Senate Committee on Universities & Technical Colleges
Green Bay Hearing
March 31, 2021

Watch testimony

Good morning. I would like to thank Sen. Roth and the members of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges for this opportunity to present the State of the University of Wisconsin System.

Before I begin, I would like to reiterate that we are grateful to the people of Wisconsin for their support of the UW System. We should never forget that we are a public Inherently, our mission is to meet the needs of Wisconsinites and to serve the public interest.

I am honored – and humbled – to have been entrusted with leading this great university at this time in history. It is an awesome responsibility, and one that I take very seriously.

Since I took office on July 1, I have made a few bold statements.

I believe that next to its people, the UW System is Wisconsin’s most valuable asset.

I am not going to apologize for the university system, or for our bold vision.

I’ve said I would be the UW System’s biggest advocate and its toughest evaluator.

That was the case during my service as a legislator and as Governor, and certainly continues to hold true as UW System President.

I didn’t take the job to be a placeholder. As people who know me can attest, I like to get things done.

Finally, I want to recharge the Wisconsin Idea, the notion that the University has the responsibility to serve beyond the borders of our campuses. At its core, the UW System is about helping to solve Wisconsin’s problems.

Over the last 9 months, everything we have done at the UW System has been looking through that lens and holding to those principles.

Everything we have done has been in the interest of our students, our employees, our taxpayers, and our economy – sometimes in the face of sharp criticism.

The record shows we have been right.

Biggest Advocate: Importance of UW System

So why do I want to be the UW System’s biggest advocate? As I just stated, I firmly believe the UW System is the state’s most valuable asset next to its people.

We are THE critical talent pipeline for Wisconsin businesses.

Each year, we educate approximately 165,000 students and award nearly 37,000 degrees – many in high-need areas like nursing, engineering, business, computer science, IT, and data science.

Importantly, about 90 percent of the Wisconsin resident graduates of the UW remain in the state five years after graduation. That’s important for the strength and vitality of our economy and our communities all around Wisconsin.

At the same time, our faculty generates groundbreaking research that improves lives and often leads to new companies and patents.

The UW System is a major source of research and innovation with more than $1 billion of sponsored research activity annually across our 13 institutions. Our two R-1 research institutions – UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee – are powerhouses recognized around the world, with UW-Madison continuing to rank among the top ten recipients of federal grant funding.

University research and spinoff companies employ thousands of people across Wisconsin.

And we’re making a difference with relevant research. Consider the current pandemic. UW-Madison alone has more than 70 funded research projects specifically aimed at addressing impacts of COVID-19, including critical research in vaccine development at UW Hospital.

Pandemic: Return to Campus, Testing, Vaccinations

Yes, COVID-19. This insidious disease has swept across this country – and indeed the world – and has left few people untouched. That includes our university.

The scope and complexity of the problems presented by this pandemic seem to change daily.

Last summer, we were faced with one monumental decision: Do we welcome students back to our campuses or do we ask them to stay home and take classes entirely online?

I made the call that our campuses would be open.

Our main goal was to have students on campus, but we needed to make them – and our faculty, staff, and university communities – as safe as possible. We took some heat for this decision at times, but we had a plan.

We developed an aggressive testing regimen. We implemented a mask-wearing mandate and we heavily promoted best safe practices including social distancing and hand washing. We created a culture of responsibility among our students.

There were some early hiccups – but we successfully reached the end of the fall semester with positivity rates lower than state averages.

Our spring semester has been even better. The positivity rates right now across our campuses are below one-half of 1 percent. And we’ve been below 1 percent all semester.

In fact, our most recent daily testing results show a positivity rate of 0.1% systemwide.

We’ve ramped up our already aggressive testing regimen to administer even more tests and more frequently. So far, we have performed more than 850,000 tests overall on our campuses.

We did all this because we believe it’s so important to have students back on campus. It’s the right thing to do to make sure they maintain academic progress. It also helps students grow and develop as individuals and citizens. And it helps to create as much normalcy as possible.

And one more thing: Students want to be here.

As a result of the pandemic, universities across the country suffered enrollment decreases. The decline at UW was less than most, however, down just 1.9 percent. In fact, our enrollment of students of color actually increased by 2%. That’s compelling.

At the request of the federal government, we replicated and expanded our aggressive student testing program for our communities with free testing centers at our university locations. To date, we have administered more than 250,000 tests for the general public – which means that between campus and public testing, we have administered more than a million tests We know testing plays a key role in helping to limit the spread of the virus, and community members have been incredibly grateful for this service.

Now, our universities are standing up vaccine clinics for our communities. We have opened 8 vaccine clinics so far – and more are on the way.

In addition, more than 1,000 UW nursing and healthcare students will receive a $500 tuition reimbursement as part of a UW System initiative to assist with testing and vaccination operations.

To me, it’s very clear. Where there’s a problem, we want UW System to be a part of the solution.

Pandemic: Financial Impact

We did all of this on our campuses despite some devastating financial losses.

