students through our investments in online-, billboard-, and direct mail- advertising. We will be running the first of a series of television commercials created by an alumnus (for students and their families) this fall.
As I have stated over the years, enrollment is everybody’s responsibility.
But, if there is one charge you take away from Convocation today, let it be this:
Retention is everybody’s responsibility, too.
Our main challenge with enrollment is that we have a leaky pipe. In fall 2017, we reached an amazing milestone of a 76% retention of first-year students to the second year. Retention numbers like these are high when compared to other regional comprehensive institutions across the state and nation. Our retention numbers for this fall can only be estimated since we don’t take the official census until the 10th day of classes. We estimate a 68% retention rate for this fall.
There are many reasons for the decline. The pandemic is a big part, given the unprecedented challenges created in the K12 system and higher education. Students are coming with learning gaps that we must work to close. They are also coming with significant mental health issues that must be addressed. We can address these and other issues. The students have different strengths and needs that must inform how we work to ensure success.
I know this is a challenge we can meet and exceed. And we must do this quickly. While it is a problem at UWO, it is also a problem at just about every other regional comprehensive institution in the country. We are not alone and continue to seek out best practices.
We know from previous analysis that students leave for reasons ranging from financial, academic, family, and mental/physical well-being. Strategies are needed to address each concern.
Here is what we are doing.
This fall, we welcome a new corps of colleagues: Navigators.
I want to thank Vice Chancellor Erin Grisham and Associate Vice Chancellor Aggie Hanni for imagining, recruiting and on-boarding this team of eight new colleagues to join five redirected colleagues. Rich Marshall leads this team.
Their job is to maintain a 100 percent focus on students’ success. Each will work with about 100 Titans, staying connected with them from their first years into their second years.
They are not academic planners, counselors or professional advisers. Navigators are, as their title suggests, guides and, when necessary, pilots who remain fully focused on identifying and safely maneuvering students around or through obstacles and other hazards. These hazards may be academic. They may be life challenges. The point is we need to see students and help them avoid or address hazards BEFORE their journeys are disrupted.
Meanwhile, I have charged Provost John Koker to work with the deans, academic department heads, and faculty to address course sections with high D, Failures, and Withdrawal rates, or DFW rates. There are many reasons why a student is not successful in a class, and we need to understand how we can address this.
And there are still other ways we and our partners can help.
I applaud the work of all three of our philanthropic foundations in providing more scholarships to our students. We need more.
Due to financial market performance, we may see a reduction in payouts of our endowed scholarships. Soon, I will call on all of us to support giving to the general scholarship fund so that we can meet the needs of our current students and continue to competitively recruit new students. Everyone should be invited to chip in.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Tuition Promise, which President Rothman has been working so hard to launch and preserve into the future, will be in full force next year. We will need to make sure we are reaching all our students who struggle with affordability.
As the UW System describes, a fully supported Tuition Promise provides up to four years of tuition and fee funding for first-year and transfer students coming from families earning less than $62,000 annually and enrolling at any of the other 12 public universities within the System. The program is structured to provide “last dollar” financial support after federal and state grant aid is accounted for. It’s about helping more students and families eliminate any doubt they can access and thrive in an incredible college education and experience.
And through a continuation of excellent cooperation, the Fox Cities and Fond du Lac campuses hosted, for the first time, Academic Open Houses (Academic Affairs), Next Steps events to recognize transferring, departing and graduating students (Alumni Relations) and Express Admissions Days (Admissions Office). We must do more on the access campuses to add new programs and provide additional student support to be equitable across all UWO campuses.
Yes, we are here to challenge students, to offer rigor, to help them grow and realize their full potential. However, Titans feeling lost or disqualified by confusing processes and punitive systems need our help. They need us to identify the traps and dismantle what is preventing them from progressing. I know we will get this done.
Last week, we informed our UWO custodial and groundskeeping staff of our investigation of potential contracting with a third-party vendor to take on management of those two functions at all three campuses.
We have not broadly informed the university community of this step given that, early in the process, we chose to first work with the impacted group of employees to get their input before any decision is made. We have also consulted with Shared Governance leadership, and I appreciate leaders’ input, particularly the efforts of University Staff Senate President Lauren Burgbacher and President-elect Brooke Berrens. Thank you, Lauren and Brooke.
As we entered this summer, I asked Interim Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Bob Roberts to seek out strategies on how we could address the staffing issues surrounding custodial and groundskeeping positions.
