The Courage To Keep Growing, Learning

It takes courage to swim against the economic currents, push the entrepreneurial envelope and find new ways to continue to build out, advance and further transform the state’s third-largest University. The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is doing it, creatively and collaboratively so. A number of diverse, catalytic projects are courageously enhancing everything from the architecture of the campus to the nature of students’ core academic experience.

Any university campus is bound to look different to an alumnus 23 years after his graduation. However, when Patrick Stiegman is impressed with UW Oshkosh’s growth since his graduation day, you give him a bit of extra cred.

Stiegman ’88, is the Emmy-award-winning vice president and editor-in-chief of digital media for global sports giant ESPN. So, he knows a thing or two about growing, thriving organizations in the 21st century. He punches the clock at one every day.

“It’s transformative,” Stiegman said of UW Oshkosh’s evolution last October just before receiving a UW Oshkosh Distinguished Alumni Award.

“I’ve been at ESPN for six years, and we’ve never stopped building buildings there,” he said. “It’s a campus. So I’m kind of used to this sense of things growing up all around you all over the place. And the first thing I thought of when I came on campus was, ‘This is very much like ESPN. There’s growth here.’ You see that it’s moving ahead for the future, and that’s a wonderful thing for the University and the students.”

After completing more than $150 million worth of capital projects over the last decade, including the $48-million, 191,000-square-foot academic center Sage Hall, which opened last September, the University isn’t slowing down or losing focus in this persistent economic murk. UW Oshkosh has another $60 million of capital projects either in design or under construction to carry the campus’ continued evolution deep into this decade.

But there also is plenty of evidence of UW Oshkosh’s courageous growth and attitude beyond the new bricks and mortar and silhouettes of construction cranes arching over campus.

Equally important is the entrepreneurial and academic architecture transforming the institution. It is driving creative community partnerships with area business owners in downtown Oshkosh and at the state’s largest dairy farm just 20 miles from campus. It is helping preserve the University’s successful, high-impact Student Titan Employment Program (STEP). And it has fueled the first, forward-thinking redesign of general education requirements in 40 years.

“UW Oshkosh is a catalyst: No question,” UW Oshkosh Chancellor Richard H. Wells said. “In this challenging economic atmosphere, everyone feels some strain and shares in the experience of that proverbial uphill climb. So, it takes courage for an institution like ours to resist the conditions and the currents out there—to, in a way, defy gravity and accelerate our growth and our learning and what we can provide to our community, region and state in the way of catalytic energy and entrepreneurial value.”

Incredibly challenging economic conditions last year resulted in a more than $12-million state biennial budget cut to UW Oshkosh, followed by an additional $2.2 million state “lapse” cut to the institution, necessary by July 1 this summer. That came on the heels of a 2009-2011 biennial budget shortfall of nearly $8 million. Tough decisions were made through each budget planning process.

However, the cuts did not derail strategic plans to upgrade, renovate and innovate facilities and programs amid an ongoing, decade-long stretch of record student enrollments. Nor did they slow the collaborative process to update and reconfigure the University’s general education requirements—a monumental effort that involved numerous listening sessions, academic department meetings and a sweep through hundreds of UW Oshkosh courses. The result is the “University Studies Program” proposal reengineering and better aligning our students’ academic core of credits with UW Oshkosh’s Essential Learning Outcomes.

“These projects and programs have been key these last couple of years—demonstrating that it not only takes a confident, caring, committed and competent campus community to achieve what we achieve but also a courageous one,” Wells said.

“We are doing more with less. Compensation for our faculty and staff has, frankly, not come close to keeping up with comparable university systems in the Midwest. There are plenty of excuses for an institution and its people to slow down. However, UW Oshkosh is resolute, following through on the plans we developed and reshaping those that need modification.”

Bright horizons

You cannot fault Stiegman for noticing the campus’ remarkable makeover. With new infusions of state, student and donor support, the UW Oshkosh skyline continues to morph. A handful of projects remain under construction, and a few more are on the drawing board.

