About Stout Transcript: May 22, 2007

Topics in this program:

  • Polytechnic university
  • Bob Meyer's appointment as Director of Federal and State Relations
  • Re-alignment of programs

Full-Text Transcript

Mell: Greetings, My name is Doug Mell and I am UW-Stout's Communications Director. Welcome to the first issue of "About Stout." This show is intended to give us at UW-Stout another avenue to tell students, faculty, and staff and the public about all the wonderful, innovative, interesting things that happen every day on campus. We are always looking for new ways to get the word out about Stout and we hope you enjoy this new program. With me today is Chancellor Sorensen who just completed his 19th academic year. It just seems like yesterday, doesn't it Chancellor, when you stepped on campus.

Sorensen: I came as a very young man, Doug.

Mell: And you're still very young.

Sorensen: I'm still very young. But I think that it went by very quickly. We all come to jobs and stay five or six years and leave but fortunately I did stay 19 years and beyond because I think then, and only then, can a leader bring some change to a university.

Mell: We're going to talk about that change in this edition of "About Stout." this is the first year that you had the opportunity to give a commencement address as Wisconsin's Polytechnic University, a designation that UW-Stout received from the Board of Regents in March. A lot of time went into, a lot of your time, a lot of other peoples' time went into pursuing this designation. You met with groups on campus, you met with regents, traveled all over the state talking to people, met with faculty and staff on campus, met with the public, business groups; a lot of work. Why do you think getting this designation was so important?

Sorensen: It was a lot of work, we spent almost four years on this. I think that what it does is underscore our unique and special mission at UW-Stout, one we had for 100 years in terms of applied philosophy of education, outreach, lab-based instruction. So, it underscores what we've always done very, very well.

Mell: When we went to the Board of Regents meeting at UW-Parkside in March we gave a presentation and the next day the Board of Regents voted it was unanimous and you could tell that the Board of Regents really embraced this idea. There were no contrary words, I think when the person made the motion they said "I whole-heartedly make the motion." When the regent made the motion it was unanimous, the vote. Why do you think the regents embraced this idea?

Sorenson: I think that we put together a good leadership team at UW-Stout, we carved out a vision with the faculty, staff and students, a vision with the polytechnic, I think it showed through as we presented that, they want students to step up to look at a visionary future and put that in place. I think they applauded our forward thinking on this issue.

Mell: Did the fact that nobody raised one opposition at all, did that surprise you, I mean, it's hard to get anything through the UW system. I mean, because there's a lot of people there's a lot of officials, we have, you have campuses all over the state.

Sorensen: It did surprise me because I think that the poly's aren't unique to or common to the Midwest; it's California, it's New York, it’s the southeast and southwest so it did surprise me somewhat. But I do think they saw clearly a plan that fit our distinct tradition, our history and certainly they loved the mission.

Mell: Obviously, we're always concerned first and foremost with students and you're probably asked this a lot, but if I'm a student coming to UW-Stout, why is it better for me to come to Wisconsin’s polytechnic university rather than just UW-stout without the designation?

Sorensen: Well I think that it does go back to a point I made earlier, it underscores who we are, it adds distinction in the corporate and business world, it adds distinction for our peer groups throughout the country. we now are paired up with schools like Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo. So that, students know they join the ranks of a very prestigious group of schools, that adds prestige to their degree and it adds something to the total view of UW-Stout.

Mell: What do you think the reaction so far has been so far by students, do you think they understand what a poly-technic school is?

Sorensen: I think for the most part they do and I think that we try to make it very clear we not dropping programs, we're not going to make significant changes, this a foundation to build upon. And I think that they enjoy a prestige now; a very high placement rate, high salaries when they leave here, a lot of good things happen at UW-Stout. This allows us to step even further into the future with our unique designation.

Mell: We went to the Board of Regents meeting to gain this designation with the endorsement from the academic staff…

Sorensen: Absolutely…

Mell:  …and with the endorsement of the faculty center and the Stout Student Association. Why do you think that faculty and staff and academic staff bought in?

Sorensen: You know there was push-back from elements on campus, and we really appreciate that it forced us to clarify our thinking, but in the end, they saw that it was not a change, it was not a redirection; it was allowing us to further strengthen who we are. And I think on the final analysis, people stepped back and saw that and said yeah, this is a very good idea. because it can bring more visibility to UW-Stout more notoriety in a good sense and it will.

Mell: We're also always worried about the taxpayers. Do you think the taxpayers are going to benefit because of this?

Sorensen: Oh, they'll love this because we're going to be a lot more aggressive in economic development and outreach and providing more support for corporations, applying applied research, getting NSF grants and NIH grants to campus, really trying to foster entrepreneurship so all these ideas can come to new businesses. I think the big winners are going to be the students, and then the tax payers in that order.