While there have been overall reductions in staffing levels due to budget reductions, we find ourselves unable to satisfactorily recruit and retain staffing in these vital areas. We have experienced a 53 percent turnover rate in new hires. New applicants have dropped 75 percent. While addressing this work posed challenges prior to the pandemic, the pandemic has created a far more competitive market for employees in these areas. This is not unique to UWO or even higher education.
I am aware, and I am concerned, that the working conditions for custodial and grounds employees have deteriorated in recent years due to chronic staffing shortages due to high turnover and the lack of availability of new hires. Our employees are amazing and do everything they can to keep our buildings and grounds in order. The work they do not only impacts our current students, faculty, and staff, it impacts our ability to recruit new students, faculty, and staff.
The work is very demanding. It’s causing a high degree of burnout exacerbating the retention issues.
This is not a budgetary issue. We would hire more custodial and grounds employees if they were available. We have offered higher wages but again we are limited due to budgetary constraints. We have held creative hiring campaigns and reorganized leadership responsibilities. We haven’t gotten the response we hoped for.
We have yet to enter contract negotiations with a custodial and groundskeeping vendor. However, I did ask that we move forward, signal our interest in this and gather input. We will continue to do better to help potentially affected employees best understand the salary, benefits and retirement impacts and other what-ifs, should we choose to go this route.
If we were to make this change, every UWO employee would be offered a position with the new company, at a higher wage with a signing bonus. Assignments would be very similar and staffing levels will increase.
Again, this is not a cost-saving measure. What would change is the quality and consistency of the work done for our students, faculty, and staff when a properly staffed and resourced workforce is put in place.
I acknowledge the pain and uncertainty this process has placed on our fellow employees from custodial and grounds. These are difficult decisions to make but, as Chancellor, I must always act in the best interest of the institution.
Outsourcing must provide better service and greater support of custodians and groundskeepers doing the work or it is not worth doing.
I have not made a decision on this approach and will do so in a few weeks.
Next, I’d like to report on the progress that has been made on our next strategic plan.
The Strategic Planning Committee (SPC), appointed through Shared Governance, reached the important milestone last spring with the publishing of the Themes and Goals essential to move UWO forward.
These goals are aspirational and at the same time necessary and practical. Input was sought and gathered from both internal and external stakeholders such as Shared Governance bodies. I applaud the work of SPC, led by Chair Jennifer Christus-Shuttlefield. [Lead applause]
Work has progressed over the summer as an initial draft of the plan was made by a small leadership group comprised of Professor Christus-Shuttlefield and Provost John Koker.
I have reviewed the draft plan and made some suggestions. After reading and reflecting, a significant suggestion I have made is to extend the plan beyond the typical five-year period to 2030. I believe we need to think more long-term on many of these issues, and I hope the SPC will agree.
The draft will move back to the SPC soon for its review before being widely circulated to the university community. Later in the semester, endorsements will be sought from each of the four shared governance groups with the goal of instituting the new plan on January 1, 2023.
The Provost will share more details on the plan and the path ahead in his remarks.
As you will hear, the Strategic Planning committee’s emphasis on some very familiar pillars of UWO stand strong in the plan.
Equity, diversity and inclusion is not a bolt-on component of the plan. It is imbued throughout.
Sustainability, too, is foundational in the developing plan. And, yes, while I have proposed folding many of our enrollment priorities under Sustainability, we are also renewing our commitments to climate action.
And, finally, you will see our commitment to strengthen the culture of teaching and learning.
I like this direction. People have rallied around UWO and truly considered how we can be better today and long into the future.
Again, I am delighted that President Rothman is here today to report to you the priorities of the UW System. In my very short time with President Rothman, I have learned he is a listener and truly responsive to the needs of the campuses.
And he has hit the ground running. I want to touch on a few of the priorities recently passed by our Board of Regents.
The Regents just passed their recommendation to the Governor, the 2023-2025 Biennial budget for the UW System. The ask for new funding is significant at $115 million to offset the impacts of inflation and previous years of limited funding. The Regents opted not to increase tuition in this first year of the biennium.
Items that will impact UWO include the addition of a 4+4 pay plan and a corresponding ask that the pay plan gap of 30% be funded by the state as it is for every other state agency. This constitutes the largest pay plan in recent memory. Our employees are significantly behind the regional market when it comes to salary. It will also help in this inflationary time. You deserve this.
It also includes a request to permanently fund the Wisconsin Tuition Promise, previously described.
On the capital side, I am very pleased how UWO is positioned for the next few biennia.
We are on schedule to renovate and update numerous facilities, labs, and classrooms through minor projects.
