MADISON, Wis. – The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents voted Friday to reaffirm its commitment and support for the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression.

In an opening statement, UW System President Ray Cross reminded Regents that the University of Wisconsin’s longstanding and vigorous support of the principle that “learning communities must have unfettered freedom in their pursuit of truth” has become “the symbolic cornerstone of this great university.”

“This is a dramatically different university than it was in 1894 when your predecessors permanently seared this now cherished principle into this university’s conscience. But this principle, one of the foundational pillars upon which this university was built, like all great truths, remains,” Cross said.

The Board voted to approve a resolution spelling out its reaffirmation and reiteration of the principles at its meeting on Friday.

Regent President Regina Millner noted that the board’s predecessors had expanded, reaffirmed, or actively discussed their commitment to academic freedom at least seven times, dating back to 1922. “Clearly, the board’s reaffirmation of academic freedom is both in keeping with past actions and a timely reassurance to faculty and UW institutions of our ongoing commitment,” she said.

Cross said the next step is to carry on the conversation with shared governance leaders and chancellors, trying to identify ways to help students, faculty, and staff practice these principles wisely and with respect.

Regents updated on student debt and financial aid

Kathy Sahlhoff, Director of Financial Aid and Student Work Experience at UW-Eau Claire, and Bob Jokisch, Senior Policy Advisor for Financial Aid and Student Success at UW System, led a presentation on student debt and financial aid.

 Some highlights of the report included:

  • In 2014-15, 71% of all UW undergraduates – or 111,627 students overall – received some form of financial aid.
  • Federal Pell grants provided $151.9 million to 40,125 UW System resident undergraduates, with an average grant of $3,786. On the state level, Wisconsin Grants provided $58.3 million to 32,886 resident undergrads, with an average grant of $1,773 in 2014-15.
  • The percentage of Wisconsin resident undergraduates with student loans at graduation has increased from 62% in 2001-2 to 74% in 2014-15.
  • The percentage of UW students who graduate with debt and the amount of their debt is about par with national averages.
  • In the UW System, 74% of resident graduates had student loans at graduation in 2014-15, with average cumulative debt of $30,650 – up from $16,057 in 2001-2.

To address some of the drivers of student debt, the UW System has focused attention on improving four- and six-year graduation rates, reducing the number of credits to degree, and encouraging students who have dropped out to return to college and complete their degrees. 

David J. Ward, interim vice president for academic and student affairs, noted that while the need for financial aid is not going to go way, there needs to be greater emphasis on the long-term value provided by a college degree. “The earning potential is enormous,” he said.

President of the Board’s Report

As part of her report, Regent President Regina Millner provided updates on two UW System task forces. The Tenure Task Force, chaired by Regent Vice President John Behling, has been meeting over the past few months and expects to have draft policy ready to present to the Board early next year. The Tuition-setting Policy Task Force, chaired by Regent Tim Higgins, is slated to have policy recommendations on tuition setting and tuition increases for the board’s consideration by summer of 2016.

Millner also congratulated UW-Madison student Colin Higgins, one of just 32 students nationwide to win a Rhodes Scholarship this year.

Finally, President Millner honored the long-term contributions of Regent Emeritus Milton “Mick” Neshek, presenting him with a plaque recognizing his service to the UW System and the state. Neshek was appointed to the Wisconsin State Universities Board of Regents 50 years ago, and served until the 1971 merger legislation created the UW System. He was then appointed to serve on the System’s inaugural Board of Regents.

“The vision and dedication of Regent Emeritus Neshek and the original members of the UW System Board of Regents led to a diverse but unified system of institutions that is among the best in higher education,” Millner said. “His lifetime of unwavering service and commitment to the UW System is truly inspirational.”

“This recognition is very heartwarming for me. It is a great honor and will live with me forever,” said Neshek, who graduated from UW-Madison in 1952 and the UW Law School in 1955.

Neshek also shared some reflections on what the university has meant to his family. Noting that his father came to the United States as an immigrant at age 10, “it became very apparent that if we were going to attain any upward mobility, it would only happen if we had a good education, a college education,” Neshek said. He said his family members have gone on to earn 15 UW degrees.

Neshek, 85, continues to serve on UW-Madison’s advisory board for the Division of International Studies and is a long-time and generous donor to both the UWM Foundation and the UW Foundation.

UW System President’s Report

President Ray Cross updated the Board on the UW System’s activities and progress on a variety of fronts, including statewide listening sessions, the ongoing strategic planning process, and legislative work at both the state and federal levels.

