UW-Eau Claire's newest Blugold
James C. Schmidt began serving July 1 as UW-Eau Claire's eighth chancellor. After a quick but very full 10 weeks on campus, he sat down with UW-Eau Claire News Bureau director Julie Poquette and shared his thoughts about what UW-Eau Claire is doing right, how it can build on its tradition of excellence and what he envisions for its future —as well as the path that led him to the university's top leadership position.
Q: You have worked in higher education, with a focus on student affairs and university advancement, for most of your professional career. What drew you to the field of higher education?
A: What drew me to higher ed really was my experience as a college student. Part of it starts with my upbringing. My parents, particularly my mother, were very interested in being advocates for people who were missing out and needed opportunity. And while I was a college student at Winona State University, I got very active with the student government as I had always been interested in politics.
There were a number of things going on that were negatively affecting students while I was an undergraduate. Tuition went up 146 percent during those four years, so I was an advocate for access, an advocate for quality, to make sure that every student had an opportunity to go to college. I really do believe in the American dream. I believe anyone, given the opportunity, has a chance to be what they want to be, whatever their dream is. And so, the fundamental access to a high quality public education is a basic premise of mine.
While I was a college student I was vice president of our student senate, and my senior year I was state chair of our statewide student organization and spent most of my time up at the Capitol lobbying on financial aid access and quality issues. I was a political science major and I was missing a lot of classes, and I was grateful that my professors at the time said, "Jim, you're actually getting a really good education up at the Capitol. We want you up there. When you're in town, I expect you to be in class. You have to write the papers, pass my midterm and finals, but go do good work for the students of Winona State."
So it became a passion of mine. Later in my senior year, I was appointed as the first student member of the Minnesota Higher Education Coordinating Board — a board that oversaw all the state financial aid programs, did the accreditation and some approval of academic programming in the state. I also was part of a group of college leaders across the country who formed a national student organization called the National Student Roundtable. We represented more than 6 million college students in Washington. I was their first elected leader. I testified before Congress on issues of financial aid and student access and quality.
Right after college, my first job was working for Congressman Tim Penny from Minnesota, in Washington. He happened to be appointed a conferee for the Higher Education Act of 1986. He had staff members going back to Minnesota to run his campaign, and he needed someone who knew something about the Higher Education Act to work in Washington — right place, right time, good friend.
So after my appointment with Congressman Penny was up, I read a classified notice in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Austin Technical College was looking for a financial aid director. They said they wanted a student advocate —someone who knew the student aid laws and could be an advocate for the institution.
I applied, had no idea, but I thought I really understood the laws. And the college president, a woman who is a mentor of mine, took a chance on me. She said yes, you're young, but you seem to have the right spirit, the right motivation. So by the time I was 22, I was managing a multimillion-dollar financial aid program.
That was really the start. I kind of fell into it. It just ended up being a natural extension of what my interests and passions were.
Later that college went through a number of mergers, and I received several promotions, and was vice president for student affairs for Riverland Community College. And then, the opportunity to return to my alma mater almost 15 years ago, as vice president for advancement and head of their foundation, opened up.
I've really been able to live my dream, and that dream was made possible by the education and the amazing relationships I had with faculty, other students and staff members at Winona State University.
Q: What were you like as a college student?
A: I grew up in a small town, a town of a thousand, and the college I attended had six or seven times as many people as that. I was very active as a high school student, but I decided if I was going to go to college I was going to do a completely different thing. I decided OK, now it's time for me to try something different.
I was a pretty typical student, although I got involved in student government fairly early. We would refer to ourselves, like other people did, as student senate geeks. But we were involved in the governance of the university. Very early on, I knew the university presidents, the faculty leadership. And we viewed ourselves as full stakeholders at the table, just like the students here at UW-Eau Claire do. I went to class, did my best, but I was always distracted and interested in how the institution as a whole was going.
I worked a full-time job. I guess that might be a little bit different. I had a 40-hour-a-week job for two and a half of the years I went to college. I remember having to take an 8 o'clock calculus class, and then when I was done working and got back to my apartment it would be about 2 in the morning, and that's when I looked at my calculus for the day. That wasn't very good. That didn't end well.
