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Chancellor tells faculty, staff to prepare for a year filled with opportunities and challenges

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Chancellor James Schmidt delivered his 10th Blugold Breakfast address during the academic year opening on Tuesday.

After three years of virtual or modified Blugold Breakfasts, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire faculty and staff were happy today to finally come together in person to celebrate the university’s accomplishments and to look ahead as the 2022-23 academic year gets underway.

Saying it was “so great to be together again,” Chancellor James Schmidt thanked faculty and staff for their support during the pandemic and recognized the many staff members from a variety of units who worked “tirelessly” these last years to “keep our campus open, housed, clean, fed and connected.”

The pandemic “upended our in-person instruction, stretched our ability to go online and has created new mental health challenges for students, faculty and staff,” Schmidt said of pandemic-related challenges that affected the entire campus. Still, thanks to faculty and staff efforts, last year “our classrooms were full, and we kept each other healthy. We were back to concerts and athletic competitions and team clubs. In the classroom and across our campuses, you (faculty and staff) made the year happen.”

While there is “much to be proud of and grateful for” from the last year, there also is much to look forward to in what he predicts will be a busy year ahead at UW-Eau Claire, Schmidt said.

In September, the campus will host the UW System Board of Regents meeting, which Schmidt said is a “chance to show the regents, System staff and other chancellors what makes this campus so special.” Students will be “front and center” as they tell the “Blugold story of inclusion, innovation and impact.”

In spring 2023, UW-Eau Claire will host the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, which will bring to campus more than 4,000 student researchers and their faculty mentors from across the U.S. NCUR is a chance “to show the country what makes this campus a national leader in undergraduate research,” Schmidt said. “NCUR will be a huge lift, but it’s truly a win for UW-Eau Claire. Undergraduate research is who we are and what we do best. It will be our chance to shine and to put the spotlight on our campus, within the UW System, regionally and even nationally.”

Hosting NCUR is especially important because raising the university’s profile and reputation is critical to UW-Eau Claire’s enrollment success in the coming years, Schmidt said.

“The pandemic delivered a sucker punch to our enrollment,” Schmidt said. “You’ll recall in 2019 we were looking at growing enrollment so that we could increase our investment in faculty and staff. But COVID interrupted our growth and in the past three years we’ve seen a drop in FTE enrollment of almost 700 students. And that drop has financial implications — more than $5 million in lost revenue.”

The $5 million deficit will grow unless the university addresses it quickly, Schmidt said. Fortunately, he said, UW-Eau Claire leadership has been “fiscally prudent.” So, in the coming year, the campus can manage the deficit by using reserves and by strategically investing in actions that will improve enrollment, with a goal of “attracting new students and keeping the ones we already have,” he said.

“This year, we need everyone — whether in our classrooms, labs, playing fields, residence halls or offices — to do all you can to help our students succeed and return,” Schmidt said. “That means watching for students who aren’t engaging early in the semester. Keeping an eye out for students who aren’t connecting with a team or club. Helping a student employee balance work and academics. We know that when students connect with a caring faculty or staff member, they do better. And that is always our goal for every student.”

During the breakfast meeting, Provost Patricia Kleine reminded faculty and staff that UW-Eau Claire’s 2025 Academic Strategic Plan affirms that “we must foster an environment inclusive of everyone with equitable participation for all, an environment that challenges and encourages our students to remain curious, to question assiduously, and to practice discernment as they encounter ideas that are unfamiliar or challenging to their point of view.”

Saying it’s likely the university’s commitment to providing students with a liberal education will be challenged this year, Kleine told faculty and instructional staff that the year will “require that you not only demonstrate your academic prowess, but also your ability to dialogue in a reasonable and respectful manner with colleagues and students who have other beliefs or perspectives or who outright disagree with you or their fellow students.”

Schmidt agrees, saying it’s likely people will raise divisive and stressful issues this fall, “issues that may be beyond our control, but which will impact our campus, nevertheless. From political divisions in an election year, to public debates about the purpose and funding of higher education, to conversations about the impact of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, we have an important role to play as a public institution of higher learning.

“I have often said that there should be no subject so dangerous that we cannot have an open conversation on our campus,” Schmidt said. “I’m not talking about social media sniping, but civil and informed debate about the issues that shape our world. We must be the model for a place where people of diverse views can gather to deliberate. A place that allows space and time for all voices, that respects people and diverse viewpoints, a place that honors decisions made in good faith, and helps to prepare our students to contribute to civil society.”

Whatever challenges arise during the coming year, Schmidt said he’s confident UW-Eau Claire will thrive if faculty and staff continue to support one another.

“Together, as a campus community, we can take on whatever comes ‘next,’” Schmidt said. “By respecting and honoring each other, we can model for our students what it means to be a caring learning community.”

During the Blugold Breakfast, members of the chancellor’s executive team also provided updates and highlights from their divisions, and winners of the 2022 faculty and staff Excellence Awards were announced and recognized.