There are planning funds in the next budget for two game-changing projects on the Oshkosh Campus.
The first would study and recommend new technology to replace our incredibly old boilers in the heating plant. As we have pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030, moving away from fossil fuel boilers would be a huge leap towards this goal.
The second would study and recommend a way forward to address the failed structure of Polk Library. Polk is at the end of its life. We can either renovate or replace. The study will make this determination. The library is the heart and soul of any university. It must be a vital and collaborative place for learning and research. Our excellent library staff are straining to accomplish this mission due to this failing facility.
The previously funded Clow II project, the renovation of the College of Education and Human Services and other departments continues on schedule and will be open next fall. And the renovation of Swart Hall to create a Dean’s Suite for the College of Letters & Sciences is almost complete.
On the Fox Cites and Fond du Lac campuses, we are working with Fond du Lac, Outagamie and Winnebago counties’ leaders to see through a much-needed, modernized food service and student activities center at Fox and an upgraded athletic center and associated contemporary classroom facility at Fond du Lac.
I have also asked Interim Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Bob Roberts to complete a master facility plan for the institution by the end of spring 2023. Our current master plan has aged out so conversations will commence on how to best use the physical plant of our university.
I am amazed I have reached this point of my speech and am only now talking about our COVID-19 response!
Though we may be through the worst of it, we remain vigilant. We continue to rely upon the leadership of Vice Chancellor Kurt Leibold, keeping the Emergency Operations Center up and running, and leaving our University-wide testing and vaccination center in place in Polk Library for the early part of the semester.
As we continue to follow both CDC and UW System guidelines, there is no mask mandate on our campuses this fall. Students and colleagues are supported in their decisions to wear a mask. Anyone wanting an N95 mask will be provided one. Vaccinations will continue to be strongly encouraged.
Our EOC has also formulated a plan to respond to the recent monkeypox outbreak. Though this virus does not appear to be fatal, we are cognizant of the contagious nature of the outbreak. Education will be our main response to this.
Though the immediate medical urgency may have subsided, we are left with the mental health and learning impacts of COVID-19. We must do more for our community to mitigate these impacts.
I’d like to pivot now from opportunities and challenges to acknowledge some of the great things that have developed and are developing at UWO.
I was thrilled to join Campus Sustainability Director Brad Spanbauer in Washington, D.C. in late July to accept the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools Postsecondary Sustainability Award.
The award was presented to just four institutions of higher learning across the nation and was announced on Earth Day. UWO was recognized due to its reduction in environmental impact and costs; improvement of the institution’s health and wellness; and commitment to effective environmental and sustainability education. Sincere thanks to Brad Spanbauer and a team of faculty and staff data contributors who helped advance UW Oshkosh for consideration.
I won’t steal the Provost’s thunder but we have also been extraordinarily successful since July this year in obtaining large, multi-year research grants. The total is $3.6 million for three separate federal grants. This only shows me that we are capable of greater levels of scholarship and grants when the faculty are properly supported with the time and resources necessary to succeed. All three of these successful awards have significant student components, underscoring the value of faculty scholarship to drive student experience at UWO. You’ll hear more from Provost Koker in his remarks.
Elsewhere, in a collaboration between Online and Continuing Education, the Office of Enrollment Management, and our access campuses, we launched UWO+ this summer. This new and flexible online approach offers eight degree programs and certificates in seven-week semesters and at special pricing. In its first semester, the enrollments are beyond what was expected. UWO+ is uniquely positioned to be desirable for working adults and others who cannot attend a campus experience.
UWOPD led the UW system in installing NaloxZone boxes, in our residence halls, access campuses and select public buildings, which contain lifesaving Narcan in case of a drug overdose. The nation is suffering an epidemic of fentanyl related overdose deaths, and unfortunately this is our reality in the Fox Valley. UWO is committed to keeping our community safe by providing these lifesaving devices as well as educating on the dangers of fentanyl and counterfeit drugs. As of this month, every other UW in the System has adopted the same program. This is more evidence that Titans Lead.
There are many other advancements well underway, from the creation of our new Office of Compliance, Risk and Integrity in the Division of University Affairs to the introduction of a formal “Organizational Development Plan” to best analyze and deploy UWO training to other initiatives. We will roll out more on these priorities as the semester unfolds.
I want to again thank you for this, my eighth opportunity to address you at our UWO Convocation.
I thank each and every one of you for making this institution such an amazing place of transformation for all involved.
I wish you all a safe, happy, healthy year ahead.
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… Thank you.