Friday, October 19, 2018

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Seeking stability: UW-Barron County desires security in merger with much larger UW-Eau Claire

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    Keith Montgomery, north regional dean for UW Colleges, left, addresses a forum about the merging of UW-Eau Claire and UW-Barron County on Thursday afternoon in Davies Center on the Eau Claire campus. UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt, right, started the meeting with a 10-minute speech about the impending merger before opening the panel to questions.

    Contributed photo

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    Mary Hankins, associate lecturer in English at UW-Barron County, was among the roughly 150 participants in the forum Thursday at UW-Eau Claire about the merging of the Eau Claire and Barron County campuses. Some participants from Barron County sought assurances that the merger would not be disruptive to their campus.

    Contributed photo

Stability and security are what UW-Barron County faculty hope to get as the two-year college in Rice Lake comes under the leadership of UW-Eau Claire.

About 150 people — employees of both schools and some students — attended a Thursday afternoon meeting on the Eau Claire campus.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt led a panel to address questions and concerns that people from both campuses had since the plan for a merger was announced Oct. 11 and approved Nov. 9 by the UW System Board of Regents.

He began by explaining some things that wouldn’t change, including the different missions of the two schools.

“I think we’re stronger together if we keep our distinctiveness,” Schmidt said.

Students attending either campus won’t see a noticeable difference in the next year as the curriculums already have been set, he said.

Speaking on behalf of her colleagues, UW-Barron County biological sciences associate professor Lauren Wentz said they’d like “some measure of stability” from the impending merger.

“The faculty at Barron County are super concerned about what’s going on,” said Evan Weiher, a UW-Eau Claire biology professor who visited the Rice Lake campus after the merger was announced. He said stability and security were the two things that employees at the two-year college want most from the new arrangement.

Schmidt acknowledged that the UW System’s two-year campuses have seen changes in organization and leadership in recent years as budget cuts were handed down by the state. He’s hopeful the arrangement with UW-Eau Claire would be the last change for a while.

“I think this is going to be a marriage that will stand the test of time,” Schmidt said.

Much like a wedding, though, there are many details that need to be arranged before the big day.

Working out details

Alongside her UW-Barron County name tag, history professor Sue Patrick wore a temporary name badge with insignia for both the Rice Lake college and UW-Eau Claire.

After sitting in the front row at Davies Center for the large gathering of her current and future colleagues, Patrick participated in afternoon sessions of task forces with staff from both institutions that are working on details of the merger.

When the small campus first heard about the plan to merge with the university located about 60 miles away, Patrick said she and her colleagues had “about 9,000 questions.”

Some of those have been answered in following weeks and at Thursday afternoon’s meeting, but she noted there are many details still being decided.

“We’re still trying to figure it out. It’s very much a work in progress,” she said.

Organizational aspects of the merger including accreditation issues, staff hierarchies and technology matters are the top priorities with an expectation they’ll be handled by mid-2018.

“We’re not looking for perfect yet,” Schmidt said. “We’re looking to operate on July 1.”

UW-Eau Claire provost Patricia Kleine was skeptical of meeting the July 1 goal for one of those tasks — merging student databases for the two institutions.

“They’re not going to be anywhere close,” she said.

In the meantime, Schmidt recommended faculty from both institutions should get to know each other.

“I encourage everyone to contact their counterparts,” Schmidt said.

But even that created some confusion among UW-Eau Claire faculty who noted how differently the staff at both campuses are organized.

“The question of department organizational structure is still an open question,” Schmidt acknowledged.

Optimistic tone

Schmidt struck an upbeat tone about the relationship between the two campuses, noting UW-Barron County’s ties with area Somali and Native American populations, and its recruiting efforts at high schools.

The chancellor also sees the potential for efforts to refer students and transfer between the two institutions will be a benefit to both.

Instead of a rejection letter to applicants who fell short of admission standards at UW-Eau Claire, Schmidt said, the university will instead route them to UW-Barron County as a path to later become a Blugold.

“I’m going to funnel as many students to Barron County as possible,” Schmidt said.

UW-Barron County has about 400 students, whereas UW-Eau Claire’s enrollment is about 10,000. The Eau Claire university has hundreds of employees, while the two-year college has dozens.

But Patrick, the Barron County history professor, noted that both institutions have a focus on liberal arts, which she feels make them a good fit for each other.

“I agree in the long term for Barron County, Eau Claire is ideal,” she said. “We feel very fortunate.”

Contact: 715-833-9204, andrew.dowd@ecpc.com, @ADowd_LT on Twitter


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