He won’t start his new job until Aug. 16, but Chancellor-designate Robert Meyer, 57, made his first visit to University of Wisconsin-Stout’s campus late last week. But it’s not like he’s a stranger.
“It’s about six years almost exactly since I left Stout as an assistant to the chancellor for state and federal relations,” Meyer said during a press conference on June 19. “It’s just a pleasure for me to be back at my alma mater and be able to try to take the college to a new level.”
Both Meyer and his wife, Debbie, are UW-Stout graduates. In addition to earning both a bachelor and masters degree, he also worked at the university in a variety of positions, most of them administrative. He succeeds Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen who will retire on Aug. 15.
“I don’t think I’d be coming back here, nor would I have had the experience at WITC [Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College] as their president had it not been for the opportunities that Chancellor Sorensen has afforded me over the years, including as dean of what was then the College of Technology, Engineering and Management,” Meyer said.
He pointed out that he was here at the time Sorensen was beginning to explore the possibility of having Stout designated as Wisconsin’s polytechnic university. “We had always talked about this being a special mission institution,” Meyer said, noting that James Huff Stout founded the institution because he had a need in the lumber industry for technically trained employees and graduates. “It’s interesting that he founded an institution focused on teaching because he knew that was the way to produce more technically trained individuals.”
The polytechnic designation was a natural progression for Stout, and it’s a brand that Meyer said he intends to focus on continuing to strengthen.
When he was at Stout, Meyer said he used strategic planning to good effect. “When I went to WITC, I really wanted to experiment with an institution-wide version of strategic planning — one that was focused on being inclusive of stakeholder input and responsive to that and also transparent,” he explained. Twenty listening sessions — conducted on a three-year rotation in the communities where WITC has a major footprint — garnering more than 1,200 comments on how to improve the college.
Not only has the college earned high rankings as a result, “It’s a reflection of the staff’s commitment to continuous improvement,” Meyer said. “I see parallels to here at UW-Stout ... help us hone what we do as a polytechnic institution.”
Meyer said he also plans to continue to build on Stout’s tradition of working partnerships with business and industry. “Meeting the needs of employers, inviting them in to be part of the program design on a regular basis is really important,” he said. “It’s how our graduates remain relevant — and sought.”
Partnerships with the K-12 education system, such as in the area of credit transfer agreements, are also key as well as with local economic development corporations and other regional groups. “For example, in this area, we’re hearing about the need for mechanical engineers and electrical engineers — just came up this week,” Meyer said.
He also points to fund raising as a crucial tool for the success of any educational institution. “These are austere times from a budget point of view for all institutions,” Meyer said. “Any way that we can be creative ... to augment our revenue sources is something we really need concentrate on.”
Support can come in forms that aren’t necessarily always financial. Experiential learning opportunities like co-ops and internships are important to ensure students’ experience in real-world situations is up to date. The latest equipment can be acquired through effective business partnerships. And providing faculty with summer externships with local employers can help them stay current in their fields, Meyer said.
Another Robert — Swanson — was chancellor when Meyer and his father made the 250-mile trip from Port Washington to Menomonie to check out Stout. “I was the second youngest of five children in my family,” he recalled. “My family was a sign letterer. ... All of his kids went on to higher education — that was his goal.”
Meyer remembers Swanson telling a few jokes, putting his father at ease and winning him over on the spot. He later remembers his own special encounter with Swanson later on: “Chancellor Swanson was an amazingly articulate individual, very bright, but he had an amazing memory, too. ... We met literally walking down the mall.”
Stopping and asking Meyer who he was, the young man responded that he was a member of the Student Senate. “I was, too,” Swanson told him.
“I was impressed that a chancellor would want to stop and talk to a student that way,” Meyer said. “I ran into him about a month later. He knew my name ... and asked how Student Senate was going.”
He observed that as a forward thinking leader, Swanson “set the table really well” for Sorensen, under whom Meyer served for 25 years.
“Chancellor Sorensen was very generous in terms of what he was able to do for me, providing me leadership experiences,” Meyer said, noting his plan to follow Sorensen’s example of always looking at how to take Stout to the next level.
“He’s always welcomed that outside input and built on it. Look at the quality of the laboratories we have, the quality of the instruction ... the quality of the staff ... it reflects his vision of really making this a better institution over time,” he continued. “I’ve been very blessed to work with great leaders.
In addition to his passion for Stout, Meyer recognizes the importance of applied research and applied experiential learning. And while he appreciates the university’s resources and polytechnic mission, it ultimately all comes down to people — the students, the staff and the faculty.
“I think my job as a chancellor is to continue to build and empower the great staff we have here at the institution,” Meyer said. “The success of the institution clearly depends on the quality of the staff that are working here. The quality of the program follows, which relates to how we do strategic planning, how we use advisory committees.”
Stout’s staff and faculty are its connection to the employers, he added. “They’re the ones that take the employers’ ideas and implement them into programs so that they’re relevant and successful.
“We’ve got that going and my job is to keep that going,” Meyer concluded. “And of course, to continue to amplify UW-Stout as Wisconsin’s polytechnic institution.”