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Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich
Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich

Diplomat of higher education

Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich poised to advance UW-Eau Claire's student-centered mission

By Judy Berthiaume

A respected historian and longtime university administrator, UW-Eau Claire’s newest chancellor knows firsthand how higher education can change a person’s life.

Brian Levin-Stankevich was an undergraduate student at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., more than three decades ago when he discovered a passion for Russian history, a discovery that has inspired his work as a scholar, teacher and administrator for more than 30 years.

“I took a Russian history class with a professor who was so passionate that it was contagious to me,” said Levin-Stankevich, a Buffalo, N.Y., native who became UW-Eau Claire’s seventh chancellor June 1. “I was completely enamored. I began eating, breathing and living Russian history. I became a Russian history geek, and everyone on campus knew it. When that professor helped me find my passion, everything in my life changed.”

By the time he graduated, Levin-Stankevich knew that he wanted to teach so he, too, could inspire students and change lives.

In the years since, Levin-Stankevich spent a year in Russia as a Fulbright Scholar, and he’s held positions at universities in New York, Florida, Washington and now Wisconsin. He came to UW-Eau Claire after 11 years at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash., most recently serving as its interim president.

The right fit

Relaxed, soft-spoken and confident, Levin-Stankevich, 55, credits much of his success in academia to his talent for bringing people together to solve problems and achieve goals. Those who know him say he’s an active listener, consistently seeking input from people whose opinions differ from his own. And while he’s serious about his work as a 19th-century Russian history scholar and university administrator, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Those traits, combined with his knowledge of and passion for higher education, made Levin-Stankevich the person colleagues at his previous institutions routinely relied on to solve problems and advance programs. As a result, he’s held leadership positions in both academic and student affairs, giving him an unusually comprehensive understanding of what it takes to successfully run a regional public university.

“I had no master career plan,” Levin-Stankevich said. “Even 15 years ago, I would never have guessed that I’d be a chancellor or a president. But people kept offering me new opportunities. I rarely sought the jobs but often was encouraged by others. I must have done them well because when Eastern’s president resigned, the Board of Trustees asked me (then provost and vice president) to serve as interim president.

“And once I was in the job, I realized how much I liked it. I was tremendously energized by the work and the interactions with alumni and community members. That’s when I decided to look at campus leadership positions, and I found UW-Eau Claire.”

Levin-Stankevich was attracted to UW-Eau Claire because of its reputation for academic excellence and its student-centered approach to higher education, an approach that matches his vision of what a liberal arts-based public university should be.

“It’s the right fit,” Levin-Stankevich said of UW-Eau Claire. “I went to a college that helped students make a life — not just a living — and it’s served me very well. UW-Eau Claire makes that same kind of commitment to its students. This is a quality institution that I can be proud to represent and a community where I believe I can make a difference.”

Getting a sense of place

Since arriving on campus in June, Levin-Stankevich has been listening carefully to faculty, students and other administrators, trying to get a better sense of the campus climate. So far, he likes what he’s hearing.

“Every conversation I have with faculty centers on how the university can better serve its students,” Levin-Stankevich said. “It’s incredible because I’m not hearing it from just a few faculty members but all of them. Every school says it’s student-centered, but not every school lives up to that claim. UW-Eau Claire certainly lives up to it.”

When Levin-Stankevich arrived at Eastern in 1995, the university was struggling with numerous problems, including declining enrollment and a reputation as a second-rate institution. His vision and leadership helped turn the university around, increasing enrollment and improving its reputation among prospective students and community members.

While the challenges facing UW-Eau Claire are different, Levin-Stankevich believes his skills will be just as valuable as he works to enhance relationships with stakeholders who are important to the university’s future.

“One of my immediate goals is to make connections in the local community,” Levin-Stankevich said. “All politics is local, so what people in the community think of the university matters. What happens in the community is important to our campus, and what happens on our campus affects the quality of life in the community. We all need to be on the same page so we’re all heading in the same direction.”

Levin-Stankevich likens a chancellor’s responsibilities to those of a foreign diplomat, a profession he once planned to pursue. Like a diplomat, a chancellor must bring together people who often have conflicting and/or competing agendas, he said.

“As a chancellor, I need to break down turf and get people to focus on a common good,” Levin-Stankevich said. “So I guess I’m a diplomat within higher education, a smaller but very important world.”

As a public university that offers its students the kinds of experiences often found only at private colleges or large research institutions, UW-Eau Claire is a “tremendous asset to the state of Wisconsin,” Levin-Stankevich s aid. Ensuring that all students — regardless of their financial means — can access such a quality public university is critical to the state’s future, he said.

“Higher education transforms lives,” said Levin-Stankevich, a first-generation college graduate. “It can transform the student’s life and the lives of that student’s entire family. A degree can lift a family out of poverty, and it can raise the expectations of an entire family now and for generations to come.”

Buffalo born and raised

Levin-Stankevich grew up in a close-knit working-class neighborhood where his father worked as a machinist and his mother worked as a homemaker and later a bank teller. No one in his immediate or extended family had attended college, but his parents always made education a priority, he said.

