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After the tornado, UWPlatteville is ready for students
Dennis J. Shields

Around 8,000 UW–Platteville undergraduate students are heading toward campus, if they’re not already back on campus, for the start of classes Tuesday.

Those who haven’t been paying attention to Platteville events since they left campus on May, or new students may not realize the tumult created on campus by the June 16 EF2 tornado and its damage to UWP’s three newest dorms, Engineering Hall and Ralph E. Davis Pioneer Stadium.

“On the one hand, the biggest factor was that in town only one person was seriously hurt,” said Chancellor Dennis J. Shields. “That so much changes the dynamic of how you deal with it. Since no one was hurt we were able to put that behind us and figure out how to get ready for the students.”

Repairs to rooms in the three dorms — Southwest Hall, Rountree Commons and Bridgeway Commons — are expected to be done by Thursday. Engineering Hall is expected to be ready for classes Tuesday. The new surface at Ralph E. Davis Pioneer Stadium is expected to be installed in early September, in time for the Pioneers’ first home game against the University of Dubuque Sept. 13.

“The longer I do this job, the more I learn that it’s important to hire good people, give them the resources they need and give them what they need to own their responsibilities,” said Shields, who was in China when the tornadoes hit, and received hourly phone updates for the first several hours. “That makes all the difference in the world. There was virtually nothing more I could have done if I was sitting here than if I hadn’t been in China.

“The students who were here will remember it as a defining moment. The students who are returning won’t notice much — most of what has affected them has been fixed.”

Undergraduate student enrollment is expected around 8,000, more than last year’s 7,800 enrollment.

The 2014–15 academic year will begin with “headway on some fronts,” he said, including good new-student enrollment and enrollment from the Tri-State Initiative, which “adds to enrollment but doesn’t take away opportunities for Wisconsin students.”

Shields said UW–Platteville is placing a “real emphasis on being more strategic about enrollment management — what disciplines are growing, where do we need more faculty. We have hot disciplines here; engineering is growing like crazy; agriculture is growing like crazy.”

One area Shields wants to see grow at UW–Platteville is enrollment in international students. A group of students from Brazil are spending a year on campus, but Shields wants to see more international students here for all four years. UWP now has about 150 international students.

“From my perspective, we’ve really missed some opportunities in international students,” he said.

UWP’s two newest dorms, Rountree Commons and Bridgeway Commons, have brought more students to live on campus.

“We didn’t want to build new dorms just to get kids on campus,” said Shields, noting that the dorms have resident assistants and programming to “make them responsible neighbors — you get a standard of conduct.

“It’s important to not have students living all over town unsupervised. But this is a joint effort.”

Shields’ own goal for 2014–15 is engaging with faculty. “We have to work and control our own destiny, and we certainly have the ability to do that,” he said.

He also would like to see UW–Platteville get more attention for a less noticed curriculum area — teacher training, which he called “a jewel of the school that you don’t hear about much. … I think our STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] strengths — every school district in the country needs STEM teachers — that’s an opportunity for us in the state of Wisconsin and regionally.”

Shields remains concerned about resources, or in his opinion the lack thereof, from the state.

“The short-term outlook is good — you look a year or two down the line, things look good,” he said. “You look further down the line, you’re concerned about the structural deficit — no increase in state aid and the tuition freeze, which I have mixed feelings about.”

Insufficient state funds are part of what Shields calls the “single biggest challenge we face … attracting, developing and retaining the talent that we have.” He said UWP salaries are at the “low end of salaries in the UW System” and among UWP’s “peer institutions.”

Shields said UW–Platteville has spent more than $1 million over the past two years and this academic year to improve salaries. He said improving faculty salaries is “critical,” while improving staff salaries is “still really important. A university is only as good as the talent that’s here.”

The biggest building project on the immediate horizon is the completion of the Boebel Hall remodeling, estimated to cost $15 million to $20 million. A proposal to renovate Dobson Hall and Melcher Hall, two 1960s-vintage dorms, has gotten approval from a committee of the UW System Board of Regents. That project may take place during the state’s 2015–17 budget cycle if it gets final approval.

Shields said the proposal to build a new engineering building has “fair projects, but it’s too early,” in part because some state legislators are averse to adding state debt.

“I think real opportunity has been missed over the last three years, with interest rates so low, and I’m not just talking about Platteville,” he said.

If the state won’t OK funding building projects, Shields said alternative financing might be the key. Rountree Commons was built by the UW–Platteville Real Estate Foundation, not financed by the state.

“I think there’s still opportunity out there,” he said. “I think the bigger challenge, thinking of it differently, is, if you can’t get it done through the state, let’s think about another creative way to accomplish that.”

UW–Platteville’s visibility has increased not just because of the tornadoes, but because of its football team, which got its first NCAA Division III playoff berth last year and is ranked eighth in preseason polls this year.

“When these seniors came here four years ago, you couldn’t say that, and to have that work out for them is amazing,” said Shields, who played basketball at Division III Graceland College in Iowa. “I want the team to be successful. They’re playing because they have a passion for it and they’re committed to being successful at that level.”