UW-Platteville hopes to continue its impact by building greater relationships

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UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields paid a visit to the Courier Press and other media and businesses in the Prairie du Chien area recently, to discuss workforce development, the university’s economic impact and its budget outlook.

Courier Press Editor and UW-Platteville alumna Correne Martin interviews Chancellor Shields during his recent tour of Prairie du Chien.

By Correne Martin

With 8,000 undergraduate students—60 to 70 percent of whom will stay in Wisconsin as post-collegiates, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields—the University of Wisconsin-Platteville serves an essential role in cultivating the state’s future workforce.

Among the university’s current undergrads, 60 hail from Crawford County, 501 from Grant County and eight from Clayton County. The number of present alumni in those counties include 373 in Crawford, 3,359 in Grant and 45 in Clayton. Representing Prairie du Chien alone, 33 individuals are enrolled in classes at this time and almost 200 people are alumni of UW-Platteville.

“The thing our students want to do when they come to UW-P is a lot of them want to stay in the area upon graduation,” Chancellor Dennis Shields said in an interview with this alumna at the Courier Press. Shields made a one-day business and media tour around Prairie du Chien Nov. 19 to discuss workforce development, the university’s economic impact and its budget outlook.

UW-Platteville generates a tremendous economic impact on the region; about $3 million is spent on tuition and student needs and activities such as gas, groceries and entertainment. According to the chancellor, entertainment and weddings/special events hosted on campus account for another large boost in regional spending. Furthermore, UW-P happens to be the largest single employer in the region.
“Every dollar spent circulates around the region about 13 times,” Shields stated. “Obviously, the most direct connection to the region is our students.”

UW-P draws a significant number of its transfer students from two-year institutions in the tri-state area, including Southwest Tech and UW-Richland. “They’re a pipeline for us, especially in the criminal justice, agriculture and education fields,” he added.

Chancellor Shields is proud, just like many southwest Wisconsinites are, that numerous generations of local families have attended the institution. As the university looks to continue its role in preparing the next batch of young professionals, Shields knows it’s the relationships with business and industry that can help address the needs of the region.

“We do some outreach every year but we’re really looking to collaborate with companies and co-ops so we can better understand the needs of business and industry in the area. We also want them to understand our needs,” said Shields, who is in his sixth year with the university. “We want to make sure they know the whole suite of things we can do, like our senior engineer projects, where they work with local businesses. Companies love our engineering students because of their work ethic and because they want to stay in the region. Many of our students who have had cooperative experiences end up going back to those companies after graduation.”

Moreover, UW-Platteville’s continuing education program is one of the strongest and longest programs of its kind in the state, according to Shields. He said its business incubator, Pioneer Academic Center for Community Engagement (PACCE), entrepreneurship minor, Pioneer launch lab, small business competition, distance learning and contract corporate training programs are all examples of how important collaborations with and offerings for area communities are to the university.

Just as UW-P wants its graduates to be problem solvers and creative thinkers, the university has had to do some of that on its own, thanks to budget cuts within the University of Wisconsin system.

“It’s one of the challenges we now face,” Shields continued. “About 13 percent of our annual budget is state support. What happened in the past created a structural deficit of about $5 million for us. We’re looking at about 8.5 percent less in the last couple bienniums. The legislation’s goal for us is, ‘Let’s keep it affordable. If [students] start, let them finish but not take seven years to do it.’”

Some talk has occurred at the state level about a tuition cap, but Shields said he hasn’t heard such lately. Many of UW-P’s students have about $6,000 in uncovered expenses. They come from modest means, he said. Forty percent are federal Pell Grant eligible. “They’re not driving around BMWs,” he joked.

To alleviate the budget deficit but yet create no impact on the quality of education provided at UW-Platteville, Shields and his administration have had to be resourceful.

The Tri-State Initiative program, which discounts non-resident tuition for about 1,600 Iowa and Illinois students, hasn’t gone up in cost in 10 years, so that has increased. A voluntary retirement package was offered and 63 employees took advantage of that, saving the university about $700,000.

“This spring, we found about $4.5 million in reductions or additional revenue, and that included cutting only two positions on the administrative side,” Shields said.

However, to meet additional reductions, UW-Platteville may have to consider cutting 20 to 40 more positions, reducing some of its programs, continuing to defer some maintenance, and making some of its classes a little larger. It may also need to reduce the number of classes it takes for students to earn a degree.

“We’ve started to survey on campus to find out what the most utilized programs are,” Shields explained. “We may have to make some of our classes bigger, from 20 to 30 students, which is still a good number.

“We’ve already deferred all kinds of maintenance. That just exacerbates the problem; we can’t let some of it go another five years.”

Additionally, Shields said there are two longterm challenges UW-Platteville faces. First, there is no funding in this biennium for capital needs, not even for emergency situations. So, for instance, the Karrmann Library is partially closed currently due to unsafe conditions on one wing. The university would also like to update another portion of Boebel Hall (the central location of biology classes), which received a partial remodel recently, but that proposal will have to wait. Second, the average salary of UW-P professionals is at the low end of the system. “We have to make sure our salaries are competitive in order to attract quality educators and employees,” Shields stated.

Despite dealing with these constraints, the university has managed to secure private partnerships and earmark Tri-State Initiative and tuition dollars in order to construct two residence halls in just two years and a new engineering hall, plus remodel both the Markee Center and Ullsvik Hall.

“We’ve been entrepreneurial,” Shields commented. “I think we can get there. We’ve shown that, when we’re left to our own devices, we’re able to figure it out. We might just have to look at more creative ways of funding.”

He added that the public can help support the university by pleading UW-Platteville’s case to their legislators. “We need to let them know that higher education is important to business and industry and workforce development,” he said.

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