Photo: Becky Blank for blog page

Blank’s Slate

A Blog by UW-Madison Chancellor Becky Blank


We all won at the Final Four

By now, you’ve read all of the basketball stories about the Badgers—their perseverance in the face of adversity, Coach Ryan’s first Final Four, and even the burgeoning broadcasting career of Nigel Hayes.

You also know all about Saturday night’s heartbreaking loss. We are incredibly proud of this team, Coach Ryan, and of all of our student-athletes.

Photo: Blank at the Final Four

And they truly are students as well as athletes.  If you didn’t see this New York Times article, you’ll want to read it.  

What might be hidden behind the scenes is how UW’s competitive success at this very high level benefits our entire institution.

For starters, we’ve had a chance to showcase not only our basketball program but also our institution to the entire country and world.

Our already powerful brand has received tens of millions of impressions in the media, online in social media, and through our institutional commercial, played at halftime on national TV.

People who may not have heard much about Wisconsin as a place to study or work might now have us on their list of top institutions.

One of my goals as chancellor is to do a better job of telling our story in Wisconsin and across the country. People who already live and work in Madison know what a great place UW is, but we need to reach out far beyond our area. And we have a very compelling story to tell.

In addition to success in athletics, we offer prospective students, faculty and staff a complete package of excellence in research and academics. The student experience is second to none. And Madison, surrounded by the arts and outdoors, is one of the best settings in higher education.  And all of this with tuition that is at the mid-point of the Big Ten.

After several of our past Rose Bowl trips, inquiries to admissions, campus tours, and applications all increased, helping us to continue to attract the best in-state and out-of-state students. I expect a very similar effect to take place after March madness is over.

Final Four merchandise sales also help boost scholarship assistance as royalty proceeds are evenly split between the Office of Student Financial Aid and the Athletic Department.   Wisconsin’s tremendous school spirit and demand for licensed product sales generated $3.3 million in royalties in 2013, which puts UW among the nation’s top 20 colleges and universities.

As you know, the university also depends on private support from its very generous base of alumni and friends.  Research suggests that donor dollars go up after a major athletic success (not long-term and not by huge amounts, but they do go up.)  I’m hopeful this success and the recognition the university receives this weekend give people one more reason to continue to support UW.

In the end, I am proud whenever our institution demonstrates excellence, whether in athletics, in education, in research and innovation, or in the successful lives of our alumni. Only a handful of universities can claim similar success across the board.

It was a very difficult loss. But for all of these reasons, Wisconsin was a winner at the Final Four.

Why we need to strengthen our economic development efforts

Photo: Blank at Cray

The University of Wisconsin–Madison has been incredibly successful at scientific research over the years. We are always among the top recipients of federal research dollars. And you just have to browse our news clips from the past week to see a number of major scientific discoveries coming from UW researchers.

The fundamental work of science often advances through highly theoretical and basic research. Topics are often esoteric and journal articles can be read and understood by only a small community. While outsiders sometimes denigrate this sort of basic research, this highly theoretical and cutting-edge work often opens up whole new perspectives and – over time – leads to applied discoveries that change our lives and our world. Continuing to be major contributors to this sort of work is important to UW’s scientific contribution and to our research reputation.

But more applied work is important as well. I recently visited with the faculty in the Math Department, and they talked about the value of having both theoretical and applied mathematicians in the same department. And the Wisconsin Idea is a commitment to using the ideas and innovation from UW in ways that benefit the larger community around us.

For these reasons, I’ve been talking about the need to expand our partnership with the region and the state as an institution that is central to economic development. If we are to bring new business into the state/region and if we are to foster new and entrepreneurial efforts, UW needs to be involved as a partner, both educating skilled employees and consulting on the innovations that will attract and retain high technology companies.

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Proposed improvements in our Recreational Sports facilities

Students at UW–Madison will face a very important question in the ASM spring elections. The ballot for the elections, held March 3-5, will include a referendum question about whether to fund a comprehensive renovation of our campus recreational facilities.

The recreational facilities at UW–Madison play a large role in the university experience for many students. Eighty-three percent of our 42,000 students used these facilities last year. Our Rec Sports facilities had more than 1.7 million visits by users in 2012-13.

But anyone who goes into our recreational sports and fitness facilities will immediately notice that they are old and overcrowded. UW–Madison is lagging behind its peers in this area. We are behind our peers in the Big Ten conference for space devoted to fitness, with just 15,000 square feet. By contrast the leader, Ohio State, has 49,000 square feet.

This lack of space was put in vivid terms during the recent inclement weather. Shortly after it was announced that morning classes would be canceled on Jan. 28 due to extremely cold temperatures and dangerous wind chills, hundreds of students took the opportunity to head to the SERF for a workout. The gym filled up and a line began to form outside. I’m told that there was as much as a seven-minute wait outside in the cold just to get inside of the facility. That shouldn’t happen at a campus of this caliber.

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Our commitment to those who manufacture UW products

Everyone wants to be able to buy quality goods at low prices. One item in most peoples’ budget that has fallen in price over the past several decades is clothing.  One reason for this is the outsourcing of clothing manufacturing to lower-cost countries. While low prices are important, American consumers still want to know that their clothes are produced in factories with safe and fair working conditions.

Here at UW-Madison, we sell a lot of clothes and other items that promote the UW brand. The university has contracts allowing 447 companies to make products bearing the university’s name or logos. Our product sales bring in $3.3 million annually to the university, which puts us among the top 20 colleges and universities in product revenue generation. These proceeds go toward financial aid for scholarships and to the Athletic Department. While some of these items are U.S.-made, many items – particularly clothing – are made in other countries. (In fact, it’s difficult to find a U.S.-made T-shirt anywhere these days.)

