It’s a weighty word, but one that pops up often when friends and colleagues discuss former UW-Stout Chancellor Charles Sorensen, who retired in August 2014 after serving as the university’s top official for 26 years.

Sorensen, who died Friday in Florida at age 77 following complications from a recent stroke, is remembered as a dynamic leader who helped shape UW-Stout into the high-tech, career-focused campus that it is today.

“I think he was a visionary leader,” UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer said Monday. “He was very committed to the idea of what can we do to make UW-Stout better, how do we evolve and become more innovative and better. He really pushed the campus that way.”

While Sorensen was chancellor, the number of academic program offerings more than doubled, with key additions in the areas of engineering, science and art; the physical campus was modernized and grew, with 14 new, expanded and renovated buildings; and the university received national recognition with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

UW-Stout remains the only four-year university in the country to have received the Baldrige award, which recognizes an institution’s dedication to quality and continuous improvement, Meyer said.

“Nothing that has been accomplished during my time here has been done alone; it took working shoulder-to-shoulder with the entire campus community,” Sorensen said in “An Idea Comes of Age: UW-Stout, 1891-2016,” a book that was published for the university’s 125th anniversary. “Surely we have established a clear vision of what this already excellent university can become: a premier polytechnic university.”

The campus branded and marketed itself as Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University on Sorensen’s watch in 2007.

Meyer, who succeeded Sorensen, announced Sorensen’s death in a memo to campus.

“I am fortunate to have worked with Chancellor Emeritus Sorensen as a UW-Stout faculty member, program director, college dean and special assistant to the chancellor for state and federal relations,” Meyer wrote. “Not a day goes by that I don’t apply something that I learned from Chancellor Emeritus Sorensen as I try to carry on the legacy that he established during his 26 years at UW-Stout.

“He brought a passion to the position of chancellor every day that he stepped on campus. That passion resulted in a physical and programmatic transformation of this campus that will benefit generation after generation of students.”

‘Giant of a man’

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt recalled first meeting Sorensen in 1983 when Schmidt was a student leader and Sorensen was an administrator at Winona State University in Minnesota. 

“What I remember most about him was he was a bright but jovial leader on campus,” Schmidt said. “He was able to listen carefully to one’s point of view and create strong relationships.”

When Schmidt became chancellor at UW-Eau Claire, he called Sorensen almost immediately to discuss that role and the ins and outs of the UW System. For Schmidt, Sorensen was a valued mentor and “a bit of a kindred spirit,” Schmidt said, noting that they both strongly believed in maintaining distinctive institutions.

“Chuck was certainly a giant of a man in northwestern Wisconsin,” Schmidt said. “Stout has really been transformed under his leadership.”

UW System President Ray Cross issued a statement extending his condolences to Sorensen’s family, friends and the UW-Stout campus. 

“Chuck served the UW System proudly for more than two decades, and his passing will certainly be felt in the community,” Cross said. “I am proud to have called Chuck a friend and colleague, and he will be missed.”

Education advocate

John Enger, retired UW-Stout executive director of university relations, also called Sorensen a visionary, saying in a UW-Stout news release that Sorensen was “a man who understood the value of education.” That recognition sprang from his background.

Sorensen described himself as growing up “dirt poor” in Moline, Ill., with his father laboring in a factory and his mother working as a domestic servant. His high school counselor suggested he not attempt higher education because of his family’s modest means, so right out of high school Sorensen took a factory job like his father.

Within a week, Sorensen knew there was a better life and soon started at Black Hawk Community College in Illinois, working at a gas station to help pay for school. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., a master’s degree in history from Illinois State University and a doctorate in American history from Michigan State University. He also attended Harvard University’s Institute for Educational Management.

He spent his professional life as an historian, scholar and administrator. His first position teaching history was in a junior high school in Denver. After graduate school he taught at Tri-State College in Angola, Ind., and Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., before shifting into higher education administration. He served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Grand Valley State University, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Winona State University and, finally, as chancellor at UW-Stout.

During his tenure at UW-Stout, the university maintained an employment/​continuing education rate for new graduates at or above 97 percent, even during the worst recession since the Great Depression, the university reported.

Sorensen, the longest-serving leader in the 127-year history of UW-Stout, also spearheaded the university becoming a digital campus, establishing the eStout laptop program for undergraduate students in 2002 and the wireless infrastructure to support it.

The launch of the laptop program could have backfired because it raised student costs. Instead, Enger said, “Students saw the value, and enrollments went up.”

Enrollment at UW-Stout increased from 7,092 when Sorensen arrived in 1988 to 9,349 when he retired in 2014, an increase of nearly 32 percent.

“I maintain Charles Sorensen was the greatest leader of the institution,” Enger said. “The changes he made kept the original mission of the university but did what had to happen to take it into the 21st century. His greatest accomplishment was taking a fine university and turning it into a great one. The successes he accomplished are what made UW-Stout what it is today.”

John Murphy, retired dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, recalled Sorensen as a chancellor who built programs, improved the university foundation and influenced tens of thousands of students.

“He made us recognized worldwide,” Murphy said in the news release. “He was a builder and visionary. It was exciting to work with him.”

Julie Furst-Bowe, who served seven years as provost under Sorensen’s leadership and is now vice president of Chippewa Valley Technical College, recalled Sorensen as striving to promote women and minorities. In 1995, the university received the Governor’s Diamond Award from the Wisconsin Glass Ceiling Commission in recognition of the school’s efforts in hiring and promoting women and minorities.

“He just realized everyone deserved that same chance and opportunity for success,” Furst-Bowe said in the news release.

Challenge met

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Sorensen. In 1996, UW-Stout faculty gave Sorensen a no-confidence vote after a disagreement about the university becoming a charter school. Faculty were upset that Sorensen had not vetted a proposal to seek charter school status, meaning UW-Stout would be independent of the UW System and have its own board while still receiving state support.

In response to the no-confidence vote, Sorensen initiated a new campus governance process, the Chancellor’s Advisory Council, which includes representatives from all campus constituencies, and created the Office of Budget, Planning and Analysis to provide objective data for campus initiatives and handle capital planning, institutional research and the budget.

“He had to rethink how shared governance should work on campus, and he put things in place that really bolstered that,” Meyer said. “I think it took a crisis for him to become an even stronger leader.”

Sorensen is survived by his wife, Toni Poll-Sorensen of Maitland, Fla.; three adult daughters and their husbands; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A celebration of Sorensen’s life is planned at 5 p.m. Saturday, May 12, at The Newcomer Funeral Home’s South Seminole Chapel in Longwood, Fla.

The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the UW-Stout Charles W. Sorensen Endowed Scholarship at the Stout University Foundation (​pages/​givings/​charles-w-sorensen-endowed-scholarship) or The Hospice of the Comforter in Altamonte Springs, Fla., in Sorensen’s name.

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