Horizon Village, a five-story, 340-bed, state-of-the-art, suite-style residence hall will open this fall. The $34-million hall, funded through student fees, is another striking, modern structure redefining the shape of campus. It will feature apartment-like spaces with private bathrooms and living areas for sophomore, junior, senior and graduate students.

The Horizon Village complex is long overdue. UW Oshkosh has subsisted without a new residence hall building for 40 years. That’s despite posting new or maintaining record enrollments over the last decade. The total student population continues on a march toward 14,000.

Meanwhile, design work has begun for the estimated $26-million renovation of Clow Social Science Center. Shortly after Sage Hall opened its doors to the College of Business and a number of departments of the College of Letters and Science last fall, University leaders pushed to keep the refit of Clow on the state Building Commission’s to-do list. The project earned the panel’s support as part of a $50-million package of academic building upgrades at four UW System campuses. Clow is currently in line for construction to start in 2013, with a 2014 planned reopening.

Both Horizon and Clow will be built to meet specific Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, feature eco-friendly construction materials and incorporate technology to harvest and use alternative energy sources. As these on-campus projects evolve, yet another prominent project is in the works: The UW Oshkosh Alumni Welcome and Conference Center.

The UW Oshkosh Foundation is leading a new fundraising campaign for the multimillion dollar center, planned at the foot of the Wisconsin Street bridge along the Fox River. Flooding destroyed the University’s River Center conferencing complex in 2008. The new, 22,000-square-foot center is billed as “the University’s new front door,” featuring enhanced conference and gathering spaces for alumni and the campus and extended Oshkosh community.

While disaster insurance payments will defray some of the new center’s cost, the Foundation is leading an $8-to-$10 million fundraising campaign in economically tenuous times.

This is more evidence of the University’s resolve to “fight the recession rather than be defined by it,” as UW Oshkosh Foundation President Arthur H. Rathjen noted at Sage Hall’s September dedication. “We undertake multiyear initiatives during which the economy is sure to ebb and flow.”

A hotel makeover and Biodigester 2.0

You can wander either two blocks or 20 miles off campus and you will run into two intersections where UW Oshkosh’s courage merges with its commitment to serving as a community catalyst.

In February, the UW Oshkosh Foundation and hoteliers Richard Batley and John Pfefferle (involved in Neenah’s BEST WESTERN PREMIER Bridgewood Resort and Conference Center and downtown Appleton’s CopperLeaf Boutique Hotel and Spa) teamed up to buy and revitalize downtown Oshkosh’s waterfront City Center Hotel.

Why? Especially in an economic crunch? The partnership is working with city leaders to help create a revitalized  downtown. The waterfront hotel’s physical connection to the recently renovated Oshkosh Convention Center, and its proximity to UW Oshkosh (just two blocks away from the academic-conference-hosting dynamo), will serve as a crucial, catalytic boost for the campus and local economy.

It promises a direct return on investment, too. The partners are committed to using a portion of the annual revenue generated by the hotel to fund UW Oshkosh scholarships for Oshkosh-based high school graduates and new academic programs. They also have proposed potentially using the hotel to house a future, high-impact, collaborative academic hospitality program, answering the call for more entrepreneurial, career-ready degree programs in Wisconsin.

“In so many ways, the hotel project will be a benefit to the University, our broader community and the regional economy,” UW Oshkosh Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services Tom Sonnleitner said.

… Cut to rural Fond du Lac County. There, another of UW Oshkosh’s most entrepreneurial and, Wells believes, courageous endeavors in its 140-year history pushes ahead.

German-based Viessmann Group and its subsidiary BIOFerm Energy Systems of Madison have collaborated with the UW Oshkosh Foundation, the College of Letters and Science’s environmental studies and microbiology faculty and University sustainability team members to build a state-of-the-art, dry fermentation anaerobic biodigester facility. Dedicated in May 2011, it is
operating off Witzel Avenue in Oshkosh.

Now, the two companies, the Foundation and Milksource, owner of the 8,000-cow Rosendale Dairy, the largest dairy farm in the state of Wisconsin, are partnering to build a second biodigester at the farm south of Pickett. The project is still taking shape.

