MADISON, Wis. – The biggest challenge facing Wisconsin’s businesses is a shortage of talent and the University of Wisconsin System can play a significant role in addressing the issue by building closer relationships with businesses and communities.

That was the message brought to the UW System Board of Regents today by four chambers of commerce and economic development leaders.

“There isn’t a day that goes by when our staff engages with business that the issue of talent doesn’t come up,” said Jenny Trick, executive director of the Racine County Economic Development Corporation. “It’s coming from every direction, every industry, and every size of business.”

Ashley DeMuth, CEO of the Menomonie Chamber of Commerce, urged universities to take an active role in working with business and civic organizations to build stronger connections between students and their local communities. “We need to get university students involved to help retain them in the community,” DeMuth said.

Internships can be a powerful way to do that, but many businesses – especially smaller businesses with fewer resources – are not familiar with how to offer an experience that is mutually rewarding for both students and businesses, said Regent Kyle Weatherly.

Acknowledging the challenge, David Brukardt, associate vice president of Corporate Relations and Economic Engagement, pointed to UW System’s Talent Generator, which was introduced last year with financial support from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. The site provides 100 screens of free information for employers on how to set up an internship, how to mentor interns, sample offer letters, and performance metrics.

“It’s in the best interest of employers to offer students a good experience,” said UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone.

UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields noted that it’s also important to clearly identify someone on campus as the point of contact for businesses or other organizations that want to explore or develop internship programs with students.

Becky Bartoszek, president and CEO of the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce, said selling a community or region to future graduates as an attractive place to live can be as important as the actual job offer. She added that UW faculty members can play a key role in establishing productive relationships with businesses. “That creates the talent pipeline,” she said.

Access to broadband is another significant challenge in some parts of the state, impacting business operations as well as communities’ ability to retain people, said Meghavi Patel, president of the Platteville Regional Chamber of Commerce.

To meet the demands of employers – as well as interests of the workforce – we must do our part to help get more graduates successfully into the talent pipeline,” said Regent President Andrew S. Petersen.

COVID-19 response update

UW System President Tommy Thompson told Regents that UW currently has an overall COVID-19 positivity rate of less than 1 percent across the System. He noted that this comes amid the university’s aggressively ramped up testing protocols at all its campuses.

“Already this semester, we have administered more than 350,000 tests across the System,” Thompson said. “That’s more than all of last semester combined.”

“I commend the dedication and perseverance of our students, faculty, and staff, and the leadership of UW chancellors in overseeing our efforts and helping to achieve this impressive progress against COVID-19,” Thompson said.

Thompson told Regents that UW System has already opened public vaccination sites at UW-Green Bay and UW Oshkosh and other campus sites will soon follow, including at UW-La Crosse and UW-Milwaukee next week.

This is all promising news, but he urged continued vigilance. “This is no time to let down our guard,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he’s optimistic about Fall 2021 and returning to pre-pandemic levels of in-person instruction and other activities on campus.

“As I’ve said before, if there’s a problem, the UW is here to help find a solution,” Thompson said.

Capital Budget Follow-up

President Petersen provided an update on UW System’s biennial budget capital request, noting that the Board had approved last August the System’s request for $1.3 billion in capital budget authority.

Petersen told Regents that 83% of funds requested would go towards either renovation or replacement of current facilities.

“Simply put, we need to address the longstanding repair and maintenance backlog in our aging facilities, while also prioritizing construction to meet growing market demands in fields such as STEM and healthcare,” Petersen said. “We got a good start and made good progress in the last budget and the capital request before the legislature and Governor now will continue that work.”

Nearly 40% of all degrees now awarded by the UW System are in STEM or healthcare-related fields, Petersen said. “In fact, the growth of our graduates in STEM has increased by 40% in the last 10 years alone. Our capital request reflects that demand.”

Proposed new construction is only for obsolete buildings where renovation is neither cost-effective nor educationally appropriate. Public safety and health are also key factors.

Noting that enrollment numbers around the UW System have remained remarkably steady over the past year, although much of class delivery moved online, Petersen said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that demand for a residential UW college experience continues to be strong. “That means we need the proper facilities,” he said.

“We know there will be robust debate on this budget, but we trust that the Governor and legislators understand that a significant investment in higher education helps advance our shared priorities of growing Wisconsin’s talent pipeline, improving lives, and providing opportunities for families to earn higher wages,” Petersen said.

UW System federal priorities for 2021 highlighted

Allison Steil, director of federal relations, presented the Board with a report on UW System’s federal priorities for the coming year.

She said key issues anticipated to potentially affect UW System include the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, student financial aid, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, immigration reform, resources for research and development, and the need for fostering talent and diversity.

Federal investments in education and research are essential to higher education nationally and to the UW System. Federal support touches every institution in the UW System. It helps all campuses to attract and retain promising students, faculty and staff, and helps them contribute to Wisconsin’s economy. The federal funds that support research on UW campuses drive innovation and growth in Wisconsin businesses and help yield well-paying jobs in the state.

Board welcomes new Regent

John W. Miller, founder and principal at Arenberg Holdings, a venture capital fund established in 2015 to make investments in early stage companies, was introduced as a new member of the Board of Regents.

“I look forward to getting to know my fellow Regents and getting up to speed on things,” Miller said.

Miller has a law degree from University of Wisconsin Law School.

New Regent Award announced

Regents unanimously approved a new award recognizing the dedicated work, vital services, initiative, and outstanding contributions of the UW System’s University Staff.

Two individuals and one program will be honored. The Regents University Staff Excellence awards will be presented for the first time at the Board’s October 2021 meeting.

As of Fall 2019, there were more than 8,300 University Staff members across the System.

Prior to this new award, the Board has presented awards recognizing three different categories: Regents Diversity Awards, Regents Teaching Excellence Awards, and Regents Academic Staff Excellence Awards.

In other business, the Regents:

  • Heard an update on the UW-River Falls chancellor search;
  • Approved UW-Madison’s contractual fee for service agreement with The Emmes Company, LLC. Under the agreement, UW-Madison’s Fundus Photograph Reading Center (FPRC) will conduct an artificial intelligence (AI) software validation study with Emmes’ prime contractor, Verily Life Sciences (formerly a division of Google). This study is evaluating the accuracy of AI software (Google Deep Mind) in detecting referable diabetic retinopathy using a handheld camera in a tele-screening environment. The contract has an estimated value of $1.4 million;
  • Recognized UW-Green Bay’s receipt of the First Generation Forward designation from the Center for First-Generation Student Success, which recognizes higher education institutions that have demonstrated commitment to improving the experiences and advancing outcomes of first-generation college students. Thirty-four percent of UW-Green Bay undergraduates are first-generation. UW-Green Bay is the first UW System university to earn the designation.

The next University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents meeting will be April 8-9, 2021, by videoconference.