I worked full time because I was worried about debt. I'd seen people in my life who had gotten a little overwhelmed with debt, and I didn't want to take out any student loans. Finally, midway through my junior year, I decided I needed to stop. I just needed to be a full-time student. And I really wanted to be more involved with student government. And then I took the debt on.
But it's a very current topic today. People are talking about student debt and what the impact is for the economy. Given the recession we went through, people are worried about that. My biggest concern really is we still serve a large number of first-generation college students. Colleges want to be accessible to these students. I want to have a conversation with the campus community and the state. How do we get the message to the fifth-graders and the sixth-graders and the seventh-graders that they can aspire to college —that if they do their work in school and prepare themselves, that they really do have access?
Q: How would those who know you answer the question, "Who is Jim Schmidt?"
A: I think most people who know me know I care a great deal about people, that I'm passionate about the ideas around public access to higher education, that I tend to support the underdog. I help celebrate other people's successes. And on a more personal level I think they see how much I deeply love my family. My kids and my wife are very important to me, and I do everything that I can to make sure I'm balancing everything.
I think people say I like to laugh;some say I have a good sense of humor, some people think maybe not. I think mostly what they'd say is I care about people, and I care about what I'm doing. Most would say I'm very genuine.
Q: You've shared details about your educational path. How has that shaped who you are as a leader?
A:My experience working full time for most of my college career was something I valued, something I thought was important, and again leads back to the notion that you need to have that access, and that it needs to be to quality. Access to poor quality is not any gift at all to society. You have to have both. I've challenged people: I've said people of our generation received a great education. How can we settle, and say our children and our children's children should not have an education as good as or better than we had? Are we really only the me generation? Really? Can you look at your own kids and say that they don't deserve something as good as or better than we had? Imagine your grandkids, your next-door neighbor, your nephews, your nieces. That's not OK.
Q: Who are the people who have been most influential in shaping you as a leader?
A: I learned a lot from my mom. She was a bit of a crusader. She was a high school English and drama speech teacher and served on the city council. It's kind of funny;we were both serving on city councils at the same time. She was in my hometown of Houston, and at that time I was in Austin, Minnesota. So we'd see each other once in awhile at the League of Minnesota Cities conferences. She was a role model and really knew how to bring people together and solve problems. She was a big believer that most problems could be solved by listening carefully and understanding before offering your own idea. She was a big part of my life and shaping who I am as a leader.
I had great role models, though, who were great college and university presidents. President Thomas Stark at Winona State took a great interest in me. While I was a student, he hired me for a while in his office;I was a research assistant, so I prepared research for various speeches and topics that he was working on.
Marge Kirchhoff, at what was then Austin Technical College, was the first college president who hired me and really challenged me to think beyond financial aid. She got me involved in all kinds of activities at the college. The joke is I'm never very good at staying in my own sandbox;I'm always interested in what's going on somewhere else. I remember I'd come in with an idea for her and she'd say, "Why are you still standing here? Get out of my office and go do it." It was kind of "ask for forgiveness rather than permission." As long as you understand the mission and understand the goals of the institution and you think that this is the right direction, give it a shot, and you're not going to be punished for making the wrong decision. I hope that I'm that kind of leader;I try to do that, and so she had an influence on me.
Also, President Darrell Krueger at Winona State, a person of deep conviction and value, really taught me some great insights about working with people, and I'll forever be grateful to him.
Q: What drew you to UW-Eau Claire and what makes you suited to serve as its chancellor?
A: Well, I've told the story that UW-Eau Claire was really a competitor of Winona State. We did market research, and we found out which schools students were considering attending, and UW-Eau Claire was one of them. So I made it a point to understand as much as I could. I've known faculty and staff who have worked here and heard their stories about the issues. It's long had a reputation for excellent students, highly committed faculty engaged in student research and collaborative activities in the community, service-learning and more.
So UW-Eau Claire has always been on my radar as a place to be watched. In fact, I've told the story a number of times about when people in Winona would ask me, "Where should my son or daughter go to school?" I would of course say Winona State, and they'd say, "Yeah, we love Winona, it's just too close." And I'd say, "If you want a school like Winona, you should look to UW-Eau Claire."