Cross also reported that accountability metrics have been developed in four major areas: financial management, administrative management, educational performance, and research and economic development.

As part of his report on news from around the UW System, President Cross told Regents that UW-Eau Claire continues to be a national leader among master’s level colleges and universities when it comes to sending students to study abroad. With 490 Blugolds studying abroad, UW-Eau Claire ranks 27th nationally among public and private master’s level institutions for the overall number of students studying abroad.

Katie Stern, a professor in UW-Stevens Point’s Department of Computing and New Media Technologies, was featured in President Cross’ Faculty Spotlight.

Stern said staying up-to-date in her field is an ongoing challenge, both as a teacher and for students, and she thanked UW-Stevens Point Chancellor Bernie Patterson and Provost Greg Summers for their ongoing support of professional development “because our department depends on it.”

She added that her mission goes beyond just preparing for class, but also includes, “How can we encourage people to get over their fear of computing, their fear of coding?”

Division I Athletics

UW-Green Bay’s athletic director Mary Ellen Gillespie presented the university’s annual NCAA Division I athletics report to the Board.

Gillespie noted that the athletics department is particularly proud of its academic achievements. In 2014-15, the overall GPA for the department was 3.30 – the highest in Green Bay Athletics’ history.  In addition, the graduation success rate for its student athletes was 65% — compared to 51% for the UW-Green Bay general student body.

She also reported that funds raised for student-athlete scholarships and program support reached record levels this past year, increasing 33% over the previous year. For the first time in the department history, giving exceeded the $1-million mark.

In other business, the Board:

  • Approved UW System’s request for three All Agency Maintenance and Repair projects totaling approximately $6 million that address facility maintenance and repair at UW-Madison and
  • Approved UW System’s Criteria for Evaluating Major Capital Projects;
  • Approved design reports and granted authority to construct the following projects: UW-Madison Babcock Hall Dairy Plant Renovation and Center for Dairy Research Addition, the UW-Madison Police and Security Facility Addition, the UW-Oshkosh Intramural Recreation Field Complex, and two All Agency Maintenance and Repair projects addressing a turf replacement at UW-Oshkosh and a volleyball locker room remodeling at UW-Madison.
  • Approved six new academic degree programs:  UW-Madison’s Doctor of Occupational Therapy; UW-River Falls’ B.S. in Neuroscience; and a Master of Science in Information Technology Management, a Master of Science in Athletic Training, a Master of Fine Arts in Dance, and a Bachelor of Science in Engineering (B.S.E.) in Biomedical Engineering, all at UW-Milwaukee;
  • Approved UW-Green Bay’s redesignation of the administrative and organizational structure of the university by creating three Colleges and one stand-alone School;
  • Approved UW-Stevens Point’s proposal for a new college that will create a new Dean position and make academic student services a one-stop-shop. Units reporting to the Dean of the University College will include Undergraduate Research, the Library, Tutoring Services, and other units dedicated to student success;
  • Approved UW-Stevens Point’s select mission change, which was revised to better reflect the university’s new strategic plan and desire to better serve regional needs;
  • Approved UW-Extension’s proposed select mission change that will provide UW-Extension with degree-granting authority for professionally focused and cross-disciplinary, direct assessment, competency-based credit-bearing certificates; associate degrees; and baccalaureate degrees in the academic area of business and management;
  • Approved revisions to UW-Superior’s Faculty Personnel Rules approved by the Board in February 2015;
  • Approved the Pointer Partnership, a new differential tuition, at UW-Stevens Point;
  • Approved changes to Regent Policy documents governing the voting of proxy proposals associated with UW System Trust Funds investments;
  • Approved changes to Regent Policy related to contract approval, signature authority and reporting;
  • Approved an alumni tuition pilot program at UW-Eau Claire that would provide alumni with a 25% discount on undergraduate resident tuition rates at the institution for five years after graduation;
  • Approved removal of two Regent Policy Documents which are obsolete given that their stated purposes were met long ago and their content out of date. The Committee also approved changes to the Policy for Large or Vital Information Projects;
  • Approved a clinical trial agreement between UW-Madison and Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation;
  • Approved a Master Services Agreement between UW-Madison and IDx, LLC; and
  • Approved a collective bargaining agreement between the Board of Regents and The Building and Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin.

The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents will next meet on Feb. 4-5, 2016, at UW-Madison.