This “wet” biodigester will be fueled by Rosendale Dairy’s annual, millions of gallons of livestock manure (an unavoidable byproduct and environ-mental challenge for the huge, state-of-the-art milking operation). Ultimately, the dairy’s biodigester will produce a startling 2.8 megawatts of electricity each year. That energy revenue, or equivalent carbon credits, can cut in half the University’s original 2025 carbon-neutrality target.

“The commitment to technology and green energy that the UW Oshkosh Foundation and the University are making, even in what are challenging economic times, is the result of intense research and studies on their parts,” said Jim Ostrom, Milksource cofounder and partner. “We could not have asked for a better partner to work with as we bring a digester to our farm. It is a true testament to the environment, the
education of our future leaders and to the community.”

As with the hotel project, the Foundation and Milksource also want to channel some revenue from the operation into creation of an attached public education center. Students and faculty would educate PK-12 student visitors and community members about how bio-solids and runoff prevention science and research are driving a green energy solution.

Wells also has been bullish on development of a “Center for University Rural Development and Sustainability Studies,” or “CURDSS.”

Get it?

“We’re serving our state by confronting an environmental challenge for Milksource and its Rosendale Dairy neighbors by reaching a clean, cost-cutting, rural-America-preserving solution,” College of Letters and Science Dean John Koker said. “This also enhances our area’s identity as a hub of environmental studies activity and further develops our niche as a global destination for enterprises eager to learn more about renewable energy innovations.”

New academic architecture

UW Oshkosh journalism senior Sheng Lee’s academic home is the new Sage Hall, but it took not a single piece of construction equipment to create the innovative internship program that is helping propel her academic career.

Launched in 2009, STEP channeled $500,000 in University reinvestment funds toward high-impact, hands-on student internships. They have given a few hundred students practical, career-connected, collaborative learning experiences on campus with faculty, staff and peers. Conversely, through STEP, faculty and staff members get student assistance in areas from research to media services to academic computing support and Web page development.

Lee, at one point in 2011, juggled three STEP internships with UW Oshkosh Career Services, Alumni Relations and the journalism department as a writer and social media and marketing strate-gist. She said her STEP jobs helped cut the cost of attending college while honing her career skill set. The income also helped her move from Neenah to Oshkosh to be closer to school and work.

“It’s been a lot better than commuting, and I’m able to be more involved with campus activities,” said Lee, who anticipates graduation in June.

She said working in concert with journalism and communication faculty also helped her see the deeper, analytical, business value of social media. “If you’re just a casual (social media) user, you don’t pay attention to that kind of stuff,” Lee said.

While helping keep STEP thriving, faculty members at UW Oshkosh also have concentrated on reforming the core academic experience. They have designed, and are integrating, a reformed, 41-credit general education program that is as innovative as it is elegant.

The proposed University Studies Program is structured around three themes—Question, Exploration and Connection. The themes, in turn, have been phrased as “Signature Questions” that connect to the University’s four-year-old Essential Learning Outcomes: “How do people understand and create a sustainable world?” “How do people understand and engage in community life?” and “How do people understand and bridge cultural differences?”

The University Studies Program also is the result of the Liberal Education Reform Team’s 2010 examination of more than 1,000 UW Oshkosh courses. Plans are on track for its implementation in fall 2013.

Within their first four semesters at UW Oshkosh, students will have completed four streamlined “quests,” each centered on the “big questions” and containing a mix of general education courses connecting the signature questions to learning outcomes and specific fields of study. The quests even consider the essential skills desired by employers.

Faculty and administrators involved in the initiative believe they have collaboratively developed a new program that authentically reengineers and reenergizes the nucleus of the academic experience at UW Oshkosh for years to come.

“I have been surprised again and again by constructive people during this enormous and collaborative process of reform,” said communication studies professor Lori Carrell, director for the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and a co-leader in the development of the University Studies Program. “This is an amazing place filled with extraordinary people who are doing courageous work to benefit students and the community—in spite of a season in which we could be propelled toward discouragement.”

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