This centennial year at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is full of celebrations and commemorations befitting a century of excellence in higher education and community connections. One way the UW-Eau Claire Foundation is marking the momentous occasion is through the publication of a comprehensive history book, "Building Excellence: University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, 1916-2016," written by two faculty members.
Dr. Robert Gough, professor emeritus of history, and Dr. James Oberly, professor of history and American Indian studies, recently published a history of UW-Eau Claire, a project nearly a decade in the making. In 2005, it became apparent than an update to the campus history was needed prior to the 2016 centennial. The last completed history of the campus, "The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire: A History, 1916-1976," left a 30-year gap in the story of the campus that needed to be filled to tell the complete centennial story. With support from the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, Gough and Oberly have completed what they call an "honest and comprehensive history" of UW-Eau Claire.
In explaining what they mean by honest, Oberly is quick to point out that "this is no coffee table book" in a recent interview with the Western Wisconsin Press Club.
This is "unlike many other university history books that are celebratory highlights only, coffee table books if you will," Oberly said. "In our book there are accomplishments, there are achievements and successes, but there are also setbacks, and we address those. We think it makes for a better book."
This book is one of several centennial projects supported by the UW-Eau Claire Foundation.
"We have been so pleased with the history book in that it tells such a comprehensive story about the university and its history," said Kimera Way, UW-Eau Claire Foundation president. "We do hope that more and more alumni and friends of the university realize what a great treasure and resource it is for today and well into the future. Drs. Gough and Oberly did a marvelous job in capturing the spirit of UW-Eau Claire."
The history that Gough and Oberly compiled is comprehensive, examining all aspects of the last 100 years of UW-Eau Claire — the policies, the academics, and student and faculty life, as well as connections to and support from the greater Chippewa Valley community. An undertaking this extensive required strategic division of work, and the two authors split the timeline essentially in half.
"I took the main responsibility for the introduction and first five chapters, which cover the period from before the establishment of the Eau Claire State Normal School in 1916 until Eau Claire State College became Wisconsin State University-Eau Claire in 1964," Gough said. "Jim took responsibility for the last five chapters, bringing the story up to date. However, the work was truly collaborative — we shared research findings, wrote sections of chapters for one another and repeatedly read, critiqued and edited draft chapters."
Not surprisingly, Gough and Oberly discovered several themes that carried through the arc of the last 100 years. Along with the consistent pursuit of excellence that became the campus motto, underlying currents of cooperation, collaboration and community can be found throughout the book. As Gough also explains, the campus has long held a tradition of growth and expansion, paired with goals of bringing higher education to widening groups of people.
"From its outset, UW-Eau Claire enrolled students with backgrounds from a range of economic strata. The teachers college was also in important ways a women’s domain in its early years, but it became 'masculinized' in the middle decades of the 20th century. In the last decades of the century, (the university) attracted growing numbers of students from underrepresented groups and international students," Gough said about seeds of the current university goals of equity, diversity and inclusivity.
UW-Eau Claire is a nationally recognized leader in student-faculty collaborative research, and the centennial history book project provided more such opportunities for students. During the last five academic years, approximately 40 students conducted research for various parts of the book, in capstone courses, independent study projects, oral history collections and mapping projects.
It was not easy to sum up the story of 100 years of education at UW-Eau Claire, but Gough aptly described it in this way:
"Students in the past have come from social and economic backgrounds different from those of today, have had different goals for their education and have had different experiences on campus. UW-Eau Claire as an institution, however, by being responsive to their changing needs and expectations, has always been able to provide them with excellence."