May is a bittersweet month for me. It encompasses my favorite time, commencement, when we see our newest Blugolds off to their futures. At the same time, our academic year winds down with a flurry of last concerts, research presentations and goodbyes.
This May is also a time of accountability. Perhaps the most challenging year we have faced as a campus community, 2015-16 saw us making difficult decisions, dealing with funding changes that came quickly and inexorably, and struggling with the loss of valued colleagues. We tried, not always successfully, to make our decisions openly and collaboratively. It is in that spirit that I want to assess the past year, and also look forward to the coming months.
Begin with the good news. On Tuesday, I shared with the University Senate an unexpected benefit of this year’s mild winter. Our utility costs across the state were lower than usual and so UW System is returning one-time funds to each campus. UW-Eau Claire will receive $813,000 in utility savings. I am working with the provost to use these funds to cover the costs for instructional academic staff members for two years to help us address course availability for our students. This is not a fix for the reductions of this biennial budget, but it will help us address our greatest instructional needs while we continue to rethink how we provide the best Blugold education.
UW System also has informed us that they anticipate additional savings from the benefits pool. We are still waiting to hear more about the scope and timing of that funding, but I will work with the University Senate compensation committee to determine how we will best use the funding we receive. It is my hope, based on the recommendations I have heard from the campus community since my arrival and from the strategic planning discussions this year, that we can use those funds to begin to address our compensation gap.
Enrollment success. On the enrollment front we have very good news as well, with thanks to our admissions and marketing teams. While we won’t know the final results until the fall, we are on track to solidly meet our recruitment goal of an incoming class of 2,300 frosh and 500 transfers. Thanks to more than 6,400 applications (the largest pool since 2012), we have even been able to see a small increase in the average ACT score of the entering class. Just as important, we retained our 2015 class at a higher rate from fall to spring this year.
Our goal is not to seek a huge influx of new students but to gradually return to previous enrollment levels (as recently as 2010 we had 11,307 students, compared to the 10,460 we had this year). Enrollment is not about numbers, of course. It is about inviting students to UW-Eau Claire who will find here a learning environment in which they can thrive. Without the faculty and staff who make this a place for transformative learning, no enrollment strategy will succeed. Thank you all for holding fast to what sets us apart, even in the face of our budget struggles.
Progress with EDI and campus climate. As I noted in my previous blog post, we now have the outcomes from our campus climate survey. This sobering but important data will be critical as we continue our efforts to improve our campus community. The EDI plan was discussed this week at the University Senate meeting and will continue to be refined. Over the summer we will move forward to create effective professional development programs for students, faculty and staff, a critical first step in addressing our EDI plan goals for students and employees of color as well as the broader campus climate concerns that affect our LGBTQ and international students. The summer work will be led by EDI co-chairs David Jones and Ann Rupnow and will involve faculty, staff and students.
Also over the summer, I will continue discussions regarding leadership for our EDI initiatives so that we can continue our momentum. In the fall I will ask for resolutions of support for the EDI plan from our University Senate, Student Senate and University Staff Council so that we can unite as a campus and move forward to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive university.
Our change initiatives are, indeed, ready to launch. This year’s challenge to implement multiple change initiatives at once was perhaps our most audacious effort and also the biggest indicator of the seriousness of the budget challenge. No institution, even a healthy one like UW-Eau Claire, should take on so much change so quickly. Yet with the budget cut effective immediately in July, we had little choice. It is a marker of the dedication and resourcefulness of our faculty and staff that we have been able to complete the year as we have. I know it has come at a high cost in energy and morale. But I have never been prouder to work with colleagues than with all of you this year.
This summer Blugold Central will open in Old Library; our new Advising, Retention and Career Center will begin serving the entering class; and the Administrative Support and Knowledge Center will move into shared quarters in Schofield Hall to better assist faculty and staff. By the way, because many of our student services will now be located in or near Old Library, the Master Planning Committee has recommended, in consultation with the chair of the University Senate Physical Plant Planning Committee, to rename Old Library as the Student Services Building. Watch for new signs this summer. We have also completed the consolidation of Integrated Marketing and Communications, as well as the facilities teams from across campus.
These accomplishments are due to the leadership and hard work of literally hundreds of faculty and staff who have given their time, above and beyond their already expanded work requirements, to imagine new ways of streamlining our processes and serving our students and each other. Please thank them. But also continue to be patient, as we know there will be move-in kinks and new solutions that need to be tweaked.
Draft plans are being vetted. Finally, we have worked very hard on our strategic plans. The first draft of the University Strategic Plan has been shared with campus and feedback has been received. The University Planning Committee will forward a final plan for my review this summer. Ideas for the Academic Master Plan also have been vetted by campus and a final plan will be ready for the provost this summer. Both plans are on track to be presented at the Blugold Breakfast in late August. These plans are vital if we are to create our future rather than react to every vagary in state funding.
In summary, despite a year unlike any other, we have held true to the course we set. If we continue to follow our budget plan, we will be in the black by next academic year.
Centennial kickoff. Please plan to join me in celebrating our centennial. At our May 21, 2016, commencement ceremonies, we will officially kick off our 100th year — a year of hope and pride. We have lots planned: The Student Office of Sustainability will help create our own arboretum, with the planting of 100 trees. A gala concert with specially commissioned works for our major music ensembles will be held this fall. A newly published history, “Building Excellence: University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, 1916-2016,” by our very own professors Dr. Robert Gough and Dr. James Oberly, is now available at the bookstore or online. And of course, we will have a Homecoming like no other. More centennial events and information is available online at uwec100.com.
It’s been quite a year. A difficult year. But a year in which we refused to be defined by what was taken away, but instead, by who we are. Be proud of what you have accomplished and what this university continues to be: a place where we truly foster in one another the hallmarks of a transformative liberal education.