Speaking candidly, objectively measuring, UW-Eau Claire is further ahead than Winona State on a lot of great measurements. I also think there are some things Winona State has done better that UW-Eau Claire could learn from.
But I'd been encouraged by my last four presidents to consider a presidency. People had said it long ago, and it was always a little bit startling. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about myself and my path. I'm a person of faith, and I think opportunities happen when they're supposed to happen. And I had looked at a number of presidencies, but none really caught my eye. I remember I read the profile that the search committee prepared, read it carefully. And it was one of the first profiles that I thought really aligned with many of my strengths and abilities, and I thought perhaps this might be a good fit.
Q: You are perhaps the first to serve as UW-Eau Claire chancellor while also raising a young family. How are you, your wife and children adjusting as a family to this new chapter in your lives?
A: Well, it's something I've given a lot of consideration to, and I've asked other college presidents and chancellors how that's worked. The fact is, even at Winona State, I had a young family. I tried to include my kids and my wife in as many university activities as possible. But it will be a little bit different. I work very carefully to make sure I have balance.
I could be an outstanding university chancellor, but not a very good dad or husband, and that's not OK to me. That's not a fair tradeoff. So I'm trying to find some synergy. So if you see me at a basketball game, a hockey game or women's softball game, there's a good chance I'm going to have my kids with me so that I can spend some time with them.
I'm hoping to completely involve my family in the university culture. But I've been very pleased that senior staff has said, "You know what, we know we can't schedule you every night." And so I'll be working through that. It's very important to me that I'm able to be at my kids' events and their games, and frankly just be at home to spend time with them. So it's about balance, and it's something that I don't think there's a perfect answer to. The main thing is to be conscientious about it and to continue to check yourself to make sure you're doing a good job.
I will tell you that I think it will liven things up a little bit here. I have three boys;they're all very energetic, each with very different gifts. But if I had work to do in the office on the weekend (my wife is a nurse, so she would often have the weekend assignments), they'd be there with me, off in another room. So I have to warn the staff if there are candy dishes on their desks and my boys have access to them during the weekend, you might come back Monday and find them empty, even if I tell them to have only one piece.
Q: The landscape for higher education is changing in significant ways. What are the most important changes for which we as a university need to prepare?
A: The biggest change has been the incredible decrease in state support for our institutions. So the first issue is financial. We need to make sure we continue to offer opportunity.
I think there are some creative solutions. I looked at some ideas while I was in Winona as to how we can have access for the students with the highest financial need. We have to figure some of that out.
What we can't do is give up on quality. And that's a tall order. I don't claim to have those answers. But we're a creative community;we're going to have to figure out how to do that, how to contain our costs while still maintaining quality.
I would say that there is a great change on the horizon just dealing with alternative delivery methods. I've spoken elsewhere about MOOCs (massive open online courses). I'm not afraid of MOOC's. I think they're like a library. It's just a big resource of information, and I think there's an opportunity to carefully consider using that in the context of some of our classes. If you're teaching a history class and there's a particularly good lecture from another history professor across the country, I could see an individual faculty member wanting to take a 15-minute segment of that and show it in class. It's a resource.
But, unfortunately, I think the public and a lot of policymakers think it's the cure, it's the fix. As I mentioned earlier, education is not about depositing information. It's about engagement. It's about reflection. When I'm out talking to community members, CEOs of companies, they're looking for the attributes of a well-educated student who has had a liberal education: critical thinking, an ability to work in groups, strong written and oral communications, and the ability to problem solve. Those are some of the main qualities of a student who has had a liberal education. In terms of the specifics, they'll train them. You know, there's a difference between training and education. There is some overlap, but with education there is opportunity.
Q: What do you think of the dramatic and ongoing changes in the way young people prefer to communicate, and how will that impact the way students learn —as well as the way we as a university need to communicate with them moving forward?
A: Everybody wants to be communicated to in the way they prefer and with only the information they want;they don't want any extraneous information. So that's a challenge for any population.