So, UW is connected to the manufacturing practices of multinational companies sourcing in far away countries such as Bangladesh, Honduras or Indonesia. And we care about how these goods get made.

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Responding to the animal research critics

Recently, the University of Wisconsin–Madison has been on the receiving end of a harsh campaign that criticizes our research using animal models. The critics are using a graphic picture, taken out of context, blown up to billboard size, and displayed on Madison’s public buses to try to turn public opinion against the valuable medical research conducted by faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The campaign distorts the facts about our animal research, is inaccurate in its descriptions of how we treat the animals, and does not recognize the value of this work to human and animal health. The university has articulated a strong response to this campaign and will continue to do so.

The research referenced in the bus ads provides basic information essential to understanding how the brain integrates auditory information, and helps develop technologies that benefit people who are hard of hearing. Basic research like this has helped to develop hearing aid algorithms that improve speech understanding for hard of hearing children in classrooms, has led to the creation of widely-used voice recognition systems, and has been instrumental in understanding how to treat people who suffer from vertigo or balance issues, among other benefits.

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Academic boycotts are counter to UW values


If you’ve spent time at UW, you probably know of the bronze plaque near the front doors of Bascom Hall. It calls for the “continual and fearless sifting and winnowing” of ideas.

The Class of 1910 donated the plaque in 1915 as a class memorial. It commemorates the wording from the Board of Regents meeting of September 18, 1894 supporting Professor Richard Ely, who was accused of socialist, pro-union activities.

Our sifting and winnowing plaque is as relevant today as it ever was.

In recent months, the American Studies Association has generated a great deal of media attention for passing a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli higher education institutions. Though we have some faculty who belong to the American Studies Association, the University of Wisconsin at Madison does not have a traditional American Studies program.(Instead, we have a globally-focused cluster called Comparative U.S Studies.) We do not hold an institutional membership with the ASA.

Nonetheless, I have also heard from many alumni and concerned members of the community asking if I supported or opposed the ASA’s action. Rather than debating the details of the ASA resolution, let me share my personal view of academic boycotts in general.

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Lots to be proud of in Athletics…and not just on the field

Blank at bowl

I had the privilege to ring in the New Year as part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison delegation at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla. It was a thrill to be among the thousands of cheering alumni and students who made the trek to support the football team and to share their Badger pride.

It was a good fall for University of Wisconsin athletes. To list some of the key achievements:

  • First-year Football Coach Gary Andersen led his team to a strong 9-4 record, culminating in the Capital One Bowl berth.
  • The Women’s Volleyball team, also under a first-year coach, Kelly Sheffield, had a thrilling run all the way to the NCAA championship game.
  • The Men’s Soccer team had a successful season, snapping an 18-year NCAA tournament drought, and the Women’s Soccer player Rose Lavelle was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, the first time a member of the UW team has been so honored.
  • The Men’s Cross Country team placed ninth in the NCAA Championship meet, extending their streak to 18 consecutive top-10 finishes, while the women’s cross country team also had a successful season, finishing 21st at the NCAAs.
  • Our basketball and hockey programs are all off to strong starts. Continue reading

Madison Initiative for Undergraduates: A UW Success Story

One of the frequent topics that comes up during my visits with alumni, media and business leaders around the state is the time it takes to receive a degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

When these questions are asked, I have the opportunity to talk about one of the great success stories we’ve had recently at UW–Madison, the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates (MIU). A new report on the results of the MIU has recently been issued, showing reductions in time-to-degree and improvements in access to large required courses.

First, let me give a quick recap for those of you who may not be familiar with MIU. The program was launched in 2009 to improve the value, quality and affordability of an undergraduate education at UW–Madison and was a major initiative of former Chancellor Biddy Martin.

MIU is funded through an allocation from undergraduate tuition – approximately $40 million of the tuition funds collected from undergraduates is set aside for MIU and is divided equally between instructional support and student services, and funding for need-based financial aid.

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Why is federal support for university research so important?

With all of the efforts to cut the federal budget, research dollars to universities might seem a very low priority. They shouldn’t.

Basic research – that is, research that is designed to advance basic scientific ideas rather than to develop specific products – has long been of key importance in the development of really revolutionary new ideas and products. Early basic research on human cell biology, on electronics, or on radio waves has ended up producing genetic therapies, semiconductors and computers, or GPS systems. Those early scientific studies didn’t foresee these inventions, but this basic research allowed later researchers to start thinking about potential applications.

Basic research is what economists refer to as a “public good.” Without a clear idea of what may come from it, private investors and businesses usually don’t want to get involved. They are interested in the applications, but the applications don’t arise unless the basic research has been done.

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Science funding = new invention = job creation

UW–Madison’s impact on Wisconsin and the world comes in so many forms. Two of the most visible are the scientific contributions of our faculty and academic staff, and the remarkable employment opportunities available to graduates of our science and engineering programs. Often, those benefits work hand-in-hand, as with the many companies and jobs created to develop and market discoveries emerging from UW–Madison laboratories.

Recently, two of those companies were featured in a report compiled by the Science Coalition, a group of more than 50 leading American research universities. “Sparking Economic Growth 2.0” features 100 companies, each showing how federally funded research conducted in academic labs helps drive the U.S. economy and keep it ahead of its competitors. (For the full coalition report, visit

Cellular Dynamics International (CDI) was founded by four UW–Madison professors, including stem cell pioneer James Thomson, and now produces induced pluripotent stem cells for experimentation with new drugs, stem cell banking, and research in new stem cell therapies. Much of the basic research that enables the company’s products was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Two UW–Madison chemical engineers turned their work on plant sugars into Virent, a company that is using plant materials to develop replacements for plastics and fuels traditionally made with hydrocarbons from oil and natural gas. Grants from the U.S. Department of Energy supported the science that produced the first molecules of these new materials.

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