MADISON, Wis. – University of Wisconsin System campuses, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), will serve as the first “surge testing” sites for a new rapid-results COVID-19 test to be made available to members of the general public, according to UW System President Tommy Thompson.

Thompson told the Board of Regents today that the 250,000 Abbot BinaxNOW tests provided by HHS will amplify the System’s robust testing program for students and will assist in identifying people who may have the novel coronavirus.

“We want to be part of the solution, and that means going above and beyond what we’re already doing for our UW students,” Thompson said. “We also want to do as much as we can to help and support our local communities.”

Thompson also reported that UW’s overall positivity rates have been holding fairly steady over the past month. “This reflects people taking personal responsibility and a lot of hard work,” he said.

Thompson noted that UW System’s testing protocols have been of keen interest to federal health officials. In a recent visit to UW-Madison, Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said UW universities seem to have figured out how to use testing to reinforce behavior change and could be a model for the country, according to Thompson.

He added that in a separate visit, Dr. Deborah Birx, a top White House COVID-19 advisor, also commended the UW System’s efforts and urged chancellors to continue to expand testing.

Stop the COVID Spread! Coalition

President Thompson turned the spotlight on the Stop the COVID Spread! Coalition, which was launched several weeks ago to raise public awareness about the seriousness of the pandemic and the critical need for preventative measures. Nearly 100 businesses, health care, advocacy groups, and others have now joined the effort.

“From my years as Secretary of Heath and Human Services and dealing with major crises like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I know how vitally important it is that we band together to fight the common foe – in this case, the pandemic,” Thompson said. “Success requires a broad, unified commitment from all of us.”

Three chancellors and three leaders of business and health organizations who are part of the Coalition shared with Regents their experiences with fighting the pandemic.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt spoke of the value of clearly communicating with members of local businesses and the community about the significant efforts the university is taking to keep campus community safe and healthy. “Businesses are taking notice,” he said. “And they’re recognizing that keeping students in town healthy and safe would help their bottom lines as well.”

Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, told Regents that the pandemic has severely impacted Wisconsin’s restaurant industry, which was a $10.1 billion enterprise prior to the current public health crisis. “Without additional federal support, it’s estimated 50 percent of restaurants in Wisconsin will not survive,” Hillmer said. “That means irreparable harm to the food culture we all hold so dear in this state.”

UW-Green Bay Chancellor Michael Alexander spoke of the university’s ongoing collaboration with Prevea Health in northeast Wisconsin to implement a rigorous testing program for the campus population. He also noted the aggressive contact tracing UWGB has done. He said a key part of their strategy is to trust students and tell them so. “We trust them to do the right thing,” Alexander said. Adhering to safe practices is “our duty to the community, our duty to students. It’s not a burden.”

Nancy Wenzel, CEO of the Wisconsin Association of Health Plans, told Regents the plan providers are working tirelessly to ensure members get the care, coverage and support they need during the COVID-19 healthcare crisis. “It’s important that people know how to safely access that care,” Wenzel said, noting that improving accessibility includes telehealth options and payment flexibility.

UW-Madison Chancellor Becky Blank told Regents that UW-Madison has been deeply involved in the response to coronavirus, with scientists working to develop a vaccine, running clinical trials, and developing PPE to keep front-line workers safe. She noted that UW-Madison currently has 430 COVID-related grants/proposals underway.

Among several examples, Blank said UW-Madison has a collaboration underway with the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences to take samples at 100 wastewater treatment facilities statewide, as well as several locations on campus, to look for the genetic fingerprint of coronavirus, providing an early warning about where COVID-19 is spreading.

Eric Borgerding, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, which spearheaded the Stop the COVID Spread! Coalition, provided a clear picture of the seriousness of the public health crisis facing Wisconsin. He said COVID-19 is spreading at unprecedented rates throughout the state, creating unprecedented stress on the healthcare system, with many hospitals now operating at full capacity.

“This collaboration could not come at a more important time,” Borgerding said.

New scholarship expands student opportunities

Regent President Andrew S. Petersen presented an update on the new Regents Opportunity Scholarship program, which targets expanding opportunities for underrepresented and underserved students in the UW System.

“The overall objective is to provide financial support for deserving students at key points in their education journeys,” Petersen said. “This includes recruiting students to come to UW, retaining students in the UW, and also supporting them through the completion of their UW degrees.”

The Regents have committed to providing $1 million annually for the scholarship, which is expected to benefit several hundred students around the System, with awards ranging from $3,000 to a maximum of $10,000.

The need for additional financial support for underrepresented and underserved students is pressing, Petersen said. He cited data among high school graduates in Wisconsin showing only 1 in 5 Hispanics and 1 in 10 African Americans and Native Americans enroll in a UW institution immediately after graduation. By contrast, about 1 in 3 white high school graduate in Wisconsin enroll.

