More Than A Commuter School

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:39 pm

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has long toiled as a commuter school that humbly and efficiently performed its educational mission in a utilitarian way beneath the shadows of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

After all, Madison has the Division 1 athletic programs, the Badger name and the millions in research dollars, in addition to the blessings of most state legislators.
Sure, UWM made some waves of sort in the 1990s when the effervescent Nancy Zimpher, replete with school color hosiery, rolled into town as chancellor and launched the Milwaukee Idea, reenergizing the school’s alumni.

However, Zimpher has since departed for the University of Cincinnati. Her successor, Carlos Santiago, whose style is much more understated, is taking UWM in a markedly different direction, staking significant resources and his own career on the school’s ability to attract and implement research dollars (see accompanying Q&A).

Santiago wants to increase UWM’s annual research spending from about $30 million now to about $100 million by 2015. That vision is especially bold and ambitious, considering UWM will not be able to compete with the likes of its Madison counterpart for research dollars, raising the question: Does the state have the capacity and the logistical support to maintain two significant public research universitiesω

Santiago’s efforts to improve research at UWM were dealt a blow recently when vice chancellor of research Abbas Ourmazd resigned to take a lesser position as a professor and researcher in the university’s physics department.

UWM’s identity and its ability to attract research dollars are only two of the issues hanging fire for Santiago.

With the school at a crossroads, the Milwaukee area’s business leaders are responding with support for UWM (see accompanying story). The chief executive officers of four key Milwaukee companies are leading a $100 million fundraising campaign for the school: Dennis Kuester, chairman and CEO of Marshall & Ilsley Corp.; Gale Klappa, chairman, president and CEO of Wisconsin Energy Corp.; James Ziemer, president and CEO of Harley-Davidson Inc.; and Edward Zore, president and CEO of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. All four of them are UWM alums.

More than half of the money has been raised already.

Furthermore, Sheldon Lubar, founder and chairman of Lubar & Company Inc., earlier this year made a $10 million contribution to UWM, the largest in the school’s history. The UWM business school was renamed after Lubar.


Meanwhile, Santiago and UWM are grappling with other issues that will have impact on the school’s image and its mission.
• Some business and government officials say UWM should merge with UW-Waukesha. Supporters of the idea say it would strengthen the region by expanding educational opportunities in Waukesha County and would give the school a way to grow. The concept continues to be debated.

• Inspired by the success of the UWM men’s basketball team, some alumni and current students continue to call for the school to change its name and lose its hyphen. The Panther team has done its part to help the university raise its profile and shake off its stigma of being just a commuter school by marching to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in three of the last four years, including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2005.

• Then there is the issue of student enrollment. Just how big should UWM beω The school already fails to meet the on-campus housing requests of its students. Santiago expects UWM’s enrollment to soon surpass 30,000. How many more students can the landlocked campus accommodateω

Adding urgency to the enrollment equation is the fact that it has become increasingly difficult for students to gain admission into UW-Madison in recent years. Students with a high school grade point average of less than 3.5 need not apply for the Madison school.
Since it is more difficult to get into UW-Madison, more Wisconsin high school graduates are choosing to attend school out of state, adding to the state’s brain drain.
Some UWM supporters say the state should be working to improve the caliber of the Milwaukee school so it will be a more viable alternative for top-notch students who are unable to attend UW-Madison.

However, the state Legislature has yet to provide the funding to make UWM a preferred option for some of those top students. Some UWM supporters say the state still unfairly favors UW-Madison, at the expense of the Milwaukee school (see accompanying guest viewpoint).

In so many ways, UWM is at a crossroads. Will Santiago succeed in transforming the school into a research institution, and will the local business community see a return on its investmentsω The answers to those questions will soon become apparent.

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