University of Wisconsin–Madison

Looking back: After 10 years Dean Berquam says she’s proud UW has ‘a big heart’

Lori Berquam, dean of students and vice provost for the Division of Student Life at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

By Emily Hamer, University Communications

From painting her hair pink to welcoming students to campus, dressing up as a wizard to strengthening inclusivity, Dean of Students Lori Berquam’s past 10 years as dean have been about making Madison a place for all students.

When she came to the Division of Student Life at UW-Madison in 2007, Berquam said her first goal was to make the Division of Student Life “visible.” On a campus of 43,000, it’s challenging for many students to feel a personal connection with herself or other administrators, Berquam said.

“This is a big campus … and many of our students would not have had contact with an administrator, would not have known who the dean is,” Berquam said. “My goal was how do I make it seem like a small place with a big heart?”

Part of that process has been being out and about on campus, connecting with students in a variety of ways, Berquam said.

Berquam said some memorable moments have included attending a Harry Potter event at Union South as a wizard, dancing all night at a dance marathon, riding in the homecoming parades, taking selfies with students, traveling to Washington state on a service learning trip, painting her hair pink with another student for a Relay for Life event, and seeing students filled with Badger pride at sporting events.

“We have such pride across the campus and it spreads across the nation,” Berquam said. “And that’s what I love to see.”

Berquam also remembers a time when she talked to a student who was suicidal. Working in partnership with UWPD, she was able to convince that student to come down from the rooftop of Van Hise Hall. The student was able to receive care and has gone on to be very successful. Berquam was humbled to help and believes every conversation with a student matters.

“In fact, one aspect of the job that I sincerely appreciate is the impact our students have on my growth and development. I learn from our students. I have also learned from our staff and faculty,” she said. “Honestly, I have become a better dean, and a better person through the connections I have been privileged to make with the students, staff, and faculty.”

Anthony Wright, who graduated from UW in 2015 and is now a School of Business career advisor, said when he was a student at UW-Madison Berquam strived to “remove barriers” between students and administration. He said Berquam’s flexibility to meet with students and her presence at different events showed her compassion.

For Wright personally, Berquam taught him things that shaped him for the better.

“She’s just a really nice person in general, which makes the relationship expand from just a professional setting,” Wright said. “I would call her, like as a friend or for just being a mentor.”

Sharing these experiences is what helps students see UW as a caring place, Berquam said. This is something Berquam wants to continue pushing for in the future.

“You step foot on this campus and people are incredibly friendly and kind, but also very interested in you as a person — your story, your experiences, your life, your trials, your tribulations, your joys,” Berquam said. “That’s what we stand for as a campus, that is our brand.”

Making campus a place where everyone feels welcome is an important part of the Wisconsin Experience, a call to action that was created in 2007 for all students to be the best possible Badger they can be, Berquam said. The four tenets of the Wisconsin Experience are developing empathy and humility, having relentless curiosity, demonstrating intellectual confidence, and being empowered to take purposeful action.

To help students define their own Wisconsin Experience, Berquam said it’s important for there to be a “web of support” that helps lead students to success — both academically and personally.

“That’s what I’ve tried to do over the course of the past 10 years, is lead that charge,” Berquam said. “But again, it’s not just me. It’s every one of the staff in the Division of Student Life and faculty and staff throughout this campus who champion, support, and guide our students.”

Berquam said the Division of Student Life office has worked to become more accessible. Berquam has office hours every Friday, where she says students often come to her with ideas to improve campus. Students can also drop into the Dean of Students office hours Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. – 4 p.m and other departments throughout the Division are open and welcoming places for students to stop in, these include the LGBT Campus Center, the Multicultural Student Center, and the International Student Services office.

Berquam said she is also proud of UW’s academic achievements, especially the graduation and retention rates. For fall 2015 freshmen class, UW-Madison had a retention rate of 95.6 percent moving into fall 2016. In terms of graduation rates, 85.2 percent of the fall 2010 entrance cohort, graduated in 6 years or less.

“We have become a more highly sought-after school,” Berquam said.

Having such strong academics helps students build their intellectual confidence, Berquam said.

While much of Berquam’s time at UW has been full of positivity, there have also been tough times. Berquam said the discriminatory incidents this campus has seen have been “gravely concerning.”

Sue Riseling, who was the associate vice chancellor and chief of UWPD from 1991 to August 2016, said when she was working with Berquam to address some of the incidents that happened, it affected them both on a personal level. Riseling said it’s difficult to see students using horrific language toward each other or inciting violence based on race, gender, or sexual orientation.

With these challenges, Riseling said she thinks Berquam has done a good job of teaching campus that “being a Badger [means] you take care of other Badgers.”

“We have had some really horrible situations that have affected many of our students of color, LGBTQ students, students from working class backgrounds,” Berquam said. “I want to make sure I acknowledge those, and at the same time I also want to say I think we’re making strides and doing really significant things on our campus to continue improving the campus climate.”

Berquam pointed to the opening of the Black Cultural Center, the review of the ethnic studies courses and the Our Wisconsin program — which will be instituted for all incoming freshmen living in University Housing this fall — as just some of the actions UW has taken to make campus more inclusive. These changes were inspired by students.

Riseling said one of Berquam’s strengths is bringing “new energy to old problems.” This applies to not only addressing the campus climate, but also combating sexual assault and raising more awareness surrounding alcohol use, Riseling said.

“One of the things that was just amazing about Lori to me was she came at it from the students’ angle,” Riseling said. “Always fresh, always energetic, always willing to try something new and different.”

But there is still more work to do, Berquam said. One example would be providing gender neutral bathrooms. Another would be continuing to push all students to take their own actions to be accepting and understanding of others.

“Candidly we are a predominately white institution, so it’s incumbent on those of us who identify as white to work even harder to make sure our campus is welcoming and inclusive to all,” Berquam said.

Making sure campus is inclusive is another important part of the Wisconsin Experience. One of the goals, empathy and humility, stresses the need to develop a cultural understanding of self and others. Berquam said she hopes students will embody this so UW-Madison can be a campus for everyone.

Berquam said she thinks UW will be able to accomplish this goal, especially given the empathy and compassion she witnesses from the student body. This kindness is something she has experienced personally from students.

Since Berquam announced her breast cancer diagnosis in April, she has received an outpouring of support from the campus community. Students and faculty have entrusted her with powerful stories that have empowered her and made her feel even more connected with campus. She said the compassion she has seen is just one example of UW-Madison having a “big heart.”

Whether through strong academics, personal connections, or the charge for inclusivity, Berquam said the experiences a student gains at UW should last for a lifetime. As she works to shape the campus for the future, she hopes Badgers will strive to change the world around them.

“You can’t have what happens at UW-Madison stay here,” Berquam said. “You have to go out and make the world a better place.”