Chancellor Alexander’s open letter to the communities of Green Bay, Manitowoc, Marinette and Sheboygan

On Friday, July 10, Chancellor Michael Alexander sent a message out to UW-Green Bay students, faculty and staff about how UW-Green Bay is navigating the pandemic, as well as its role in the future of Northeast Wisconsin and its broader community.

Dear UW-Green Bay Students, Faculty and Staff:

At a meeting with campus leadership on Tuesday, I was asked if we were considering how to move forward as a campus after the pandemic.  It was an excellent question and one that I have not done a good enough job articulating an answer for over the last few months.  Like all of you, I have been focused on UW-Green Bay’s careful response and planning related to the immediate crisis. We have learned over the last four months that conditions can shift quickly and new guidance appears almost daily, which can make long range planning a challenge. I want to thank our faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community for being patient and understanding while we navigate these difficult times.  Our enrollment is up 875 students this summer over last year and our faculty and staff are working through the summer in order to be ready for any version of teaching we need to provide in the fall.  We are positioned well to deal with whatever challenges emerge in the coming year, but it is not enough.  We must do much more. 

In the spur of the moment, I answered the question about our future with the first thing that came to my mind.  I believe our long-term vision is the same vision that will guide our university and region in the coming year.  To begin with, we must become comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Our students deal with a fear of the unknown all the time.   Most felt this way prior to the pandemic and those who did not, likely do now.  Prior to the pandemic, I believed an education helped a student contribute to making a positive difference in their region, country, and world.  Now, I believe education must also prepare students to generate constructive dialogue that will help heal and rebuild our communities.

We must stop spending all of our time worrying about the mode of delivery for our courses.  For what feels like my entire career, and certainly over the last four months, we have been debating whether or not to teach in person or online.  It has presented as a binary choice when it does not have be.  The debate has gone on while more and more students need an education that can provide the benefits of both.  We need instruction that honors the fact that a large portion of our students need flexible hours to learn.  They lead complex lives.  Many desire the in-person experience with the flexibility of an online course.  Providing this kind of education is our answer now and it is also our answer in the future.  The first step in providing access to education is ensuring that our classes are actually accessible given the realities of modern life.    

We must fully commit to solving the racial achievement gap (the disparity in academic achievement between black and white students) in our state, which is one of the worst in the country.  While it pains me to say that, we must face this reality head-on and finally fully dedicate ourselves to addressing it. Our community cannot grow together unless we level the educational playing field.  There are massive inequities in our region that are exacerbated by uneven access to education.  This problem has been building since higher education started in this country.  Achievement gaps in education lead to inequities in opportunities and further widen socioeconomic disparities in our region.  Only our actions will determine whether we are truly committed to solving this injustice. This is urgent.

We must fully commit to teaching all who desire an education at any age and with any background.  Universities have often boasted about the academic profile of their student body.  I do not care what the academic profile is of our incoming class.  I only care if each student feels like their life has been enriched by an experience with us.  It is not our place to choose who we teach.  It is our mission to teach all who want to be taught.  There are many universities that will fight over a student with a 4.0 GPA and high SAT score.  I do not begrudge that student or the university that seeks to teach them, but we must fight for the student who has had to struggle, who has potential that is yet to be realized, and who wants to make a difference in their community.  Our region needed that student to have an education prior to the pandemic.  Now it is essential that our University nurtures local students into the leaders of tomorrow.

We must stop assuming that all students go to college to get a degree and do so between the ages of 18-22.  We needed to set this assumption aside prior to the pandemic and it has become even more important to do so now.  Education should be a lifelong pursuit and one that may not always follow a straight line.  Most students expect an affordable education and during the pandemic may not be willing or able to travel far from home to get one.  As education continues to grow in cost, it is becoming a more and more attractive decision for students to stay local for large parts of their educational experience.  We will welcome students at any point in their career to use education to improve their career or broaden their view of the world.

We must change the narrative around the cost of an education.  Our tuition is under $8,000 per year for a Wisconsin resident.  An elite university education can cost upwards of $50,000 per year.  Regardless of the university students choose, it should be viewed as an investment they make in themselves.  Student debt matters when it inhibits a person’s ability to fulfill their potential.  Worse yet is student debt without the completion of one’s educational goals.  We must support students to persist in their education.  We must encourage them to stay on course and finish what they have started. We must be a leader in helping first generation college students successfully navigate the experience.  The narrative on the cost of education and rising debt was broken before the pandemic.  We now have a chance to reset the educational value proposition in the coming year and beyond.  

Our community has rightly demanded that UW-Green Bay grow to support the economy, culture, education, and health of our region.  Now and after the pandemic, we will need leaders to help us move forward. It is our job to prepare them.  We fiercely believe that all students who want a university education should have access to it.  Our mission is to provide that education, and the rapid growth of our University in recent years shows we are fighting to support students to reach their educational goals.  I ask our entire community to join us in the fight to create a more equitable community and one prepared to meet the challenges of the future. 

I am unable to predict exactly what will happen with education in the coming months.  However, I know we are resilient. As the Phoenix, we are up for the challenge that lies ahead. We will rise into the unknown together.