“There was never a question of whether I’d go to college, only where I’d go to college,” Levin-Stankevich said. “My parents never pushed me, but they did nudge me down a path they hoped I’d follow, and they made tremendous sacrifices to make that happen. There was just a sense that I should move on and do other things.”

While Levin-Stankevich did move on from that Buffalo neighborhood, he never lost the sense of community he experienced there. He believes a college campus should foster that same sense of community, providing a place where people feel comfortable and connected.

To help build those connections, Levin-Stankevich constantly looks for ways to interact with students. At previous institutions, he’s taught classes and coached a club hockey team. With the academic year now under way here, he plans to find ways to involve himself in the daily lives of UW-Eau Claire students.

“You’ll be seeing us (Levin-Stankevich and his wife, Debi) everywhere,” he said. “We’ll be at sporting events, concerts, shows, etc. We’ll be planning our lives around watching UW-Eau Claire students do what they love to do.”

Alumni and other friends of the university also will be seeing a lot of them, Levin-Stankevich said, adding that he’s been impressed by the strength of the ties between UW-Eau Claire alumni and their alma mater.

“As soon as I accepted this job, I began running into UW-Eau Claire graduates as I was going about my business,” Levin-Stankevich said. “Every one of them made a point to tell me that they loved it here. They were all very proud to be a Blugold. When you have alumni who are that proud of their alma mater — who feel that good about their college experience — it tells you something about the quality of the university.”

The alumni’s love for the university is obvious given the “phenomenal success” of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation’s ongoing Fulfilling the Promise of Excellence campaign, which already has contributions and commitments totaling more than $47 million, Levin-Stankevich said.

“It’s a tribute to the whole campus,” Levin-Stankevich said of the fundraising campaign to support UW-Eau Claire’s people and programs. “You don’t have that kind of success unless the alumni and the community have great confidence in the institution and they want to take good care of it.”

Imbued with Blugold spirit

A chance encounter with a UW-Eau Claire graduate helped Levin-Stankevich understand how fortunate many alumni feel to be associated with the university. After being named chancellor, he was playing golf in Washington when he met alumni from UW-Eau Claire and UW-Madison. The Madison graduate was teasing his friend about UW-Eau Claire’s nickname, the Blugolds, and the fact that the school has no mascot.

“After listening to their exchange, it struck me that a Blugold isn’t something you can draw on a wall, but there are generations of graduates who know exactly what it means,” Levin-Stankevich said. “To our graduates, being a Blugold is something special; not everyone gets to be a Blugold, and that means something to them.”

Through their time and tuition dollars, those graduates have invested in UW-Eau Claire, and the university must constantly strive to improve the return on that investment, Levin-Stankevich said.

“When we talk about a college education, we’re not just talking about four years,” Levin-Stankevich said. “Graduates have a degree for life — you don’t ever lose it or give it back. So how your alma mater fares in public opinion or reputation is going to have an effect on its alumni for life. The perception of a university means something, including to employers. It doesn’t matter when you got a degree; it’s still the same university.”

Levin-Stankevich said his long-term goal is that when he someday leaves the university, UW-Eau Claire will be an even better institution than when he arrived.

“I’m lucky because I have an opportunity to do something significant and change a lot of lives,” he said of his time on campus.

He said he hopes current and future graduates will be so fortunate in their own careers, adding that he constantly encourages students to set goals that go beyond simply earning a degree.

“I want them to find something they’re passionate about because when a student makes a connection — when they find something they feel like they really own — that’s when you have a graduate who will go out and do great things.”

Judy Berthiaume is director of the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.

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Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich at a glance

Age: 55

Education: Levin-Stankevich earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Hamilton College and his master’s and doctoral degrees in history from SUNY at Buffalo. He also studied for one year at St. Petersburg State University in Russia on a Fulbright Fellowship.

Academic specialty: 19th-century Russian history

Family: Wife, Debi
Twin sons, age 23: Stephen, an aerospace engineer in California; Matthew, a student at Buffalo State College
Dog, Sandy

Hobbies: hockey, biking, woodworking, golfing

Career highlights:

Eastern Washington University, Cheney, Wash.

June 2005-May 2006
Interim President

June 2002-May 2006
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

June 2002-May 2006
Professor in Counseling, Educational and Developmental Psychology Department

July 1995-June 2002
Vice President for Student Affairs

Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Fla.

June 1994-July 1995
Associate Dean of Schmidt College of Arts and Humanities

August 1993-January 1994
Acting Dean of Undergraduate Studies

December 1991-June 1994
Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management

February 1989-December 1991
Director of Admissions

State University of New York at Buffalo

July 1986-February 1989
Assistant Director of Admissions

May 1981-July 1986
Assistant Director for International Admissions

Canisius College, Buffalo, N.Y.

spring 1980
Instructor in Department of History

SUNY at Buffalo

1975-1979
Instructor in Department of History

 

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