As we gather with friends and family, there is much to be thankful for during this holiday season. As hectic and harried as these times can be, they do remind us of the importance of personal relationships and the satisfaction of giving, not only to those closest to us but to those most in need.

The University of Wisconsin System, with its 13 four-year campuses, 13 freshman-sophomore campuses and UW-Extension, is blessed with many friends and alumni who give to us at this time of the year. It is important that they know how much we appreciate their generosity. Their gifts and pledges provide that extra margin of excellence that distinguishes Wisconsin as one of the nation’s premier states for education at all levels.

At the same time, it is critical that the university give back to the citizens of Wisconsin who support it every day through their involvement with our programs, tax contributions and participation as students or as the families of our students.

Perhaps our most important “gift” to the state was in evidence during the past few weeks when 9,000 students received their degrees at the end of the fall semester. This was in addition to the 29,000 students who graduated over the past year, 80 percent of whom stayed to live and work in Wisconsin.

This past year, we have held citizen forums throughout the state with community and business leaders and time and again, they tell us that well-prepared graduates are the most important gift we can give the state. Our alumni – some 500,000 strong in the state – can be found in K-12 classrooms, in our hospitals, pharmacies and veterinary clinics, in small and large businesses, in research labs and in public leadership positions throughout the state. We are proud of their accomplishments.

In recent years, there has been a nationwide debate over whether public higher education is a private good that offers more value to the individual getting the degree, or a public good that benefits all citizens and merits greater public support.

In my view, it is both. It is certainly true that those who attend college, even if they don’t graduate, earn more during their lifetimes than those who never attend college.

To some, that argues that we should have higher public university tuition and less of a state subsidy for higher education and that is the direction in which Wisconsin and other states have been moving.

At the same time, many of our attendees and graduates who, one could argue, work in the most needed areas of society – social services, teaching, family farms, health care, day care, local media, public service and other aspects of the service industry – do not make high salaries. And yet, we are all dependent on their contributions.

Further, nationally renowned research conducted over many years on our own UW-Madison campus shows that those with some college experience, and college graduates, tend to lead healthier, happier, longer lives and are more fully engaged in the spirit of giving both with their time and money.

As we look to the new beginnings promised in every New Year, we reflect on 2003 with thanks for the support that the people of Wisconsin and its leaders have given to the university. We also look forward to 2004 with the pledge to continue our “gift” to the state in the form of the thousands of future UW graduates who will guide our state into a prosperous future. From all my colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, I wish you a very happy holiday season.