Home Opinion An Open Letter to UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank & Athletic Director Barry...

An Open Letter to UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank & Athletic Director Barry Alvarez


To my friends at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

As a season ticket holder to the UW’s Men’s Basketball Program, my family and I attend a lot of Badger games. I have friends who’ve come through the program. When I take my kids to the Kohl Center, we revel in the pageantry of Big Ten basketball and the history of one of the nation’s most storied programs.

We look down onto the court and see the Ab Nichols floor, named after the 1950s two-time all-Big Ten Conference guard and program philanthropist. We look up and see Frank Kaminsky’s No. 44 jersey, where it hangs in honor next to Nichols’ No. 8.

And that’s it. The only two players who’ve been given that honor  in the 100-plus years of Badger Men’s Basketball are white. Not Wes Matthews, Sr., Michael Finley or Devin Harris—all of whom went on to enjoy long professional careers. Not Alando Tucker—still the leading scorer in program history. In fact, the top five scorers of all time are all Black—after Tucker it’s Finley, Nigel Hayes, Danny Jones and Claude Gregory. Yet none of them are recognized for their accomplishments the way Kaminsky is.  

Don’t get me wrong: Kaminsky deserves the honor. He was National Player of the Year, after all, and earned several other awards. But is he really the only one? And what message do you think that sends to potential recruits and to past and current players of color?

Trust me, they notice. 

So do we.

As a person of color, whenever I go into a building, a business, or a school, I look to see whether or not I’m reflected. I look at the faces of the people working there. I look at the pictures of the staff on the walls. I look at the people being served. I look to see who’s being celebrated. It’s the little things that tell me where I stand.

Having daughters, I am always amazed at how representation matters to them—on TV, in the movies, at events. They’re always asking me, “Dad, where are the women?” Seeing other women doing things they care about gives them hope for their own future, that they, too, can achieve great things.

Every year Madison365 and FoxValley356 highlight the most influential people of color in Wisconsin. We do this to show people of color where they stand with us, and with our community. We want to show people inside and outside the state that Wisconsin is a welcoming place for them—to show them they belong and can succeed here. 

We should also be able to turn to our flagship university for representation. Since its inception, the University of Wisconsin has been the intellectual and emotional center of the state. As UW goes, so goes Madison, and so goes Wisconsin.

But sadly, this great public university, this laboratory of democracy, this incubator of ideas, this home of the Wisconsin Idea still has a race problem. And it is deep. 

Just in the past few years, we’ve had:

And now the longtime strength and conditioning coach of the men’s basketball team has resigned after using the “n” word in front of some walk-on student athletes. We should take him at his word that he meant no harm, and love him even though he made a mistake. But we should also be sensitive to the fear that word has caused over generations and what that message may have sent to the players. This incident was at least part of the reason that a Black starter transferred to another program. 

I assumed the issue would surface in a public discussion because of the high profile nature of the program, the need to protect the brand, and to ensure students of color feel welcome. I assumed UW would have a rapid response. That’s not been the case. 

There’s no need to re-litigate the coach, a grown man in a position of authority, saying the “n” word to young student athletes. There is, however, a need to have a public forum and an open discussion. We can’t turn around some of the highest racial disparities in the country right here in Dane County without UW-Madison being all in and dealing with these kinds of issues.

Let’s be frank. UW’s race problem is endemic. When problems surface, too often we come up with cerebral responses. You can say all you want that Black and brown students are welcome, that opportunities abound, that you really want them to succeed. But until you show it, why are they going to believe you? My biggest concern is that these communities are starting to lose faith in UW.

As UW goes, so goes Madison. It’s time for UW to fix its race problem. It won’t be easy. To be sure, you’ve gotten started. You’ve restructured the Student Affairs Office to focus on identity and inclusion. You’ve revamped diversity training for incoming students. You’ve implemented a hate and bias incident reporting system. 

That’s a start, but you need to be more intentional, and with a greater sense of urgency. Of the approximately 43,000 students on campus, fewer than 980 of them are Black—and that number is declining. It’s not a lot better for Latino, Asian American and Native American students, either. It’s just unacceptable. You have programs in place to recruit students of color—invest more in them.

Hire diverse marketing, community outreach and communications staff, or contract with firms that specialize in multicultural audiences.

Grow the Division of Diversity, Equity and Education Achievement. And give it more real authority.

Hire Black and brown coaches for your athletic programs, and not just as assistants, not as coordinators—as head coaches, too.

Invite community stakeholders into real dialogue about the culture and climate on campus. Get past the surveys and statistics and take real advice from those of us who know.

As someone who has traveled to all 72 counties in Wisconsin, I not only recognize the diversity we have in this state but the opportunity that offers us here in Madison. Not just racial diversity, either. UW should feel like home to the student who comes from rural Wisconsin, and the student who comes from urban Milwaukee, and the student who grew up working on a farm, and the student who had to work two jobs to help pay the bills and afford tuition, and the young Republican who loves President Trump, and the young Democrat who thinks Barack Obama was the best president, and the student who lives by his or her faith, and the student who is LGBTQ. They all need to feel like UW-Madison is a place of love and hope, an institution in which they can have faith.