Interview with Chancellor Blank

On October 4, 2017, first-years Mya Berry and Enjoyiana Nururdin met with Chancellor Rebecca Blank. We discussed issues involving race, gender, safety, and the inclusivity of staff and students. Here are some the questions and responses we felt were most important.

Mya: “Many in the Black community are noticing a number of seemingly negative actions taken by your administration related to programs such as First Wave and People, curtailing them, laying off key personnel, and even suspending applicants. What is going on? What do you see as the future for programs such as First Wave and People?”

Chancellor Blank: “The PEOPLE Program, I actually think we’ve gone through a majorly large organization and evaluation, and I don’t think we’ve laid anyone off, but what we’ve tried to do is focus it to, orient it to be more effective. We were running it in, [I don’t even know the number] small numbers of people in large numbers of school districts, and we had several evaluations of this that said it’s going to be much more effective if you do this in a focused way, in a smaller number of schools. We want to run a program that has an impact. So, yes there’s been re-organizations of people, but I think they’re good re-organizations and from what I know, the staff are quite enthusiastic about them and are on board and we’re quite excited about what’s happening with that program and I think we’re doing the right thing. I know a little less about First Wave. Vice Chancellor Patrick Sims, who’s in charge of that is the one who’s made a series of decisions. I know that he is (they’re in the midst of) evaluating also how to focus the program more effectively and he made a call about holding off on admissions for a year while they’re going through that process. It’s his program and his call and I hope that there too will they come up with a set of things that they think will make it effective and a more high impact program. I don’t think there’s any implication here of closing this down or hurting it in some way. My understanding from Patrick, (because I’ve asked him about it given it’s raised a number of questions that have come to me) is that what they want to do is actually make it a better program and that’s what they’re in the midst of trying to re-organize around.”

Enjoyiana: “So, jumping off of that, there’s also the Badger Promise that I read about in an article, when is that going to be implemented? And are there are any ways for you to target students who are already here that already meet that requirement?” BadgerPromisePawAngle-01

Chancellor Blank: “Yes, in fact we’re actually doing that. The Badger Promise let’s just say is students who transfer from two-year schools who are first generation students, and there are a lot of first generation students who over a variety of reasons find it better to start at two-year schools, in particular [inaudible] two year schools closer to home. We have transfer agreements with almost every one of those schools that says, ‘If you do a certain set of things and get a grade point average of –I think it’s a B or better– you will have automatic admission to UW-Madison. Other schools in the system have other transfer programs, but they have lower grade point averages. 3:03

Enjoyiana: So recently, we had the “Our Wisconsin” thing inside of our dorms, I just wanted to know what exactly was the purpose behind that and how did that become implemented and what was the driving force behind that?


Chancellor Blank: So, that is quite new. So we had several incidents that did not reflect well on our community and its behavior the year before– this is now two years ago (2015) and as a result of that, one of the things we did was start thinking about how do we talk to freshman about living in a diverse community. We piloted “Our Wisconsin” a year ago for freshman for about 1,000 freshmen. We piloted it in a limited number of dorms and on certain floors. We did a pretty serious evaluation because you could evaluate it with the places that you piloted and the places that you didn’t. The point of this was to see if we can come up with something that actually seems to have an impact. The point is to try to get people thinking through what are the identities that I bring with me into UW-Madison, given the communities that I come from, and the family I come from. And, how do those differ? I am suddenly in a place where there are people coming from really different backgrounds and identities and assumptions about the world. And then, how do we all live together, much less work together. And our evaluation said there was a significant change in attitudes as a result of those who went through “Our Wisconsin”. Given that evaluation, we implemented it this year everywhere— we did it for all freshmen, and when you do this in small groups there is always more groups that are effective than others. There are more discussions that are more effective than others. I am not in any way so idealistic to believe that a couple hours of discussion is going to change the community, but I think it is a good and important action for new people coming in the dorms. To say, this is an important issue, you need to think about this and you need to keep thinking about it because it is not just about being at UW-Madison, it is about working in the 21st century, and any job that you’re going to go into you are going to have to be able to work with [and I’m not just talking about race and ethnicity here] I’m talking about people from other countries, people from other parts of this country, rural versus urban, different religions, different political views. How do you think about that and start dealing with it and part of the time college needs to be spent working on those issues, so that’s asking a lot from a small program, but it is a way to at least try to get people to start thinking about that, and then of course we follow this with an ethnic studies requirement. And another thing we did was we have reviewed all our ethnic studies courses and have a series of recommendations about how to re shape some of the really big ones, and are there some we need to drop, are there some we need to add, and we are trying to build on this. (21:50)