Mell: As with any major proposal of this kind, there's always mispercetions. And I think the one that we hear most is that with this designation, we're starting to tilt toward a technical school or technical college and getting away from the comprehensive university.

Sorensen: Yeah, I've heard that too and I think if you look at... We've tried to model our thinking around Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo a school about twice our size, they have probably twenty more programs than we do, they're much more comprehensive. They have liberal arts and performing arts and fine arts. So that the poly's, we can define the polytechnic based on our tradition and our  history and the way we want to define that so actually most polytechnics are actually broader based than we are in terms of programs. So I think that we have to lay that aside, see that really isn't true. We're not trying to clone Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo, we're trying to build on who we are as UW-Stout.

Mell: But you would like to get broader. You said in the past that you believe with only thirty programs we're a little bit hamstrung. I mean, so instead of actually getting rid of programs, we need to add.

Sorensen: We're going to add programs. I've challenged the deans, the faculty, and the provost to look at new programs because we need probably eight or ten more in the next five to eight years.

Mell: What do you think the prospects are?

Sorensen: Good. I think we'll get.. we have two coming out right now in engineering, we have three or four in the planning stages, and I think they fit our mission. We can do it without... without a great deal of added dollars to the equation, so I think we will see program growth.

Mell: Are you going to have a History major?

Sorensen: No History major. Not yet.

Mell: Some faculty and staff have said though, that they're concerned that their part. program doesn't fit within the polytechnic model and I'm sure you continue to hear that.

Yeah, I do and they all fit actually this is a pretty broad umbrella. And again, we're trying to build on who we are and not who someone else is so if Cal-Poly does not have a program we have, we don't care about that or vice versa. We're building upon who we are, our program's strength and that's the way we're going to develop this polytechnic image.

Mell: Here's the third mis-perception; that we're going to change our name.

Sorensen: Absolutely not. We are not going to change our name. You know, Stout is a historic figure, he was a visionary in the late 19th century and I think we're dedicated to maintaining his name at this university because what we're doing is what he believed in. I believe if he were alive today Doug, sitting where you are, he'd say the polytechnic is a very, very good idea because it clearly identifies that we're going to solve real-world problems based on applied research at UW-Stout.

Mell: And that's what a polytechnic university is.

Sorensen: Exactly right. That's exactly right.
Mell: The business community really seems to have embraced this idea. We went to the Board of Regents with endorsements from a lot of groups, economic development groups, et cetera. Why do you think that they're so sold on the polytechnic idea?

Sorensen: Well, I think they see the utility of it. They see the applied nature of it. They see the fact that we bring young people in here or older people, and we wed theory and practice. They leave here not having to learn on the shop floor what they must do at the corporate level. They know what to do because we've provided them the lab based programs, internships, co-ops, wedding theory and practice all the time, so that's why they like it.

Mell: Now that the Board's acted, I've always said that, the hard work really starts.

Sorensen: That's right.

Mell: Because, I mean, we have to make this, working with everybody on campus, part of the culture. What do you intend to do, what would you like UW-Stout to do to build on this designation? How should we use this?
Sorensen: I think, number one, I think, we have campus buy-in. That was the first step: get broad campus support for that. We've done that. Now the question is how to brand that uniquely and market that and you're very engaged in the marketing committee. And we've engaged in outside consulting groups to help us down that path. So now it's a question of how we develop some good tag-lines for this, develop an image of who we are that we can sell readily to, again, to our stakeholders, the politicians, the corporate leaders, the business leaders, to obviously our new students coming in. So that'll be the goal. It won't happen over night, I want to emphasize that, but I think in five years we'll look back and say, boy, we did something good. We're going to have more grant money, more NSF money, more private money, so we're going to use this to leverage our image against more dollars to support what we're doing here.

Mell: You've talked a lot about UW-Stout being an already good university, and you hope this polytechnic designation helps your plans to make it a great university.
Sorensen: There's a very good book by Jim Collins called "From Good to Great." What he argues in there is that it's rather easy to be a good organization, but good will stand in the way of great, so you have to rethink what good means to you and even perhaps modify that to become a very great organization. And we are on that path, we are going to, we are looking at different things internally. We're going to change some things, not all, but I think in five years or eight years, we'll see that, we'll be, we'll see the steps being taking are very positive to becoming a great university.

Sorensen: You've talked before of a marketing-slash-branding campaign. Why, in this day and age, is it important for a university to do marketing or branding? I mean, years before, universities didn't have to advertise, they didn't really have to go out and sell themselves. Why is that important?

Sorensen: Well, there's phenomenal competition out there; the virtual universities, the for-profits, the privates, the globalization issue world-wide, the competition from India and China. We have to differentiate who we are from other schools in showing value added to who we are and why students should come here. And that's going to be the great challenge for schools in this country for the next ten years. To find that real good brand, that niche brand for who they are. Otherwise you're vanilla. Otherwise all schools say the same thing: "We're friendly, we're open, we love students..."