Petersen noted that the challenge may start with getting students of color and lower-income students into the UW, but it doesn’t end there. Just under one-half of students of color graduate within six years, while two-thirds of white students graduate in the same timeframe, he said. The graduation rate gap is similar between low-income students and non-low-income students.

The first Regents Opportunity Scholarship recipients will be named next summer.

New chancellor welcomed

In his report to the Board, President Petersen introduced Dr. Thomas Gibson, who was confirmed as the 15th Chancellor of UW-Stevens Point by a unanimous Regents’ vote two weeks ago.

Gibson is currently the Vice President for Student Affairs and Vice Provost at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He will assume his new leadership post at UW-Stevens Point on January 11, 2021. He succeeds retiring Chancellor Bernie Patterson.

Odyssey Project

Regents heard a presentation on UW-Madison’s Odyssey Project, a nationally recognized, multidisciplinary program that takes a whole-family approach to breaking the cycle of generational poverty through access to education.

The Odyssey Project, founded in 2003, offers UW-Madison humanities classes for adult students facing economic barriers to college. The majority of students that participate in the Odyssey Course are from racial and ethnic minority groups and are often overcoming the obstacles of single parenthood, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, incarceration, depression, and domestic abuse.

Graduates of the program report life-changing effects for themselves and their children, and that includes Regent Corey Saffold, a UW-Whitewater criminology student and graduate of Odyssey 2006.

Saffold is currently Director of School Safety and Security for the Verona Area School District. He previously served as a City of Madison police officer. He said working in schools gives him an opportunity to give students a second chance, just as he once received. “Without the Odyssey Project, I would not be here,” Saffold said, and he urged Regents to expand the program “so more people all over Wisconsin have the opportunity to benefit from it.”

Emily Auerbach, a Professor of English and co-director/founder of the Odyssey Project, shared with Regents her favorite quote about the program: “The Odyssey Project helped me unwrap my gifts and rewrite the story of my life.”

In addition to the core Odyssey Course, there are now three additional programs as part of the project: Odyssey Junior, Onward Odyssey, and Odyssey Behind Bars.

UW System enrollment dips slightly

As part of his report, President Thompson told Regents preliminary enrollment at UW System campuses decreased 1.9 percent in fall 2020 compared to the previous year, a drop in line with the state’s demographic shifts and less than national estimates of declines in college enrollments.

In total, 164,494 students are enrolled at UW System’s 13 universities for fall 2020, the preliminary data show. UW System campuses experienced an enrollment decrease of 6 percent among first-year students, far less than the estimated drop nationally. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment across the U.S. dropped 3 percent overall for fall 2020 and 16 percent among first-year students.

Enrollment of underrepresented minority students increased by 2 percent on UW System campuses.

Farewell to colleagues

The Board presented Resolutions of Appreciation to recognize the service of Regent Emeritus Torrey Tiedeman and Regent Emeritus Janice Mueller, whose terms of service on the Board have ended.

Tiedeman, who graduated from UW-Madison last spring, said it had been an honor to serve his fellow students and the State of Wisconsin. “Road-tripping around the state to visit campuses, I was able to catch a glimpse not only of what’s going on at the campuses but also the future of the state,” he said.  Tiedeman noted that he feels strong optimism, seeing the achievements and potential of students and the universities to find solutions to problems.

Mueller, who had served on the Board since 2013, said the UW System needs to be better advocates on its own behalf. “If the UW System wants to continue to be a premiere system of public higher education in this country, we must better convince our stakeholders of our value,” Mueller said. “Strong education can transform a life. It transformed mine.”

In other business, the Regents:

  • Approved UW-Milwaukee’s request to sell a 3.52-acre parcel of land with improvements at 3230 E. Kenwood Boulevard in Milwaukee. The property includes a historic house, constructed in 1923, that is used for administrative offices and sporadic meeting space. Given a lack of funds to renovate the facility as well as the availability of other accessible conference center options on campus, UW-Milwaukee determined the costs of maintaining and improving the property significantly outweigh any benefits it currently provides.
  • Approved UW-Madison’s request for approval of an amended contract with Gold Country, Inc., to operate retail locations in various University Athletics facilities for the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. The amended agreement calls for a temporary modification of the financial considerations and operation expectations as a result of the pandemic.
  • Approved UW-Madison’s request for approval of a contract with Shield T3 to provide large-scale, rapid COVID-19 testing on campus. Shield T3 is a limited liability company recently formed by the University of Illinois System to expand the reach of the saliva-based test pioneered by researchers at University of Illinois. Under the agreement, such testing and related services will be available on campus by the beginning of the spring semester. The agreement provides this testing at a price of $25 per test.
  • Approved UW System’s request to hold a required public hearing on proposed permanent rules related to changes in Chapters UWS 4, 7, 11, and 17 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code, in order to bring the UW System into compliance with the new federal Title IX regulations that went into effect on August 14.

The next meeting of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents will be December 10-11, 2020, in Madison.