Five years ago, newly appointed UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt wrote an email to his future self detailing eight goals that would help the university become a nationally recognized entity.

Schmidt shared those goals and their progress on Tuesday morning with a packed Davies Center ballroom full of faculty and staff to celebrate the start of the 2018-19 school year. New students arrive Saturday, and classes begin Wednesday, Sept. 5.

“Everything I did needed to strengthen your ability to teach, to help students thrive and prepare graduates who can confidently make their way in the world,” said Schmidt, who was in high spirits and cracked jokes to a chuckling audience throughout his address.

Among Schmidt’s listed goals were establishing a strong enrollment trend, advancing the campus master plan, continuing community partnerships and becoming a leader in collaborative innovation.

Admissions,construction rise

While some universities such as UW-Stout and UW-Stevens Point are struggling with enrollment — UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer said enrollment is down there for the second year in a row — UW-Eau Claire isn’t experiencing the same trend.

As of Tuesday, director of admissions Heather Kretz estimated 10,800 students would be enrolled in fall semester classes, a 200-student spike from last year. That number isn’t yet a final count, as there’s still time for some students to drop out or others to come in.

Incoming freshmen total around 2,340. That’s on par with last year, Kretz said, which was a record-breaking year for the freshmen class.

“Each of the last several years, we’ve had record-breaking freshman enrollment,” she said.

That trend follows a major financial hit to the UW System in the state’s 2015-17 budget, which gutted $250 million from higher education funding. Gov. Scott Walker then put $100 million back into the system last year.

The university has taken multiple steps forward with its campus master plan over the last year. Construction on Garfield Avenue that was approved in 2016 is expected to wrap up soon, and some students will be moving into the freshly renovated Marilyn Karlgaard Hall next week as its other half, David Karlgaard Hall, undergoes renovations. Builders also broke ground on a new upper campus dormitory this year.

After an OK from the UW System Board of Regents last week, UW-Eau Claire’s hope to replace its aged and inadequate Phillips Science Hall with a $256.15 million facility advances a step further. The system’s biennial budget request that includes funding for that new facility will next go before the state Department of Administration for consideration as part of Walker’s executive budget.

“We need a replacement for Phillips Hall because if we are to be the transformative university we aspire to be, and in many ways we already are,” Schmidt said, “we must have the academic facilities so our students and instructors can teach, not spend their classroom time battling leaking roofs or doing research in the hallways.”

Collaboration, innovation

A research partnership between UW-Eau Claire and Mayo Clinic announced in 2017 is only the second of its kind in the world, Schmidt told his audience.

“Part of the importance of this relationship is the distinct advantage for us to make a national, international mark,” Schmidt said. “The fact that we’re the second university in the world to have that agreement says a lot.”

Timothy Nelson, a UW-Eau Claire alumnus and internationally known Mayo Clinic physician-scientist, in April began the role of director of research and innovation at the clinic. The position will facilitate opportunities for research between students and Mayo Clinic experts.

Schmidt also noted the planned September opening of the Pablo Center at the Confluence, which will house some classrooms and the university’s theater department.

Diversity, inclusivity

When Schmidt drafted his email five years ago, he said equity, diversity and inclusion — referred to as EDI at the university — was already part of the school’s strategic plan.

“As a rapidly aging, straight, white guy, it’s really hard to take the lead on this issue,” Schmidt said. “ ... I often stumble as I try to understand and try to support a campus that embraces everyone. I’m grateful to all of you who have taken time to offer me constructive feedback.”

He invited on stage senior student Jefferson Hall, who is a member of the school’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board. 

While Hall said “it hasn’t always been easy to be a black male on this campus,” he noted steps forward such as a large Black History Month celebration, an on-campus Martin Luther King program and a brochure that helps students better understand their rights when interacting with police on and off campus.

“I think there are some offices working really hard to think about the needs of students of color,” Hall said, “and how to help us be successful.”

Schmidt also noted that last year, UW-Eau Claire came in third on the College Choice ranking for the 50 best colleges for LGBTQ students. Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology were ranked first and second, respectively.

Some other topics of discussion at the breakfast:

• The annual Blugold Breakfast audience included staff from UW-Eau Claire — Barron County, the former UW-Barron County that merged with Eau Claire’s campus this year. Representatives from the institution expressed positive expectations for the coupling’s first year.

• The UW-Eau Claire Foundation received nearly $9.8 million in cash by the end of the fiscal year, compared with $7.2 million the year before, Schmidt said. It secured an additional $7.2 million in pledges to be paid over multiple years.

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