In the face of state budget cuts and tuition increases, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells is spearheading initiatives for new revenue through public-private partnerships. He sat down with Insight Editor Margaret LeBrun to share the most recent ideas coming out of the region’s largest four-year campus.
The mission of our university is to meet the knowledge needs of all of our students, as well as our for-profit, non-profit businesses and our communities in the New North. The way we have financed the public university in the past – state aid and taxpayer dollars, federal grants and student fees and tuition – cannot continue; it’s not sustainable. We have to be much more creative.
Business is dependent upon having a talented, well-educated workforce to choose from. But even more broadly, our communities need a talented, well-educated, civically-engaged people. A democracy depends on a well educated citizenry. We can’t do business well if we don’t have a relatively stable political environment where good debate and discussion occurs and it doesn’t end up to be divisive.
We’re all in this together. Our strategic financial plan for how we fund universities now and in the future should be a “both-and” thing. How do you accomplish that? You
do what I would consider public-private partnerships as a way to generate revenue.
I’ll give you two examples at UW-Oshkosh. Through the UW-Oshkosh Foundation we are pursuing a public-private partnership to renovate the City Center Hotel downtown.
A lot of people may not know it, but we have the largest on-campus, education conference business in the UW system through our Gruenhagen Conference Center. We host tens of thousands of people throughout the year, associated with EAA, or Badger Girls State, or the Department of Corrections (we do all their training here on our campus; they stay overnight in a residence hall with very Spartan rooms).
We’ve had this need to replace some of our meeting space since the 2008 flood destroyed a building that we were using for conferences. We were in the process of building a welcome and conference center when we were approached by our Community Foundation and by a local private hotelier.
We’re seeking investors to purchase the hotel; then we will renovate it. Eventually they will get a return on their investment and (part of) that will be used for scholarships for students in support of academic programs.
The second idea involves a bio-digester. A large dairy farm, Rosendale Dairy, approached us because we have built the only dry fermentation, anaerobic bio-digester in the Americas – and they have a concern with a lot of manure in one place. You can get a lot of energy out of manure. Again, it’s being done through our UW-Oshkosh Foundation, but for us it’s a piece of research and teaching and service equipment. And we’re meeting a need in our rural community, because when you process this manure through a bio-digester, two things happen: The smell is dramatically reduced and it doesn’t threaten the water table anymore.
We’re talking to UW-Extension now to develop something I’m calling the Center for University Rural Development and Sustainability Studies, or CURDS. We’re going to listening sessions in the New North region, gathering ideas with UW-Extension to help develop the overall rural community life. Much of Wisconsin’s fabric is rural, and we’ve got this brain-drain going on, this so-called “hollowing out” of rural America. These projects bring opportunities for very innovative public-private partnerships to advance the mission of the university to meet the knowledge needs of the people in the communities.
Is there controversy around some of this stuff? Absolutely. Nothing worth doing doesn’t have controversy associated with it.