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Dear University community,

Last week, the Faculty Senate formally received and acted on a faculty group’s petition, triggering a pending faculty referendum on confidence in my leadership.

Today, I will respond to the faculty concerns with facts and candor. I am taking more space than usual to share my thoughts, which is why I think my blog is best to walk you through them. I thank you in advance for taking time to read on.

I was appointed to lead this collaboration we call a Chancellorship nearly 10 years ago. Through historic challenges and proud advances, it has remained the privilege of my life. As I have shared in fall opening day addresses and one-on-one meetings, I am not infallible. We share in governance of UWO. Policies and statutes govern my job and often deliver the most difficult and final decisions to me. I accept that and take the responsibilities, powers and bounds of the role very seriously.

To date, I have neither responded to nor restated the confidence petition’s statements. It’s my view they are unsubstantiated and inaccurate, and here I’ll make my case. I take no issue with our Faculty Senate or the good people who serve on it. Per their constitution, Senators felt compelled to accept and advance the petition’s call for a referendum. So, here we are. Its claims are public. A process moves the confidence question to a faculty vote. The Faculty Senate had archived the petition as part of its Feb. 27 meeting materials, however, the document may not be accessible to all. As it was presented to me by the Faculty Senate president on Feb. 23, it is available HERE for your review.

At risk of amplifying its inaccuracies, I do feel a duty to now respond to the petition’s claims. It is not a personal defense but a defense of UWO and the hard, diligent work we all have undertaken to reshape and reimagine the university. Our shared goal is to preserve and earn the confidence of students, families and regional stakeholders, including the many who may not imagine themselves at UWO but would thrive here. I hope you will agree it is their confidence and vote that matters most to the university’s future.

I appreciate your willingness to consider my thoughts in this response.

On “overspending” and “ineffective enrollment management” efforts

The petition cites Chancellor decisions and actions “leading” to a “crisis.” I respectfully disagree.

The petition entirely ignores the perfect storm of pressures we, and every university like ours, have been weathering for years. Yes, as Chancellor, I am always accountable. However, I believe we have done our best to steer through this storm while managing a barrage of other unpredictable challenges, some unique to UWO.

UWO’s biggest challenge remains revenue. You can tie it to changing state demographics. It is also rooted in waning college participation rates. And here, perhaps more than any other Wisconsin region, our public university is immersed a marketplace full of $25-to-$30-an-hour jobs, no higher education whatsoever required.

In short:

  • Our region and state are enduring a historic decline in the population of young people who comprise the vast majority of our student body. Higher education around the nation struggles with this change.
  • Many in the smaller pool of prospective learners aren’t choosing college. Again, this gets to a confidence problem that should matter most to all of us. The percentage of Wisconsin high school graduates who enrolled in higher education dropped to 64% in 2022, down from a high of 70% in 2012. In this same time period, UWO and its like-type UW comprehensive institutions experienced a 25% decline in enrollment (a loss of nearly 28,000 students statewide). We have all been fighting incredible headwinds.
  • Our region boasts high-paying, unskilled job opportunities galore, enticing that already small pool of prospective students.
  • Pervading everything is rising public sentiment that college “isn’t worth it.”

Of course, you, I and data strongly disagree with that last notion. We’ve dedicated our lives to enhancing and defending UWO’s value. I fight every day to convince our skeptics otherwise.

The rewards of a UWO education are many and lifelong. I often remind doubters of UWO’s stellar graduate satisfaction surveys, earnings reports and alumni state-retention rates, the latter of which are consistently at 90 percent (UWO is remarkably brain-drain proof; you’re welcome, Wisconsin). Please do visit our stellar First Destination reports, and please do adopt them as a tool in your advocacy and recruitment efforts. Thanks to our Career & Professional Development team—the report’s curators—who are now linked with Enrollment Management and Admissions. This is a prime example of a forward-thinking change here. We are transforming a traditional Student Affairs operation into a data-driven Enrollment and Student Success division with new focus on enrollment and student outcomes. Our team has reimagined our approach to recruitment. They have implemented new strategies with stakeholders throughout UWO. We are seeing early results, and I’ll highlight them in a bit.

We have not ignored the expense side of our ledger.

In the last nine years, we have attacked deficits driven by enrollment strains most institutions are experiencing. It’s easy to forget our past budget reduction efforts because, in their time, they were difficult. We managed them, choosing to preserve programs and people while using voluntary retirement programs, position discipline and university reserves to cut costs and close gaps.

