When a group of students came to University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh leaders in the early 2000s with a plea for the school to be more “green,” they likely had no idea where their request would lead.
Richard Wells and other campus leaders realized becoming more sustainable could not only improve the environment, it could also provide the university with a distinct vision to rally students and staff.
“Oshkosh is a comprehensive university,” Wells says of the state’s third-largest UW campus behind Madison and Milwaukee. “We’re not a college known for one area or program, such as music, but rather we do a number of things very well. To bring cohesiveness to our efforts, we looked for themes that could be implemented throughout the university. Sustainability is one such distinction,” he says.
As Wells explains it, the university has three vertical initiatives: sustainability, community involvement and transforming the university’s general education. Each is universal and can be used by all of the colleges and programs.
“Everyone on campus can be sustainable in one way or another and it gives us all something to hang our hat on,” Wells says. “The best part is this sustainability initiative came from our students.”
The university’s green initiatives have earned UW-Oshkosh national recognition, with Sierra Magazine and The Princeton Review naming the school one of the greenest colleges in the nation.
“Everyone – students, faculty and staff members – can feel a part of our sustainability initiative. It’s how we live, it’s how we recycle, it’s how we build our buildings,” Wells says.
While UW-Oshkosh’s sustainability efforts are impressive, they’re just one initiative Wells will be remembered for when he retires in August after 14 years leading the university.
Planning for the future
Wells carved out a strategic plan for the university from the start, identifying several areas where the school could make improvements. “We really needed to talk about where we wanted to be and then figure out how to get there,” he says.
Johnson Controls conducted a comprehensive carbon footprint study for the university and outlined a plan for the campus to become carbon neutral by 2025.
For UW-Oshkosh, sustainability is an all-encompassing range of efforts, including exploring ways to produce energy, construct “green” buildings and develop academic programs.
“We’ve looked at how to make our curriculum greener and then beyond that, how can we help our region become greener?” Wells says.
Notably, UW-Oshkosh has become a regional leader in the use of biodigesters. In a biodigester, microorganisms break down biodegradable materials such as food scraps, yard waste or corn stalks, turning it eventually into energy. The university owns and operates a biodigester on campus and one at a small nearby dairy farm. It also co-owns and co-operates a third biodigester with Rosendale Dairy in Fond du Lac County, the state’s largest dairy.
The campus biodigester, which began production in 2011, is the first commercial-scale dry fermentation anaerobic biodigester in North America. UW-Oshkosh partnered with the Viessmann Group of Germany to build the biodigester, which not only provides the campus with energy, but also serves as a living laboratory and provides students with on-the-job experience, says Greg Kleinheinz, associate dean and professor of environmental engineering technology at the university. The university employs one full-time staff member and 30 part-time students to operate and conduct research on the biodigesters.
“Our students have the ability to get right in there and get to work,” Kleinheinz says. “It’s a wonderful learning experience for them. They not only have a job, which helps them pay for school, they are also getting great on-the-job experience.”
The biodigesters provide research tools for the university, with faculty and students researching which biomaterials are most effective gas producers, for example. “Primarily, it’s private companies who have biodigesters and they aren’t out there sharing what they’ve learned,” Kleinheinz says. “We’re looking forward to publishing what we’ve learned.”
The biodigesters also exemplify other concepts that have been integral to Wells’ leadership at UW-Oshkosh: collaboration and community outreach. For example, the university works with the City of Oshkosh to collect yard waste for use in creating energy at the on-campus biodigester.
The university partners with businesses in the operation of the two off-campus biodigesters. At Allen Farm, about six miles northwest of Oshkosh, the university in 2012 installed a smaller wet biodigester designed for farms with fewer than 500 cows. The biodigester at Rosendale Dairy began production in late 2013.
“These biodigesters are wonderful pieces for teaching and research. They also are helping a legacy industry in Wisconsin – dairy farming – while helping to improve water quality,” Wells says. “An estimated 1,200 homes, the size of some of our smaller rural communities, could be powered by a renewable energy plant like the one at Rosendale Dairy.”
Wells points out the UW-Oshkosh Foundation is a big supporter of the university’s biodigester projects and provided funds to help get them started. “The foundation has been tremendously helpful,” he says.
Traditionally, colleges and universities are insular, with little interaction with their surrounding communities. Wells decided early on that UW-Oshkosh would become more active, not only with the City of Oshkosh, but the region as a whole.
“You can do more when you work together,” he says.
To that end, Wells teamed up with leaders from other educational institutions, including Jeff Rafn of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and Susan May of Fox Valley Technical College, to create NEW ERA (Northeast Wisconsin Education Resource Alliance) in the early 2000s.
“Rick’s a wonderful collaborator,” May says. “He’s really the founding father of NEW ERA. It was his vision and efforts that really got higher education facilities to begin working together.”
Wells says when NEW ERA started, it was considered an achievement to create a joint library card; now the group develops programs together.
“We realized we could do a lot more by working together than working separately,” he says.
Just last year, UW-Oshkosh, along with the other NEW ERA schools, announced the creation of three new engineering technology degree programs that allow students to take some of their classes at technical colleges and others at one of the region’s UW schools.