But for today's college students, they do communicate in different —many different —ways. As an institution, we need to be early adopters of some of these ways if we want to reach our students. Certainly, my kids are sending me texts and Facebook messages. And we've all had that experience where you've been sitting in a room and everybody is on a device sending each other messages rather than speaking to each other.
I think it's unfortunate. I prefer to deal with people face to face and person to person. But the fact is, that's how they are communicating, and we need to figure out how we can adapt to that. And the people in our communications department are doing Twitter feeds, and we're blogging, and we're sending things out on Facebook, and we've got things on television, and we've got things on our website. I think it's a challenge for all of us.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead for UW-Eau Claire?
A: What's on my mind is attracting and retaining the very best faculty, staff and students.
UW-Eau Claire and Wisconsin have slipped behind in our competitiveness to attract them. It's about finances and making sure that we can pay people a rate that —you know, we don't want to be the top in the country, that's never been our notion —but that is competitive, so we can continue to attract quality people here.
As I understand the research, Wisconsin is about 20 percent behind other states in terms of faculty salaries. Minnesota pays better, frankly. In my early weeks at UW-Eau Claire, I've found we've lost a number of good people;some have been here 25 years. Finally, the economics win out, and they get attracted away.
One of the problems is, cuts to higher education don't show up right away. It takes a long time, because we continue to benefit from the work of those who came before us. So the biggest challenge, in my mind, is finance. Making sure we can keep the university affordable for our students, that we can attract and retain the best faculty and staff.
The campus master plan lays out a beautiful vision for where our physical plans need to be. We're working on the Confluence Project right now, and we've received support to build another residence hall and redo some infrastructure in front of the university, on Garfield Avenue.
We need better science facilities, nursing facilities, facilities for many of our faculty and staff.
There had not been any new construction on the main campus of UW-Eau Claire in almost 40 years until the Davies Center, and now the new education building, Centennial Hall. We have some improvements we have to make there. We've had faculty members making do, and doing the best they can, and you know what? They've done a great job. But there are limits, and I don't think we can wait 20 years for the vision of that master plan to be paved out.
Q: What do you like to do for fun?
A: Most of my fun involves my family. So every weekend this summer, I've either been at baseball games or soccer games. Outside of my kids' activities, I enjoy golf. I don't play enough, so my game hasn't improved much since I was on the junior high golf team in Houston, Minnesota. I enjoy going to college athletic events, and college arts festivals and the performing arts.
My mom was a director of theater, so I've always had a love for great theater. When I'm in New York I always try to take in at least one or two Broadway plays. In a week or so, either my wife or I will be taking our 12-year-old to see "Les Miserables" in Minneapolis. Somehow he's fallen in love with the music and he's never seen it but would like to, so one of us will get the treat of taking him as a birthday gift.
Q: Is there any special spot on campus that has become your favorite?
A: You know, my favorite spot on campus is anywhere there are great ideas and there are students. I've had the privilege of being on this campus in the summer, which is kind of its quiet time. And so I have naturally gravitated to anywhere where there are students. And I love asking them questions —where they're from, what their dreams are, what they're working on, who is their favorite professor.
And so, so far it has been the campus mall, because there has been energy there with new student groups, potential students touring —and it's my opportunity to stop and ask them how they found out about UW-Eau Claire, what they're considering.
Q: After having the opportunity to meet many UW-Eau Claire alumni, students, and current and retired faculty and staff, how would you answer the question, "What is a Blugold?"
A: That's a great question, and my first request from my new boss, Kevin Reilly, president of the UW System, was to get back to him with a report of what a Blugold is.
There's very much a sense from all these people that they are proud to be Blugolds. I think what a Blugold is is based on a unique experience that they all share. It's that experience of engaged learning. Almost every institution that I know of, like UW-Eau Claire, says these opportunities are provided. But there is something different here. When you talk to an alum, they get a little glimmer in their eye when they say they're a Blugold. And then they usually go on to talk about an experience with a professor or a staff member.
Every school wants to say it has engaged learning. Here it's different. I think a Blugold, at the heart, has that understanding, that belief that they had something very special, that they had a relationship, and they could connect. It seems to be a very strong presence that they carry with them decades after leaving UW-Eau Claire.