On that score, we had opportunities to restructure. We investigated them. Our UWO community unfortunately passed on them. Over the last several months, I have looked in the mirror and asked whether we, knowing the perfect storm’s severity, could have and should have reduced our workforce sooner, more consistently, in smaller, separate doses. Every option, every decision has tradeoffs and consequences. Repeated layoffs would have threatened UWO’s competitive posture, year after year. And one might argue such moves would have been inhumane given UWO’s previously healthier bank of reserves.

Whatever decisions we did or didn’t make, we have not hidden from the perfect storm. I recognize this has brought consistent stress on all of us.

You expect this administration to face challenges openly and transparently. We’ve never stuck our heads in the sand, however uneasily those sands have been shifting. Instead, we’ve worked openly and done our best to balance costs and revenues in this era of declining enrollment and scarce state revenue.

  • In 2015, months from my start date, we were forced to absorb a mammoth, $7.5 million biennial budget cut, a rippling impact in the wake of 2011’s Act 10. We managed it.
  • From 2015 to 2020, we weathered a catastrophic series of lawsuits, employee terminations, court actions and court-ordered seizures of our funds stemming from a series of capital investments made between 2004 to 2014 before my appointment. We managed these challenges while moving through “on-notice” status with the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). Although we resolved the related, complex legal and compliance impacts, which were in the millions of dollars, they inspired increased statutory and compliance scrutiny. That reshaped public policy throughout the Universities of Wisconsin. Financial debt and increased scrutiny from this sad period remain with us today. However, we have embraced change and continue building a better future. In 2018, we earned HLC reaccreditation. We have assured that UWO need not revisit poor policy decisions that threaten its existence.
  • Between 2017 and 2020, we carefully and collaboratively cut $8 to $9 million from our operations as demographically driven, declining enrollment and a hot regional economy strengthened. We steered UWO into some calm. The university’s financial position had risen from a negative, and we posted an FY21 Composite Financial Index (CFI) score of 2.8 (anything above 1.0 is considered healthy).
  • Then came COVID. Furloughs and federal relief funds got UWO and most institutions through the worst of the pandemic. They helped improve our financial footing. But as the health emergency subsided, declining enrollments and falling retention rates reemerged here and everywhere. UWO operational costs increased considerably due to inflation. This accelerated the depletion of our reserves in subsequent fiscal years.
  • We cannot forget that through the entire timeline of events above, UWO endured a decade of legislatively frozen tuition. No question, the freeze contained students’ costs. But, without commensurate increases in UW state budget subsidies, it strained UWO’s financial stability. We managed it the best we could.

The perfect storm continues. Once again, we are facing it head on.

As the last fiscal year’s end approached last year, I kept Shared Governance leaders briefed on potential impacts. They were informed as soon as the magnitude of our structural deficit became clear and workforce reductions, inevitable. We shaped, communicated and enacted the Institutional Realignment Plan (IRP) and, in a matter of months, we reduced UWO’s structural deficit from $18 million to $3 million. We have plans to close the rest. There has been a human toll, and we will not lose sight of that.

In the reduction of roles, we said goodbye to some specialized staff members and reconfigured supportive offices that have been student havens. I appreciate that even one person’s loss or one center’s reorganization can stress students relying on them. Every day I monitor our multifaceted efforts to preserve, rethink and reshape student support services and systems. I hope you will continue supporting colleagues who are responding to students in so many ways.

We are also tending to UWO’s identity. I hope you will agree that it is time we fully and finally embrace the reframing of our region as UWO’s raison d’être. Since my arrival in 2014, I have referred to the university’s “opportunity of place.” The idea may have been a bit abstract. However, I now think its meaning and potential for UWO are coming into clear focus.

Student Nathan Nozzi conducts research in a local stream in 2019.

The Fox Valley is a low-cost-of-living laboratory. It is a beacon for experiential learning, and it can be more so. On any given day, UWO students are solving supply chain problems for Fortune 500 companies, conducting clean water and aquatic research in streams and lakes or serving vital shelters food banks and other nonprofits mere minutes from campuses. We have only begun to hone our experiential-learning distinctiveness. We can take it to an entirely new level. Our resolve is reflected in a new UWO vision statement, developed last summer by Shared Governance group leaders who joined me for a day-long workshop: “Meeting 21st century challenges by elevating human potential and creating sustainable solutions.”

The academic planning workgroup has crafted trailblazing new UWO college and school structures that capitalize on widely recognized career clusters. Building UWO 2.0 on such a framework complements our commitment to liberal education. We believe students and families will more clearly see their futures in these new structures and identities. Thank you to the faculty and staff members who have built them. I appreciate Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Ed Martini’s leadership in helping us examine and seize upon this distinctiveness.