Mell: Applied learning...

Sorensen: ...applied learning...

Mell: Hands-on...

Sorensen: You've got to demonstrate that you're different and we're doing that.

Mell: Let's talk about some other issues. Recently, you've met with the chancellors of UW-River Falls, UW EC, and the president of the Chippewa Valley Technical College and you signed an agreement that basically pledges those institutions to work together to mold their curriculum to ensure that we're meeting the needs of the workforce in western Wisconsin, northern Wisconsin, and the rest of the state. Is this just some agreement that's going to sit on the shelf and collect dust or do you think people are really going to, employers, going to see a difference, students going to see a difference...

Sorensen: I think the four schools are dead serious about this. Just to make a point, we have for over thirty years worked well with the technical colleges in accepting credits, working with them in partnerships to serve industry, since 1992 we have had federal grant money with five partners from the tech colleges working on tech transfer issues with corporations. Now we're bringing in River Falls and E.C.  If you look at it one way, and this is what the chancellor at Eau Claire said, if you add up all the students we have in these four schools, and all the faculty, we have an applied research university of 40,000 students right here in the valley.

Mell: Say, what else is 40,000 in the state?

Sorensen: That's right! So we have a powerful educational tool. So, I think we're dedicated to applying our resource base to helping the valley really, really grow.

Mell: And they've also signed an agreement to work, you've talked before about research where the faculty and staff is going to try to combine as much as possible from those four institutions on research as well.

Sorensen: We have some co-operative programs right now so faculty can get together from River Falls and Eau Claire and CVTC and us and look at research projects.

Mell: This could maybe contribute to more kinds of programs like we're seeing with nano, right, with nano, stem, et cetera, where obviously all the universities are working together.

That's right.

Mell: You recently appointed the dean of the college of technology, engineering and management, Bob Meyer, to a new position in your office. This is something we haven't had before. Could you explain a little bit what Bob Meyer is going to be doing?

Sorensen: Bob Meyer has been doing a marvelous job as a member of the engineering faculty here and the dean of CTEM here the last seven or eight years. And one of his great strengths is outreach. So Bob’s going to step down from being the dean, he is going to take over all outreach for tech-transfer and then also to work the delegation in D.C. for money to help us penetrate agencies to tell our stories about needs, to apply for those grants, he'll help us knock on corporations' doors for donations or in-kind contributions. We must have more extra-mural funding at Stout to make this work well and Bob'll play a major role to ensure that we have access to more dollars outside the state dollars.

Mell: This is something you didn't have to worry about 19 years ago.

Sorensen: Not all. Well, not very much. No.

Mell: Why, is it because of just the changing kind of resource mix or is it what you were talking about before with the competition?

Sorensen: It's that, it's the fact that states and the federal government have really, in a very planned way, I guess, have disengaged from higher education, so we see the state support for higher ed. go from roughly 43% when I came here in '88 to about 30% today. The federal money has gone from grants for scholarships to loans for scholarships. So, we must have that margin of excellence that now we don't have if we are going to really become a first rate school and every school must about the same thing, so that competition too will be very, very, I think, harsh. We have to make sure that our value added, say to NSF is understood that we need grant money.

Mell: You talked, you hit at this before, but can you talk a little bit about where this process of re-alignment of programs in colleges stands and where you think it may end up?

Sorensen: We're looking at, you know, the 21st century, you see, when you go out in the workforce and talk to young people out there, talk to those leaders out there and those business people, they need people with multi skills. The skills aren't achieved by going into one major. Someone said the boundary lines of the disciplines are kind of fuzzy now, so they're merging. So I think that we have to make sure that we're on the edge of that, understanding that. Programs should be aligned so that there's an interface between the skill sets, say in graphic arts communication and perhaps graphic design or packaging and graphics. Or between all the management programs we have at Stout. Do we need a school of management? I've raised the question; should we have a school of management at Stout? Should we have a school of Art and Design at Stout? Should we have a stem school at Stout? That's adjusting the disciplines a bit and hopefully, and it will, allow more collaboration. So we're trying to get a sense of the alignments that fit naturally for the 21st century.

Mell: What's going to be the role of faculty and staff and how you move forward to this re-alignment?

Sorensen: Well, deep discussion. We've already engaged them in looking at principles of alignment, this summer they'll be engaged deeply with us in a retreat talking about potential models for the alignment, in the fall, we'll come back with what we discovered at the retreat, layout to the faculty and staff the ideas that we have, let them discuss this, refine this. And hopefully, by September, January, we've come to an agreement and then by July 1 of 2008 we'll put our alignment plan in place.

Mell: Thank you. We're now at the end of our first issue of "About Stout." We hope you enjoyed the time you spent with us and found it informative. Our plan is to do a show every month, so please, come back and we'll keep you informed about Stout. Thank you.