UW System President Ray Cross speaks to UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt and other attendees of the economy listening session Wednesday at Davies Center. The system hosted an economy listening session Wednesday where local community and business leaders sat in small groups and had timed discussions moderated by UW-Extension representatives. The listening sessions are being held across the state as a way to help develop a new strategic plan for the UW System.

UW System President Ray Cross isn’t surprised at themes that have come out of eight listening sessions he has attended throughout the state meant to help the higher education system develop a strategic plan.

Rather it’s the amount of agreement that was unexpected, he said Wednesday at UW-Eau Claire, during a forum attended by members of the Eau Claire, Menomonie and River Falls communities. 

One of those themes is awareness of changing demographics, such as an aging population whose retirements will lead to job surpluses in the next few decades. 

“I expected demographics to come up a number of times,” Cross said of meeting with community members. “It’s come up every time. There’s a clear understanding we have a problem there.

“We know that everybody’s starting to get that message, so now what are we doing about it? And that’s a great challenge,” he said. 

The data collected from a total of 14 publicly attended forums and 13 meetings by university personnel will be compiled into a strategic plan expected to be completed sometime in spring 2016, Cross said. 

“Part of strategic planning is to understand what the stakeholders want and how you fit into that,” he said. “What do you want from the university? Where are we doing well? What kinds of things should we be putting a greater priority on?”

A popular theme among members of the public who registered for the event was collaboration between the universities, technical colleges and K-12 systems. 

“We have that in a big way in this region,” said UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer, a member of the audience. 

About 55 participants were seated at tables and asked to identify themes from two separate questions. Participants then shared with the rest of the group. 

One of the table moderators, Laura Dunek, who works at UW-Madison, voiced her table’s concern about cuts in education resulting in the loss of teachers and an anticipated shortage of nurses. 

“We need to focus, as we build the future, on the mission of educating students — and that is, it’s all about the kids,” she said. 

Community members are also looking to the universities to provide more evidence-based research to the state legislature so policymakers can make more informed decisions, Cross said. 

The UW System has already held listening sessions in Green Bay, Superior, Oshkosh and La Crosse in addition to Wednesday’s session and will hold another in Milwaukee next week.

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