In sum, our efforts are working.

We are stabilizing enrollment. Fall-to-spring retention this academic year has reached nearly 92 percent. Fall 2024 first-year student commitments are up. Residence hall room reservations are up. Titan Takeoff orientation registrations for first-year fall ‘24 students are up more than 300 over last year’s at this time.

All of these metrics and indicators are enrollment-confidence boosters. But we cannot rest until we have, together, shaped and welcomed a strong 2024 first-year class and successfully retained our upper classes.

We have the plans and the people to succeed. We cannot let up.

On “interim positions” and our CFO

The petition questions the use of interim positions and “frequent turnover” in administration at UWO. I’ll respond.

Leaders have come and gone for a host of reasons during my tenure. No question, I have improvised, when necessary, with a concern for continuity. My decisions have also been made within the authority granted me in Chapter 36 of Wisconsin statutes.

As is the case throughout the university, interim positions help prevent disruptive gaps in senior leadership. And, over the last several years, UWO, like many other higher educational institutions, has experienced changes in leadership, often for honorable reasons. Leaders and managers have retired or gone on from their UWO experiences to pursue new, rewarding opportunities. We are proud of them. Some examples:

  • Interims have been helpful to bridge us through Dean transitions and national searches yielding outstanding leaders.
  • In late 2018, our former Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs was tapped to serve as interim Chancellor at UW-Whitewater. That necessitated an interim Vice Chancellor and, eventually a new Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs as Dr. Cheryl Green was successfully appointed as the President of Governors State University. We eventually conducted a national search to fill her post with Erin Grisham, a leader with 20-year, proven record for increasing enrollment and student outcomes.
  • In 2022, our former Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration James Fletcher retired. His transition necessitated an interim Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration, and I asked Bob Roberts to fulfill those duties as he had been managing our Division of University Affairs. We filled the interim University Affairs vice chancellor post by welcoming applications from colleagues in that division.

Which bring us to late 2023, when I, amid our Institutional Realignment Plan efforts, made the decision to fully appoint Bob Roberts as Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration. This went against my own promise to trigger a national search for that role. I acknowledged this with Shared Governance leaders at the time. I was sensitive to the fact my decision would coincide with our difficult workforce reduction realities. I wrestled with what to do. In the end, given our concentration on the IRP, and after learning of a competitive offer Bob had received from another institution, I came to my decision. It was the right decision, and I stand by it.

The faculty petition makes demeaning judgments about the current Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration’s fitness for the role. Further, it fails to acknowledge that Bob was advanced to this Chancellor as a qualified finalist for the same Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration position in spring 2017 after a national recruitment process and thorough, open, university vetting led by a shared-governance populated search-and-screen committee.

I trust that that 2017 search committee was impressed, as I continue to be, with Bob’s diverse, 40-year record of public service in Wisconsin. This includes his experiences as a law enforcement officer, police chief and a city manager and his roles as faculty member, grants officer and administrator at multiple Universities of Wisconsin institutions. He is a dedicated leader, and I appreciate his service to UWO.

On defending and advocating for UWO state investment

Advocacy for our universities’ biennial budget is largely concentrated in the offices and roles of the Universities of Wisconsin President and related government relations colleagues. That said, I am confident any of the State Representatives, State Senators and other legislators who have presided over state university and budget committees in my nearly 10 years at UWO would attest to my advocacy efforts. We have forged trusting relationships. And they know I am not afraid to knock on their office doors, even unexpectedly when issues arise. I’m not timid in pressing for funding and infrastructure to keep UWO competitive, supportive of faculty and staff and in service of students.

I admit that it hasn’t been my practice or style to excoriate leaders in the media or use Twitter to light up legislators. In my book, it is candid, sometimes tough, always civil and usually cordial conversations with those who disagree with UWO’s decisions and direction that forge common ground and solutions.

My approach gets results. These are just a few examples:

  • Clow Academic Complex is complete with the recent $27 million renovation of its north wing. This project prevailed despite not qualifying for Universities of Wisconsin capital budget priority lists. Thanks to the legislators who helped us reach the finish line.

State legislators, alumni and Universities of Wisconsin leadership joined us to cut the ribbon at the dedication of Clow Academic Complex’s newly renovated wing last September.

