Chancellor Blank: Thanks and looking ahead
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The following message was sent to UW–Madison faculty, university and academic staff on May 19.
To our employees,
Nearly two weeks ago, I had the chance to look out at our assembled graduating class at Camp Randall Stadium on a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon.
Students, all of whom had green Badger Badges, sat together, shared photos and hugs and were able to cap off their UW–Madison careers with Varsity and fireworks. Seeing their collective joy at being able to celebrate together and in person was high among the happiest moments in the past 18 months.
This graduation was special for all who attended and it was only possible because of the exceptional work everyone has done over the year. Each of you played a role in helping the university carry forward its essential mission amid a global pandemic.
I don’t have to tell you that the past academic year was one of the most challenging years in the history of this institution. No one knew exactly how to navigate a pandemic a year ago. A year later, we all know how painful and difficult it has been for us personally, professionally and for our entire community.
Faced with a crisis, UW employees helped implement a fundamental restructuring of university operations at the same time as everyone’s personal lives were being upended. Over the past year, many of you have had to deal with financial issues due to the pandemic, with campus experiencing both furloughs and budget cuts. You dealt with these challenges with flexibility, compassion and determination, and I am forever grateful for the outcomes we achieved—even while recognizing that it didn’t always go smoothly.
Commencement, which involves major logistical planning under the best of circumstances, became even more complex. With just two months of planning, hundreds pulled together and ensured a safe and successful event.
To those who worked on Commencement: Thank you.
To those who planned and executed our 2020-21 academic year: Thank you.
And especially to our essential employees who have worked in-person: Thank you.
Summer is traditionally a time to use earned leave, and to refresh and renew for the year to come. As you know, Academic Staff, Faculty and Limited Appointments with 12-month appointments can use their current carry over leave through the beginning of October this year while University Staff have until the end of December. I hope each of you are able to take time away in the coming months.
As we move into the summer months, I know many are wondering what the 2021-22 academic year will bring for our campus community as the pandemic continues to recede and vaccination rates continue to increase. Looking out over Commencement and seeing our students gathered together reinforces our expectation that the coming year will be much more like 2019 than 2020.
We best fulfill our teaching, service and research missions when we work, learn and connect together in-person. On-campus interactions build connections between employees, facilitate quick exchange of information and help integrate new staff into office culture and operations.
Our next goal is to begin a transition process that brings employees who have been working remotely back to campus after August 1; some are returning earlier. We’ll share details about these plans soon.
Reopening physical offices is an undertaking that we don’t expect to happen overnight and will require resources for us to safely and successfully make the transition. Let me tell you what I know today. There are details still to be worked out and I pledge to keep you updated through the summer as further decisions are made. I recognize that there is still some uncertainty about updates to health guidance.
I want to make clear that vaccination is the reason we are at this point – it is what has helped us emerge from the pandemic and will allow us to reunite on campus.
Our records indicate that approximately 75 percent of employees and 50 percent of our students (as of May 10) are fully vaccinated or have received one shot.
We believe this to be an undercount, since so many of our staff received the vaccine off-campus. If you were vaccinated off-campus and haven’t yet done so, please upload your documentation of vaccination to UHS. We are encouraging students and employees to get vaccinated and will be making special efforts around campus and our community this summer to reach out to everyone. I believe that we will be well above 80 percent for our entire campus community by late summer.
I’m very pleased that Dane County currently has the highest vaccination rate among large counties nationally, according to the CDC. By early July, PHMDC anticipates 80 percent of all currently eligible (ages 12+) Dane County residents to be at least partially vaccinated. This means we have every reason to expect that our employees and students, as well as the community around us, will all be at a vaccination rate that substantially reduces disease risk.
We recently shared plans for how we intend to operate between now and August, including eliminating the requirement to show a Badger Badge in spaces, events or activities that do not specifically require it. We are also reviewing the updated CDC guidance, as well as Public Health Madison & Dane County’s announcement yesterday that as of June 2, masks will no longer be required by public health order.
We will continue to update our campus protocols, in consultation with local and state public health experts. We recognize that this CDC change is a welcome relief to many, although we respect that some will want to continue using masks in public settings.
One question that I’ve heard frequently is whether we need to return to campus at all. I recognize that a substantial share of campus work has adapted to a remote environment over the past year, even while many colleagues have been working on campus throughout the pandemic.
The fall will see a return to our typical vibrant and beautiful residential campus, with 45,000 students living, taking classes and working with us. That means that many jobs need to be on campus to serve students and conduct research in specialized facilities.
We have learned a lot about remote work over the past 15 months. Workplace flexibility is important and remote work, either part-time or full-time, is one form of flexibility. The Office of Human Resources recently completed a revised Remote Work policy for employees seeking flexibility in the future.
Within the guidelines of the policy, school/college/division leadership, in conjunction with supervisors, will be responsible for deciding where remote work is possible and where it may hinder the performance and mission of the unit. In many cases where remote work was necessary over this past year, it may not be the right choice in the long run for offices that require frequent communication, coordination, and training among employees.
The commuting and transportation landscape has also changed over this past year. Assuming that some employees may be working off-site at least part-time, the Office of Transportation Services is continuing to offer several creative parking options for Summer 2021 and 2021-22.
I want people to feel good about returning to a more normal world, with more people on-campus and more in-person events. I know that many who were working remotely have established new habits in the past 15 months and will face changes as we return to greater on-campus operations. We are planning events designed to welcome people to the fall semester – both a thank-you to those who’ve been working on campus all along and a welcome-back to those who have been working remotely.
I again thank you for the many ways you’ve helped our institution remain strong and vibrant, despite the pandemic. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, with frequent testing and very low rates of infection through most of the academic year.
Graduation weekend was wonderful in part because so many students and parents were on campus and around the city. It looked like, well, the University of Wisconsin–Madison should look. I look forward to seeing all of you in person – on the Terrace, at the Chazen, along the lakefront, or elsewhere around campus. I am excited for all that we can accomplish in the year ahead.
Enjoy the wonderful Madison summer.