Retiring chancellors from UW Oshkosh, UW Green Bay hailed for guiding region to think as one
Story by Larry Avila, New North B2B Editor
The concept of pooling resources to overcome an obstacle for the betterment of a community sounds simple, but often it’s easier said than done.
Political and philosophical clashing can hinder forward motion though eventually, differences are set aside and the collaborative spirit takes over.
This way of thinking and the know-how to get it done are traits shared by University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Chancellor Thomas Harden and University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells, who both recently announced retirements and plans to step down by the end of August.
Harden and Wells say their accomplishments were only possible with the help of others. Both men have been hailed for their efforts to grow enrollment at their respective colleges and establish stronger relations between the universities and communities around the region.
“I think there always will be many things to do and there always will be opportunities to improve and expand the impact the universities make in a positive way,” Harden said.
Wells said a strong collaborative foundation has been established for new leaders to build upon.
“Change brings about new opportunities,” he said. “What we hope we’ve done, to use an athletic metaphor, we built a program of enduring shared values of how we do things, collaboration, diversity and respect.”
More engineering graduates
Three new four-year engineering degrees, which can be earned either through UW Green Bay or UW Oshkosh, are now available for students from across northeast Wisconsin to pursue.
Unique about this effort is students who choose to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering or environmental engineering, can begin their academic journey at either the College of the Menominee Nation, Fox Valley Technical College, Lakeshore Technical College, Moraine Park Technical College, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, UW Fond du Lac, UW Fox Valley, UW Manitowoc, UW Marinette or UW Sheboygan and complete it at UW Oshkosh or UW Green Bay.
It’s not just a simple transfer of credits, a common practice for years, college officials say. Students have the flexibility to tap the resources of the participating colleges, so if an engineering student from NWTC needs access to the industrial labs and equipment at FVTC for a project, the doors will be open to them.
Overtime, these partnerships can save money by eliminating duplicate investment in infrastructure and help students achieve education goals faster. The initiative emerged through the Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance, which Wells helped launch and currently is chaired by Harden.
Susan May, FVTC president, said getting the colleges to work together initially through the alliance was an important first step.
“(Chancellor) Wells was among the first leaders to bring our institutions to the table to start working together,” May said. “He saw so much potential and now the alliance has existed for more than 10 years.”
One of the alliance’s first collaborative efforts created a library resource sharing system, which allowed students from the participating colleges to borrow books from other campus libraries using one library card.
Jeff Rafn, NWTC president, praised Wells for his forward thinking, adding the leadership roles which will be vacated by Wells and Harden, will “be big shoes to fill.”
“The technical colleges for instance, today have strong relations with UWGB and UWO,” he said. “I think those gentlemen recognized the importance of working together as a region.”
Rafn said getting the region to see how higher education can be an economic force can be credited to Wells and Harden.
“By focusing on economic development, we have been able to bring these new engineering degree programs to the region,” Rafn said. “Northeast Wisconsin is so rich in manufacturing, but we didn’t have any kind of engineering programs.”
Rafn said the engineering programs would not have happened if it weren’t for the partnerships established through the alliance.
The benefits seen with the education alliance provided one of the catalysts for what became The New North Inc., an 18-county regional economic development organization based in De Pere.
Jerry Murphy, executive director of The New North, said the education alliance remains one of the best representations of collaboration in the region.
“Chancellor Wells will leave a legacy of some really unique and creative things of doing business in higher education,” he said. “Chancellor Harden has equally had a deep hand in the development of the three new engineering degrees for the region and both leaders showed by working together, challenging situations can work.”
Strengthening community roots
Enrollment has steadily grown in recent years both at UW Oshkosh and UW Green Bay.
Wells said UW Oshkosh has worked to enhance the college experience for students. This thinking led the college to invest more than $320 million since 2000 in facility enhancement and expansion projects.
“We’ve looked at what does it mean to be a good critical thinker, a good writer, communicator, these basic skills you want students to master more deeply,” he said. “It’s not just sufficient enough to master knowledge, but it’s important to be able to do something with it.”
Wells said about 75 percent of UW Oshkosh graduates are career ready, earning degrees in well-established fields including accounting and teaching.
Harden said expanding UW Green Bay’s curriculum always would be a priority.
“We’re working toward offering a greater number of options for students,” he said.
UW Green Bay has gained national notoriety for its athletic programs, specifically women’s and men’s basketball.
Harden said it’s typical for UW Green Bay to draw between 4,000 and 5,000 spectators to a men’s basketball game. When both the men’s and women’s teams compete in the NCAA basketball tournament in March, it reflects positively on the university and gives the college national exposure.
“There’s always been great community support for Phoenix athletics,” Harden said. “But as we recruit student athletes, the positive publicity (from national tournaments) aids in that effort.”
Harden said UW Green Bay’s student athletes carry a 3.2 grade point average, which is slightly higher than the general student population.
“We want our athletes to be successful in their sport but we also want to prepare them for a life after sports,” he said.
The colleges recognize they represent more to the region than just being a higher learning institution.
Harden said his campus is one with Green Bay.
“It really goes back to the founding of the university with Edward Weidner, who worked hard with volunteers to start this college,” he said. “Our greatest strength is our relationship with the people in the community.”
Wells referred to UW Oshkosh as a public-centric institution, meaning he recognizes the college has a responsibility to be a good corporate citizen. That mission also benefits students who often are tapped for volunteer projects around the region, whether it’s for research or to develop a training manual for a business through a paid internship.
“Whenever we do a service mission, we try to do it in a way that enhances the experience for our students,” Wells said.
He pointed to UW Oshkosh’s involvement in the development of the Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel and Convention Center in downtown Oshkosh and the biodigester renewable energy facility at Rosendale Dairy near Pickett.
Both projects represent significant investment but provided an economic boost to the region as well as created permanent jobs and learning opportunities for UW Oshkosh students, Wells said.
“When people ask us why did we get involved in the (Oshkosh) hotel and convention center, we can say ‘because it can provide jobs and training opportunities for between 70 and 80 students,’” Wells said. “The same can be said for the biodigesters, because we can give students hands-on learning in the real world.”
Wendy Hielsberg, executive director of the Oshkosh Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said Wells was a visionary leader, who helped northeast Wisconsin see the benefits of regionalism. Wells long held a role on the board of directors for her organization.
“(Chancellor Wells) always looked at the bigger picture and made the bigger picture happen,” she said. “With regard to the Oshkosh convention center, he recognized the need for that kind of facility and it took a community leader to make that project happen, and it has been a great success for Oshkosh.”
In a letter to UW Oshkosh staff announcing his retirement, Wells said he planned to relocate to Florida after his retirement and then ponder his next career move.
Wells said he’s not ready to fully retire but was considering different part-time and full-time opportunities.
“In higher education, you earn a sabbatical every seven years, but I never had one, so I’d expect to do something like that and then just see what’s next for me,” Wells said.
Harden said he also planned to scale back his work schedule and take time off to consider his next move. He wants to remain active with UW Green Bay, possibly returning to teach at the college as well as help with fundraising.
“I’ll for certain take a two-semester leave, then I may decide to teach again,” he said.