“It’s a great program that not only helps our businesses who are looking for employees with this type of degree, it also has multiple entry and exit points for students to get into it,” Wells says. The program was in the works for several years before coming to fruition, he adds. May echoes his comments.
“Rick is absolutely passionate about the role higher education plays in the economy and his efforts regarding collaboration have benefited students, employers and communities in general,” she says.
Wells believes the collaboration among the region’s education institutions led to significant collaborations between businesses and other organizations. “I like to think of NEW ERA as the parent to the New North. We were here first and I think we helped create the climate to get that started,” he says.
Wells has been a leader in bringing public and private partners together, such as the UW-Oshkosh Foundation’s partnership with businesses on a $15 million renovation and rehabilitation of downtown Oshkosh’s waterfront hotel and convention center.
“Chancellor Wells has a great vision and commitment to the community and campus. He played a lead role in getting the hotel project done,” says Rob Kleman, senior vice president of economic development for the Oshkosh Area Chamber of Commerce.
Wells says anything that benefits the community benefits the college as well. “We realize the impact our university has on the community. Our influence doesn’t end at the campus borders,” he says.
A 2009 study disclosed the university’s economic impact was about $500 million annually on the community and creates directly or indirectly 9,000 jobs locally.
Kleman says Wells is a champion for business development and entrepreneurship.
“He’s really done a lot to connect the community to the campus,” he says. “He’s had such a great influence.”
While Wells raised the university’s profile in the community and region, students are always on the mind of the former sociology professor. Focusing on students and their needs helped the university attract a record 13,902 students for the fall semester of 2013 – a 19 percent increase from 2000 when Wells came on board.
Those students have more education options than ever. These include the engineering technology degrees as well as an insurance program. “We are focused on developing programs that help close the skills gaps,” Wells says.
In addition, the college has its first doctoral program (nursing) and expanded its master of business administration offerings to include an online program in foundations and programs designed for executives and professionals.
Many of the professionals passing through the university’s MBA programs stay in the area, says Kathleen Hagens, director of the College of Business MBA Program.
“We’re proud so many of the people running companies in the area have MBAs from UW-Oshkosh,” she says. “I think our program is so attractive because we really focus on the functional areas that business people need to know in HR, marketing, financials.”
The university’s MBA program is fully accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business – the only one in the New North with that status. “We really understand businesses in Wisconsin and gear our programs for working professionals, whether it’s online classes, weeknight classes or classes on Saturdays,” Hagens says.
Another program that grew and transformed under Wells’ leadership is the University Studies Program, which transformed the college’s general education program. The University Studies Program features small learning communities, student peer mentoring, alumni mentors and courses focused on sustainability, appreciation of cultural differences and collaboration.
“A key part of this general education transformation is service-learning projects and initiatives and getting our students out more in the community,” Wells says.
The road ahead
Wells and his wife will move to Florida after he leaves the chancellor’s office.
“I’ve received a lot of advice from people who have retired. I know I’ll do something related to education and I’ll still be engaged in that,” Wells says.
Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Petra Roter has been named interim chancellor while a search committee looks for Wells’ replacement.
“He or she will have a full plate,” Wells says. “There are still a lot of challenges that lie ahead. More can be done about narrowing the achievement gap between white students and students of color and those who are the first generation of their family to go to college. Another challenge is to figure out how we stop pricing people out of getting an education while at the same time looking at the salaries we pay our staff to make sure we keep the best and brightest.”
Wells says he’ll cherish the time he spent in Oshkosh. “I loved working here, but it’s time for a new beginning for me and the university. New beginnings can be very exciting.”
» Current position: UW-Oshkosh chancellor since 2000. Retiring Aug. 31, 2014.
» Previous academic leadership positions: Provost and vice president of academic affairs at Indiana State University; West Chester University dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and department chair of sociology and anthropology at the University of South Alabama.
» Education: Bachelor’s degree from William Penn College; master’s degree from the University of Arkansas; and doctorate in sociology from Texas A&M University.
» Local organization involvement: In addition to participating in several national education organizations, Wells served on the boards of Affinity Health System, the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, the Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance (NEW ERA), New North Inc., Oshkosh Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, CHAMCO and the Oshkosh Area United Way.
Since Richard Wells became chancellor of UW-Oshkosh in 2000, construction crews have been a common sight on campus as the university blended state dollars, program funds and private sector donations to take on multiple building and remodeling projects. In all, approximately $320 million has been spent since 2000 on construction projects, with some projects still scheduled for next year.
Here’s a look at some of the highlights:
» Construction of Sage Hall, the university’s first academic building in 40 years, completed in 2012.
» Construction of the UW-Oshkosh Alumni Welcome and Conference Center, which opened in April.
» Construction in 2011 of the first commercial-scale dry fermentation anaerobic biodigester in the Western Hemisphere, which generates energy and revenue from the controlled decomposition of crop, yard and campus food waste.
» Construction of the Horizon Village residence hall in 2012 and renovations of Taylor Hall in 2005 and Fletcher Hall, which could begin by next year.
» Multi-phase renovation of the Kolf Sports Center, which was finished in 2012.
» Planned renovation of the Clow Social Science Center (to be started later this year).
Wells credits the community, including local businesses, and the UW Board of Regents for making the projects possible.
“When people can see what you’re doing and that it’s making a difference, it’s easier to get out there and support,” he says.