  • UWO will forever be remembered as a leader and model in COVID-19 response. That is a testament to contributions by every single member of this university community. Our march through the pandemic as a state and national leader in testing, vaccination and safe teaching and learning required advocacy. Our data-informed, science-based approaches required outreach and education to earn confidence. We worked closely with and benefitted from the leadership and logistical virtuosity of then-Universities of Wisconsin Interim President Tommy Thompson and his team.
  • We started the “Titans Take to the Capitol” engagement events in the State Capitol, and I believe our teams of colleagues, students and community partners have consistently and effectively reminded legislative partners of UWO’s needs and strides.
  • We secured repeated, successful state budget investments in Nursing, Engineering and other Wisconsin-identified, workforce-responsive disciplines at UWO. Last week, the state legislature approved $32 million, $2 million of which will help us add College of Nursing faculty members and fortify engineering programs.

On shared governance

I strongly disagree with the petition’s characterization that I have “long demonstrated a disregard for shared governance.” The opposite, in fact, is true.

The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) 2018 reaccreditation assessment of our university’s practices and culture granted 10-year reaccreditation for UWO. It says much about what we have together established at the university.

Accreditation reviews are thorough investigations of universities’ integrity and mission discipline. In 2018, accreditors were clear in their appraisal of UWO’s compliance with HLC “Core Component 2.B,” which seeks evidence that an institution “presents itself clearly and completely to its students and to the public with regard to its programs, requirements, faculty and staff, costs to students, control, and accreditation relationships.” HLC reviewers stated: “It was obvious from our conversations with faculty, instructional academic staff, non-instructional staff and students that the amount of transparency, especially budgetary transparency, has increase significantly in the last three years. Much of this is attributed to the changes in UWO upper administration, starting with the arrival of Chancellor Leavitt. Comments were heard, especially from faculty and long-time academic instructional staff, that they are much more confident that they are hearing the full picture of what is happening in terms of enrollment, in terms of budgetary reserves, etc.”

I believe the COVID-19 pandemic threw our culture a curve ball. We are reconnecting with Shared Governance budget and personnel-related committees as they revive. I’ll echo my annual, Opening Day commitments to Shared Governance and pledge to maintain robust relationships while fostering even more productive, two-way communication.

Almost weekly, I meet and confer with UWO’s Shared Governance leaders, either in a collective group or one-on-one as leaders of their respective Faculty, Academic Staff, University Staff, Oshkosh Student Government and Access Campus bodies. This is entirely in keeping with state statutes which ensconce my responsibility as Chancellor to maintain a consultative connection. Shared Governance leaders have unfettered access to me and the Chancellor’s office, and I appreciate that they take advantage of this. Our decisions are always informed by their perspectives and guidance. This includes the Strategic Planning Committee, which I charged last year to help hold administration accountable for achieving the objectives within UWO2030. I believe this empowerment of a new Shared Governance committee to be a clear example of my commitment when, candidly, there was no call or expectation that such a panel oversee our plan.

This topic brings me to a related and fundamental concern I have with the faculty petition.

It is contextually important to know that it emanates not from just a faculty member or members, per se, but from faculty members of a local union—an organization that state statutes forbid me from meeting and conferring with.

I have absolutely no objection to a union. I acknowledge its right to exist. However, in Wisconsin, a Chancellor’s interaction with such a group is governed by statute. I have been pressed to challenge that standard by the local union’s faculty members. Universities of Wisconsin Office of General Counsel has clearly and consistently advised Chancellors not to meet and confer with local unions in respect to the law. Instead, we are empowered to engage with recognized university Shared Governance groups. That is the responsibility and the relationship I do my best to honor at UWO. There is always room for improvement, but I believe we do it very well.

This adherence to law has been a frustration for the union members, not just here but at other UW institutions, too. I am concerned that this tension was a significant driver of the confidence petition.

On consultants and workforce reduction processes

The petition asserts that UWO “relied on a consulting firm… to determine layoffs.” This is simply false.

As I have shared with you consistently since August and September, layoff recommendations were made and advanced to the Chancellor by the staff participants of a September Institutional Realignment Plan workshop. These colleagues were of the same UWO employee classifications that absorbed the 140 layoffs we experienced. Faculty were not subject to layoff and were not included.

Universities of Wisconsin-contracted consultants provided project management and facilitation assistance. Decisions were ours and were local. This was essential to make certain critical skill sets were retained to carry UWO forward.

As we also made clear last fall, we adhered to the criteria established in UWS Policy 1232 and determined and evaluated employees subject to layoff by the following:

  • Needs of institution to deliver services;
  • Relative skills, knowledge, or expertise of employees;
  • Length of service of employees.