Through the end of the Spring 2021 semester, UW institutions have incurred $640 million in COVID-related costs and lost revenue. This includes state budget cuts of almost $95 million over FY20 and FY21.

Some of our losses have been covered by federal funds.

Of the total federal funding provided, about 45% – or $232 million – is being passed directly to students for emergency grants, with the remaining $290 million going for institutional aid.

Further, the UW System has several additional sources of federal funding. We have received $54 million in CARES funding through the State of Wisconsin’s Department of Administration to support our Fall testing and COVID-related costs. We have received an estimated $35 million from the federal government for community surge testing. And we expect nearly $22 million in funding through DOA to support our spring semester testing.

Official campus-by-campus allocations of the latest round of federal funding have yet to be released.

This financial assistance is vitally important – but we are still left with an estimated net loss through the spring semester of almost $170 million.

To address the shortfall, we implemented employee furloughs and we’ve been forced to institute layoffs. This has been difficult but also necessary if we are to continue to protect the quality educational experience we deliver.

In today’s economy, employers are calling for the knowledge, skills, and experience provided by higher education. The pandemic has not changed that. In the future as in the past, the UW System is a major economic engine for Wisconsin, and we can play a significant role in helping the state rebound from COVID to be stronger than ever.

2021-23 Budget Request

Because of critical and unique role we play, we have submitted a budget request for the next two years that would help all Wisconsinites.

As I stated earlier, I will make no apologies for our ambitious request. The UW System is a more than $6-billion operation with a $24 billion annual impact on the Wisconsin economy.

The university provides a 23-to-1 return on investment – a return that any businessperson would jump at.

For our operating budget, we are requesting a $95.7 million increase over biennium (not including standard budget adjustments).

This budget will support several main initiatives, which I will briefly outline.

We recommend the launch of the Wisconsin Tuition Promise, which would expand benefits of UW-Madison’s Bucky’s Promise initiative to all UW campuses. The program would cover tuition for students whose adjusted family income is less than $60,000, as part of our commitment to make quality education more broadly accessible to more Wisconsin families.

We also announced in November the new Regents Opportunity Scholarships, which will provide up to $10,000 to underrepresented and underserved undergraduates. Our Central Administration funded these scholarships by enacting efficiencies, furloughs, and some layoffs within our operation.

Our budget request recommends expanding opportunities for online education. This will bring higher education to all citizens of Wisconsin and beyond. In specific, we need to make sure the 815,000 Wisconsin adults who have some college credits but no degree know they have a homegrown avenue to earn that degree or other credentials – while also maintaining their other commitments to a job or family. Enhanced online opportunities will also offer new options for lifelong learning and career advancement.

We need to grow the number of teachers in Wisconsin. Education is at the core of growing our state’s quality of life, and we desperately need to recruit and retain more teachers and school leaders. Some of the ideas we’re considering include incentivizing educators in high-demand fields and high-need school districts.

We also should extend additional support to Wisconsin’s agricultural sector. Our recommended initiative would support 20 county-based agriculture positions in the Division of Extension at UW-Madison. Drawing on the longstanding traditions of the Wisconsin Idea, these positions are for local experts in agriculture who provide free research and technical assistance to Wisconsin farmers on agricultural practices and business management and planning.

I am pleased that the legislature and Governor recognize the important contributions of these professionals, as evidenced by the bipartisan support of this committee for SB 79.

Our budget request recommends securing Wisconsin’s role as a national leader in freshwater through the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin. Coordinated by UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, this joint initiative builds on the expertise, world-class facilities and research strengths already in place at all 13 UW universities.

For example, here at UW-Green Bay we are proud to boast one of the world’s leading fish hatchery research programs.

Finally, the UW System should expand its educational opportunities to include Wisconsin’s state prison and local jail systems.

Tens of thousands of prisoners are currently incarcerated in the state of Wisconsin. Our goal is to expand access to a UW education to members of this population.

Based on the most recent data available from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, the three-year recidivism rate in Wisconsin is 31.3%. The UW System Prison initiative would help to reduce this recidivism and increase chances for prisoners to find gainful employment after release. It’s also significantly cheaper to educate these individuals than keep them incarcerated.

Turning to our proposed capital budget, we are requesting $1.3 billion in capital budget authority over the biennium. It is focused on repairing, renovating, and replacing obsolete facilities at our universities. In fact, 83% of the request would go towards renovation and replacement projects.

To put this in context, it’s important to recognize that more than half of the University of Wisconsin System’s buildings were built in the 1950s-70s, and many now require significant repair and renovation work to ensure continued safety as well as to support continued excellence in teaching, learning, and research on our UW campuses.

To that end, we are also strategically prioritizing construction to meet growing market demand in STEM and healthcare Nearly 40% of all degrees awarded by the UW System overall are now in STEM and healthcare, and it is vitally important that our facilities reflect the world-class instruction and research that will take place there.

Overall, the key initiatives woven into the UW System’s budget request for the 2021-23 biennium reflect our priorities as a University and our vision for what will propel Wisconsin to a robust, rewarding, and resilient future.

