The job of a university chancellor includes a long list of duties.
Be the public face of the university, locally, among the university’s alumni, and in the higher education world. Provide leadership in admissions, academics, student services, university operations, athletics and, particularly, fundraising. Represent the university to your primary sources of revenue outside student tuition — major donors, state government, and the federal government. And be a change agent when and where necessary.
Those and other duties have occupied the past two years of Dennis Shields’ life as UW–Platteville chancellor.
“I’m still convinced this is a very dynamic university,” said Shields. “I think we’re making progress, and one way you can tell we’re making progress is some people aren’t happy. This is a place that’s been doing fabulous things for decades, and we almost apologize for it. It’s a bit hokey, but there’s a reason I say ‘It’s a great day to be a Pioneer.’”
Change might be the first word to describe a college; every year, new students arrive to replace graduating students. However, the relationship between the UW System and state government has changed considerably in the past two years.
“Coming to grips with the changing landscape we have to operate in with state funding, with the expectations we have with accomplishing our mission, changing the culture to accomplish these opportunities — I don’t think these are unique to Platteville,” said Shields. “The challenge is how to be true to our mission while dealing with all these realities.
“It’s become clearer and clearer that we cannot stand still. As state support declines, we have to find ways to support our programs, and respond to the marketplace.”
“The marketplace” includes less money coming from state government.
“I don’t think you can look at that model and say that’s going to change,” he said. “So any university, and especially Platteville, has to look at ways to control our own destiny, and a lot of that’s driven by resources. Everybody that’s thinking about higher education has to think different about it now.
“We need to have the ability to respond to the challenges in front of us. We’re in a transition phase where a lot of money is still siloed, where money can’t be diverted to places where we have needs.”
One of those “realities” is a renewed focus on the value of a college education given the yearly increases in the cost of that education and the resulting student debt graduates have to pay off.
Shields said that even in today’s economy college graduates have a lower unemployment rate than those who didn’t start or finish college.
“With manufacturing, which is a lot of what we deliver, if we’re going to continue to be strong, we’ve got to produce a workforce that gets you there,” he said. “And that takes more skills. Universities like UW–Platteville play a key role in producing that workforce that drives that manufacturing.”
Shields noted that UW–Platteville was increasing in enrollment before his arrival two years ago. The Tri-State Initiative, which began in 2005, reduced out-of-state tuition for students from Illinois and Iowa majoring in 32 majors and 13 pre-professional programs.
“That’s presented some challenges that we’re making some progress in,” he said of UWP’s enrollment growth. “The tradeoff is if enrollment had not grown, and if the Tri-State Initiative not come into being, we could have had some challenges budget-wise.”
UW–Platteville has been the fastest growing four-year campus in the UW System for several years. UWP expects about 7,700 students when classes begin Tuesday.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a goal — it’s an evolution,” said Shields. “I actually think the idea is somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000 students. I think it could go higher than that, but that’s not sustainable.”
UW–Platteville wants to grow in enrollment beyond traditional undergraduate students — those who go to college almost immediately after high school.
“We have one of the best distance learning programs” for those going to college some extended time after high school, said Shields. “I think all of higher education has to face the challenge that the students they serve will evolve over time. There’s going to be a lot of opportunity for retraining. Even today’s college graduate is likely to change jobs four or five times in the first 10 or 12 years.”
UWP and other UW universities face new competition from for-profit colleges, such as the University of Phoenix or Rasmussen College.
“The problem you face with for-profit education is that the for-profit part is the driver,” said Shields. “We have a brand, we know what we’re delivering … but we also have to get more engaged in that area in the ways we have real strengths.”
One UWP priority is to get more students living on campus. The opening of Rountree Commons and the under-construction dorm near Southwest Hall will increase housing capacity to 3,700, less than half the university’s 2012–13 enrollment of 7,700.
Shields’ goal is to have half of UW–Platteville students live on campus. A decision on the next step in student housing is expected within six to 12 months.
“There are two drivers for expansion in the residence halls,” said Shields. “One is we just need them; there are a lot of students. Number two is all the data nationally shows that the more engaged students are on campus, the more retained first-year to second-year, the more likely they are to graduate on time.
“The investment we make in convincing students to come here and the investment they make in coming here, I think we owe it to them to make sure they get the best experience possible. Some of this stuff, because we have been a suitcase campus, we have to be purposeful about.”
New dorm construction should mean fewer students will live off campus, which should in turn increase the ability of people who work in Platteville to live here.
“The students were taking all the residential housing, so there weren’t places for new faculty to live,” said Shields. “Why should Mount Horeb or Dubuque or a place like that get the advantage of having them live in their community?”
Rountree Commons is an example of change in how things are done. The dorm was built and is owned by the UW–Platteville Real Estate Foundation on land that is not part of the UWP campus, though it is right next to the UWP campus.
Shields said Rountree Commons cost 20 percent less than it would have cost had it been built through traditional state funding.
UW–Platteville has a freshman retention rate — freshmen becoming sophomores without dropping out — of 75 to 78 percent. Shields’ goal is to increase it to 80 percent.
Getting “students into real college life, building a sense of community on campus, can make a huge difference,” he said. Increasing residential opportunities for freshmen and sophomores will “get them out of the community where they’re unsupervised.”
Almost 50 percent of UW–Platteville students are the first in their family to attend college.
“We are a point of access and affordability,” said Shields. “And that means we’re going to have students who don’t know the full drill of what college life takes.”
One of Shields’ efforts has been to improve town–gown relations between the university and the city. Shields has worked in two college towns with a similar balance between city and university — the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Duke University in Durham, N.C.
“I was very surprised when I arrived that there weren’t formal mechanisms with the city and the university to talk, even informal processes,” he said. “I was surprised that there wasn’t a closer working relationship. We’ve worked together in a number of ways.”
UWP officials hold meetings with the Common Council every other month. The Rountree Commons project “sort of served as a catalyst for that,” he said.
A number of meetings have focused on parking, both on campus and downtown.
“A lot of this is context,” said Shields, noting that until now UWP has “not made an effort to change their behavior” by discouraging bringing cars on campus or encouraging other forms of transportation, including the new shuttle service that starts this fall.
Given that even after the current dorm project is completed more than half of UW–Platteville students will live off campus, the things 18- to 21-year-old college students do will continue to be issues with Platteville residents.
“With any college community, there is a perspective that some students create huge problems,” said Shields. “Students have living downtown for 100 years. There used to be a dormitory downtown.
“I think we want to be as inclusive about what people’s concerns are, to work with the city.”
One UWP project that could have a huge impact on Platteville and beyond is the proposed Innovation Center.
“Central to everything we do is what’s the impact on students, so it gives our students an opportunity to engage in the creative process, enhance their education, and give them the opportunity to be successful in the world,” said Shields, who added the most successful UW–Platteville alumni he’s met are entrepreneurs. “There are a lot of students who would like to live here after graduation, but they’re not going to stay here for jobs that pay $25,000 a year.
“What we want is for UW–Platteville to be a great place for students to get an education, and a great place to live and work here.”