Mya: What is the University doing to retain people of color–mainly staff? Are there any partnerships you can make with the Madison community to help improve the environment here generally for the people of color?

Chancellor Blank: Yeah, so retentions is a big issue. [Can I start with the students and then go up to faculty and staff?]

So, one of the things that I am actually really proud of is, if you go back ten years ago, our retention rates among white students versus students of color– there was a big gap, there was like a 15 point gap as to how many people stayed for their sophomore year that came here as freshmen. That gap is entirely closed. It is essentially about 95% [retention] for both white students– both that retention rate is really high for a big public university, but the fact that we do not find differences even with 1% point from one another. I think is the graduation gaps have substantially reduced, but there still is a graduation gap. And, of course there is a 4-5 year period of retention( can understand) but, I hope to continue to make progress in the graduation gap, and we are working hard on that, and some of that is advising that involves some cultural competencies, and making sure we have that advising available and doing all sorts of targeting things particularly aimed at providing the  academic support that our students of color need. Because, disproportionately, they are a little more likely to be first generation, to be lower income, and all of that brings with it an enormous number of issues in addition to the sense of being somewhat different from other people because of who you are. So, that’s the students, staff and faculty. Our staff reflects the region, we have about the same percentage of staff of color that there is in the overall madison region– that is not a high number. We continue to work on that, but it’s just–it’s hard. And, I am open to any ideas to attract and maintain a higher level of staff presence amongst staff of color than there are in the community. That means you have to do a number of recruiting from outside the community, and try to bring people here. Now, on the faculty front, we have actually done pretty well. Over the last [I don’t remember these numbers] it is something like over the last 3-4 years about 25% of our new faculty hire have been faculty of color, and the problem is not hiring, we have actually done really really well on the hiring front. The problem with faculty is retaining– while we have been hiring a disportionately large of faculty of color, if you look at our retentions, we lose a disproportional large faculty of color. We are getting them in, but we are not keeping them, and that we have gone back and talked with deans and chairs. I have asked every school of college to build a diversity plan, which includes actions about what they are going to do to both attract and retain faculty and staff of color, and to work on campus climate issues in their school. You know– things are different in the engineering school than they are in education, you actually want a slightly different plan and you want them to put it together and own it. But, this is one that we have to keep working on. Having looked at this campus climate survey, [and I haven’t seen all of the results yet] but, there is a place where it is sort of open, and what can we do to make a difference here, and to make this a more welcoming climate. (25:40)


Enjoyiana Nururdin is an Associate Producer at Blue Chalk. She is a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School, Class of 2022, where she obtained her Master of Arts in Politics. Enjoyiana’s Master’s Thesis focused on the role mutual aid networks played in eliminating food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic in neighborhoods across New York City. Her areas of interest include political theory, race, Black American history, culinary and human interest storytelling. Prior to Blue Chalk, she has worked with the CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell, NBC’s Weekend Today Show, and Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. A Wisconsin native, Enjoyiana is also a University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna, Class of 2021, where she pursued a Bachelor of Arts in Reporting from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She enjoys spending time in nature, listening to vinyl records, reading, creating comfort food recipes, and designing her life on Pinterest.

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