A visit to Milwaukee: How UW-Madison is serving the state

Chancellor Rebecca Blank (right) meets with UW-Milwaukee chancellor Michael Lovell (left) in his office at the UWM campus on Aug. 15, 2013.  The visit was part of a two-day outreach trip to Milwaukee. (Photo by Bryce Richter/UW-Madison)
Chancellor Rebecca Blank (right) meets with UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Michael Lovell (left) in his office at the UWM campus on Aug. 15, 2013. The visit was part of a two-day outreach trip to Milwaukee. (Photo by Bryce Richter/UW-Madison)

Since arriving on campus, I’ve quickly learned that people here take the Wisconsin Idea — the principle that a public university can and should contribute to the community and state around it — very seriously.

One of my priorities as a new chancellor is to get off campus regularly, to build relationships and strengthen UW-Madison ties with citizens, businesses, other campuses, and state leaders across Wisconsin.

I took my first official trip outside Madison last week, with a two-day visit to Milwaukee. Milwaukee is not only the primary urban area in the state, it is also an integral part of Wisconsin’s economy, culture and identity. I talked with alumni and community leaders, met with Chancellor Mike Lovell at UW-Milwaukee, did some press interviews and events, had breakfast with state senators and representatives from the Milwaukee area, and visited Johnson Controls, which has a strong research partnership with both the Madison and Milwaukee campuses.

I was in Milwaukee frequently in the 1990s, when I was living and working in Chicago. It’s clear that the city has experienced some economic changes — both good and bad. On the one hand, Milwaukee has lost of some of its major manufacturing facilities and their associated jobs. On the other hand, it’s good to see businesses located in the revitalized area south of downtown.

In Milwaukee, I heard a theme that I suspect will be repeated in other places:  a sense that UW-Madison spins too much in its own orbit, and that the chancellor (and others) don’t come to Milwaukee often enough. Yet, I also had some good conversations with folks about the many things we are doing in Milwaukee. For instance, we have faculty working with local community organizations on food distribution or on combatting HIV/AIDS. We’re running the PEOPLE program for high school students who are interested in college but don’t know what a college campus is like or how to get there. This last summer we had more than 150 students from Milwaukee public high schools in the PEOPLE program, designed to give students a much better idea about what college means and that go along with being a successful student. We need to do more to link UW-Madison with Milwaukee … but we also need to let citizens know how many ties we already have.

The research collaboration with Johnson Controls is a great example of how the research expertise of the faculty at UW-Madison can be used to serve business and create jobs. Faculty at UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, who are working on the science that will drive improvements in battery storage and performance, are receiving support from Johnson Controls. Students employed as research assistants in this work get valuable research and lab experience working on problems with immediate technical applications. This sort of partnership, between the research interests of our faculty and the innovation needs of American business, is something that I hope we can expand in the years ahead.

The Milwaukee visit is the first of many I am planning across the state. Next month I’ll visit UW–Green Bay and UW–Oshkosh. I hope to visit each of the UW System’s four-year campuses in the coming months to get acquainted with their chancellors, to reach out to our alumni in the area, and to make connections with community and business leaders.

UW–Madison has a footprint in this state far outside the city of Madison. It’s our job to make sure that the citizens of Wisconsin understand the many ways in which our university is helping to create a more vibrant economy throughout the state.