Toughest Evaluator

As part of my focus on tough evaluation, I have also embarked on a top-to-bottom review of our operations in the UW System and have identified several areas requiring attention.

First, we need to creatively find ways to diversify our revenue streams.

The facts are straight-forward. State support for the UW has dropped. Despite being a public university that directly serves the people of Wisconsin, we receive just 17% of our support from the State of Wisconsin. That means to operate this huge economic engine for Wisconsin, we must raise the other 83%. We need to become more entrepreneurial and innovative, and look for alternate ways to diversify our revenue sources to fund our mission.

Second, we also need to modernize our administrative and financial processes, to strengthen data availability to better inform our decision-making, increase efficiency in our financial controls, and ensure information security in our increasingly complex global community. To deliver on taxpayer expectations, we need investments that bring our operating systems fully into the 21st

At any time, we should know how much money we have. We have made improvements to our processes, but there’s still more to do. Our planned Administrative Transformation Program (or ATP) will help us do this.

The current proliferation of local solutions, work-arounds, and shadow systems across the UW System create an overall Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) environment that is inefficient, costly for its value, impeding effective financial controls, and prohibiting effective business analytics.

The Administrative Transformation Program provides UW staff with the appropriate tools, scalability, the ability to do more, and mission fulfillment. It will enhance reporting, improve decision support, increase efficiency, and reduce risk.

We are also committed to IT as a Service (ITaaS). Our institutions currently operate in an isolated model where Core IT operations and Foundational IT are performed at each university, duplicating hardware, licensing, management, labor, and overhead.

The IT as a Service initiative allows each institution the flexibility necessary to service mission-specific activities including teaching, research, and public service – but it provides Core IT operations and Foundational IT in a unified model.

The IT as a Service model provides multiple benefits that include efficiency and effectiveness; disaster recovery and resilience; and cybersecurity.

These are major new endeavors that will make the UW System more efficient, more effective, and more secure.

Without them, the UW can not provide services students expect and the accountability taxpayers deserve.

We also need to engage in some big picture discussions about higher education in Wisconsin – and that includes considering how UW System can best work with the Wisconsin Technical College System.

Collaborating, not competing (which can lead to duplication), is the best way to deliver on the promise of public higher education. Delivering that education efficiently and equitably to all Wisconsinites should be an ongoing priority, and evaluation and innovation should be continual.

We are not asking to take over schools or buildings in the Tech College System. What we are asking for is a study of how higher education is delivered in the state so that we can make changes to best serve Wisconsin.

Addressing other concerns – We are taking action to address LAB’s report 20-10 on IT Needs Assessment, Procurement, and Security at the UW System. We are updating Board policy in accordance with LAB’s requests. Indeed, we are already following the new policies.

Looking Ahead: Summer and Fall

Looking ahead, we are actively planning to return to a pre-pandemic college experience in the Fall of 2021.

I directed Chancellors to ensure that at least 75 percent of classes will be held in-person.

Students are eager for this on-campus experience. Applications for Fall are currently up all across the UW System. In fact, UW-Madison has received a record 53,800 freshman applications for Fall 2021, a whopping 17 % jump from last year.

We know that our students may require additional support. Many have experienced significant academic, financial, and emotional challenges as a result of the pandemic, and we are responding with numerous new initiatives to help students succeed.

We are enhancing and expanding our student behavioral and mental health support systems to give students the best chance to succeed. Even before the pandemic, data shows students have been experiencing growing and more serious challenges with anxiety, depression, and stress. Over the last five years, the number of students who used UW counseling services increased by 15 percent despite flat enrollment trends.

COVID-19 has exacerbated emotional distress for many students, adding to already rising rates of anxiety and depression. We are increasingly aware of how these issues and concerns affect learning in the classroom and overall student success, and it is vital that we continue to pay attention.

Another recently announced initiative is an expanded Summer Bridge programs, which will add 1,400 students to a program that helps high school students make the transition to college. UW System is investing $1.3 million in seed funding to get things moving.

As we return to a more traditional semester this fall and beyond, we need to build programs that will help all of our students find success, especially those whose academic progress was slowed by the pandemic. We are committed to doing everything we can to help students be ready for the academic rigors of university and make a successful transition.


In conclusion, at a time when higher education has never been more critical, the University of Wisconsin System is leading the way into the future. The overall state of the UW System is strong.

We are the State’s largest talent pipeline. Our groundbreaking research, entrepreneurial know-how, and boundless creative energy are changing people’s lives for the better in Wisconsin – and beyond.

We are striving to keep our quality higher education affordable and accessible. We continue to expand capacity in high-demand programs that the state needs, like programs in healthcare, engineering, and computer science.

Collaborating with Wisconsin and global communities, we are helping to create new job opportunities and helping to provide the talent to fill those jobs. We are preparing not only future employees but also future employers.

We will renew the Wisconsin Idea with these proposals and initiatives, by being relevant and relatable to all of Wisconsin’s citizens.

Where there’s a problem, the University of Wisconsin wants to be part of the solution.

I thank you very much for your time this morning.