Dennis Shields is chancellor of the fastest growing UW System four-year campus for the past several years.
He also is the chancellor of one of the hottest football teams, on preseason paper anyway, in all of NCAA Division III.
“It’s pretty amazing, the job the coaches and the Athletic Department have done the past three seasons,” said Shields days before 2013–14 classes begin, five days before the corresponding football season starts. “There’s no question that whether as an academic institution you like it or not, athletic success appeals to a lot of folks. A lot of young folks’ appeal to go to a college is the ability to continue competing.”
Shields added that the grade point average of UWP student–athletes has been better than the overall student GPA for 13 years.
“All the data shows that students who are engaged in something on campus are more likely to achieve and more likely to graduate on time,” said Shields, who played basketball in high school and at Graceland College in Iowa. “And Division III athletics is an example of how that philosophy works.’’
Shields said his goal for UWP student–athletes is “you want a student at some point during their four years to compete for something significant.”
Beyond athletic success, Shields said area demographics requires that to continue enrollment growth, students must be recruited from beyond this area. Of the 160 players who tried out for the Pioneer football team, 77 are from the Tri-States, and “once you get a few students from an area, it’s easy to attract more students from those areas longer-term.”
UWP is expected to reach 8,000 in enrollment this year, with 1,600 to 1,700 new freshmen and 300 to 400 transfer students. The freshman number is slightly lower than recent years, which means that “What we’re doing better is retaining students,” said Shields.
Shields believes enrollment could get as high as 9,000, but beyond that ‘I don’t think we could sustain,” he said.
UWP’s growth over the past few years created some downside that Shields believes have been addressed in part by UWP’s new dorms — Rountree Commons, which opened one year ago, and Bridgeway Commons, which opens this week.
“I think that our growth did create issues in the community in that many students were living off campus, and never established maturity to live on their own,” he said.
The new dorms have brought a requirement that freshman and sophomores live on campus.
“Hopefully, that’s brought younger students to campus, and [dealt with] some of the problems that are associated” with off-campus students, he said.
Shields believes student parking problems from more dorms have been dealt with through increasing some on-campus parking, instituting shuttle buses, and issuing on-campus parking permits. “The city has done a pretty good job” in issuing parking permits in neighborhoods near campus, and “we’ve made the commitment and have followed through” to try to get students to not bring cars to campus.
UW–Platteville’s name has been associated with two major potential city projects — the Library Block redevelopment project and the Innovation Center, for which UWP and the city are applying for planning grants.
“If a private developer thinks that can work, more power to them,” said Shields of the Library Block project, whose plans include 117,600 square feet of student housing, based on demand from UWP student enrollment growth. “We’re happy to talk,” but “we’re not going to be the driver.”
Shields said the feasibility study attributed “a whole lot more investment by university entities than I was aware of.”
Shields called the Innovation Center “something that would be extraordinarily good for the community. The challenge is that there are other entities that have to step up to help that happen. … I think the business community has to be a lot more engaged.”
Shields said UWP would not be buying a property to start the Innovation Center, and added, “We need to get everybody to understand it’s not going to go if they’re concerned about making money off the transaction.” Benefits would include “more better-paying jobs, spinoff companies,” and an increase in local purchasing, he said.
“What the university can do is generate tenants — faculty that has idea, need more space, want to do more research. That’s the piece we’re working on internally now, looking what faculty can focus on. The [Economic Development Administration] grant will help highlight things that need to be accomplished, and that process will show who needs to be accountable to make this happen.”
The first grant opportunity is in the first quarter of 2014, meaning that starting the Innovation Center could take place in “maybe two years, maybe four. It’s very important that we do not oversell — that we sort of undersell and overperform.”
The Innovation Center could be a way to deal with issues UW–Platteville and Platteville face.
“Higher education is facing a number of big challenges now,” said Shields. “You’ve got to think how we do we put us in the place where we can control our own destiny. I’d like to see the school district prospering; I’d like to see local business prospering.
“Enrollment is still going up, which is a sign we’re still an attractive option. Our education is playing off if your return on investment is good — we’re fourth in the state. We’re chipping away at some of our infrastructure issues we’re dealing with. Our biggest challenge is compensation. We’re at the low end of the system, and we’re 15 to 20 percent lower than our peer institutions. And that’s not sustainable over the long term.
“This is an exciting time to be engaged in this. I continue to be amazed at the energy people put into this place. At the end of the day whether or not this institution is successful is the quality of the people who work here and believe in this institution. There’s just so many great things going on on campus.”