In addition, the workshop’s staff members considered continuity of operations through and beyond the proposed workforce reductions. Participants recommended ways that essential duties and responsibilities of laid off positions could be reassigned to ensure work units meet university needs. They also recommended ways that positions taking on reassigned duties and responsibilities could be managed.

It was difficult work. UWO people undertook it. We have been consistently transparent about the process. See the samples of relevant all-employee updates from last August and September:

On administrative positions at UWO

The petition echoes concerns from last fall that UWO has seen costly growth in the number of “upper administrative positions and salaries” and, despite the IRP, “refused to make meaningful cuts to administration during the crisis” at the expense of other colleagues’ roles.

This is not accurate.

UWO eliminated 21 managerial positions through the layoff process, including the Vice Chancellor of University Affairs, multiple Associate Vice Chancellors and a number of directors. They were part of the more than 101 administrative positions eliminated in layoffs (72 percent of the total). “Managerial” positions, in state employment categorization, are a more specific and upper-administration subset of “administrative” positions.

It is true that over my tenure, by headcount, UWO’s administrative and academic leader positions have grown. Universities of Wisconsin Accountability Dashboard data tracks those data points.

However, context is important here, too.

Most notably, UWO saw jumps in “Administrative and Academic Leaders” during two, data-obscuring transitions: 1.) when the Oshkosh campus joined with UWO Fond du Lac and Fox Cities campuses (“Administrative and Academic Leaders” coalesced as the three campuses fused into one university) and 2.) when the statewide UW Title and Total Compensation (TTC) project launched between fiscal years 2021 and 2022 (a number of existing positions shifted into the “administrative” category).

Anyone holding administration truly accountable should look to administrative costs.

UWO is a low-cost leader among its cost-conscious peers. This, too, we shared last fall.

  • In fall 2022 (most recent UW data reported), UWO (along with UW-La Crosse) reported the lowest administrative expenditures as a percentage of overall university expenditures (8 percent) of any state comprehensive institution, according to the Universities of Wisconsin Accountability Dashboard.
  • Over the last decade, UWO’s administrative-cost percentage has consistently been among the lowest of the UW comprehensive institutions. This is the result of the entire UWO community’s commitment to concentrating students’ and the state’s investment into core academic function and mission. I thank you all for helping us achieve this distinction.

A glance at administrative expenditures for Universities of Wisconsin comprehensive institutions between 2012 and 2022. All UW comprehensives maintain low administrative costs as percentages of their overall expenditures. UWO has fairly consistently been a leader among leaders.

On diversity in faculty and staff

The petition’s last claim states that IRP layoffs were “concentrated” in a manner that “limited diversity” and disproportionately harmed “underrepresented groups.”

In fact, as a part of the Institutional Realignment Plan, UW Oshkosh Human Resources leaders conducted a required “adverse-impact” statistical analysis—an analysis commonly used in the human resources profession—to gauge whether protected groups (by gender, age, race and disability) were discriminated against in the workforce reduction process. They were not. I briefed UWO’s shared governance leadership on these findings last fall.

In conclusion

Again, I want to thank you all for taking the time to read this lengthy response.

I also want to thank you for your service, integrity and courage as we tend to the health and sustainability of UW Oshkosh.

Facing a challenge of the magnitude we face is stressful. The university is public and precious to all of us. Our stakeholders feel a sense of ownership, too. I believe they are rooting for us in the work to build a more sustainable UWO. They recognize our hard decisions. I believe they see us caring for a place and a mission that will live long beyond our time. Like you, I want to ensure UWO thrives and outlasts us for decades to come.

I have done my best to listen and lead. And right now, it is more critical than ever that we listen and respond to prospective learners who may not see themselves at UWO but can thrive here. Theirs is the confidence we all want to win, not shake.

UWO workforce reductions are behind us. Many of us feel the aftereffects as we rethink and reshape our work ahead. Every day gets better. In a matter of months, we have reduced an $18 million deficit to approximately $3 million. We have plans that close that remaining gap. You are making a difference. You are contributing time and creativity to craft bold new college structures that cut costs. They also better reflect the futures students see themselves in.

Forces continue to roil higher education everywhere. You are reinventing UWO, rather than be reinvented by those forces. That is stewardship. I am grateful to you. I also believe the people of this university’s region and state are grateful.

It is an honor to serve with you.

Chancellor Andy Leavitt


*NOTE: This post was updated at approximately 2:40 p.m. on March 8, 2024 to provide easier access to the referenced faculty member petition.