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UW merger spurs worries, makes connections locally

This is the second part of a Herald series examining higher education within Chippewa County. Find the first part in the Herald’s Saturday, Feb. 10, edition or at

In a November 2017 vote, the UW-Board of Regents greenlit a plan introduced by President Ray Cross to realign seven UW universities with 13 UW colleges, making the colleges branches of the universities.

Regionally, this means UW-Eau Claire is now partnered with UW-Barron County, while UW-Stout was not given a partner college.

UW-Eau Claire student Ryan Ring was supportive of the move and voted for it as a member of the regent board. Approved by Gov. Scott Walker in April 2017, Ring represents students on the board.

Ring said he talked to Cross about the move, citing that he thought the move was the best decision the system could make at the time to address enrollment numbers. But he said he understands the concerns, including those that say UW colleges will lose their identity as institutions designed for ease of access for students in higher education.

“That’s a very valid concern because whenever there’s restructuring there’s always unknowns,” said Ring, who also said the move was conducive to helping the system thrive.

Doug Mell, executive director of communications and external relations at UW-Stout, said the university and UW-Barron County have been connected since the college’s inception in 1966, when it was a branch of UW-Stout.

“We have a long history with that campus,” Mell said. “The chancellor [Bob Meyer] said that the most important, one of the most important factors for us going forward, will be keeping that strong relationship with UW-Barron County as it transitions.”

Of the 100 students that transfer from UW-Colleges to UW-Stout, Mell said 25 of them are from UW-Barron County.

Despite being excluded from gaining a partner college, UW-Stout, like all other UW schools, are included on a system-wide steering committee to help oversee the process, which has a July 1 deadline.

Nick Webber, a student representative within the UW system, is a student at UW-Eau Claire who took classes at UW-Barron County while in high school and now serves his university as vice president of Student Senate. Webber said he and others are focused on ways to best transition and partner with UW-Barron County, which he said was a great experience for him in high school.

Webber recently expressed his concern with fall 2017 comments made by Cross through emails obtained by Wisconsin Public Radio about shared governance. Cross is found to have intentionally kept his plans for restructuring secret from governance groups.

In a letter to the editor, Webber wrote, “I am certain that throughout this implementation process President Cross has come to appreciate the contributions shared governance leaders have made thus far. … It is my sincere hope that divisive sentiments toward the employees and student[s] of the University of Wisconsin System will no longer be tolerated.”

In the conversations Webber has had with different groups about the new partnerships, he said he has seen benefit in moving forward together.

For UW-Eau Claire’s Chancellor, James Schmidt, restructuring and the conversations around it isn’t new, having experienced it multiple times in higher education in Minnesota.

While Schmidt understands the concerns that come with restructuring, he said conversations and working together can only benefit the institutions and its students. Schmidt said higher education shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all, and the new partnerships will emphasize options.

Schmidt said UW-Eau Claire’s values line-up with those of UW-Barron County, and the two have already begun collaborating.

“I think we will make each other stronger,” Schmidt said.

In other recent UW news, the board of regents voted Friday to increase nonresident and graduate tuition rates at UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout and UW-Milwaukee’s business school, starting this fall, according to the Associated Press.

Nonresident undergraduate tuition at UW-Eau Claire will increase $539, while UW-Stout’s will increase $296. UW-Eau Claire’s nonresident undergraduate tuition for the materials science and engineering program will increase $391, and nonresident graduate tuition will increase $430. At UW-Stout, Minnesota residents under reciprocity agreements will pay $157 more in tuition, while nonresident graduate students under the Midwest Student Exchange Program would pay $166 more.

Last week, Cross also urged the system to do more to combat sexual assault, adding he will announce more specific plans in the future, and UW-Madison announced it will offer free tuition for in-state families making less than $56,000 a year.

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Wisconsin biologist names new parasite after parents

After graduating from college, Eric Leis meant to thank his parents for their support. He never got around to sending a card, but 10 years later he showed his gratitude — by naming a parasite after them.

Leis, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, published an article last month in the journal Parasitology Research on one of two new species he discovered in the gills of a Mississippi River catfish.

Contributed photo 

Ligictaluridus michaelalicea, a parasite that lives in catfish gills, was discovered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Eric Leis, who named it for his parents. 

Measuring a little over a millimeter in length, Ligictaluridus michaelalicea is a flatworm named for Michael and Alice Leis.

“I just always wanted to give them a card and say thanks,” Leis said. “But time slips by.”

Growing up on the family farm near Cashton, Leis, 36, was fascinated by the outdoors. Between chores he would examine the parasites that burrowed in the backs of the cows, though it wasn’t until he was in college that he learned what they were called.

“If he wasn’t fishing with his grandpas, he was out collecting bugs, anything that crawled,” Michael Leis said of his son.

His mother helped with science fair projects and taped “Nature” and other science shows on the VCR. His father taught him how to observe the environment, where to sit when hunting deer.

“They were always just right there,” Leis said.

Michael Leis

Alice Leis said her son was always checking things out, even when the rest of the family didn’t share his curiosity.

“We were a busy family. We’re thinking, ‘Come on, we’ve got to go,’” she said. “Things you don’t think are significant turn out to be major factors in their life.”

Alice Leis

When he was in middle school, his parents gave him a microscope. He still remembers looking at snowflakes under the lens as he sat outside with his parents on a bitterly cold night.

“It changed my view of the world,” he said.

Leis went on to study biology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and earned a master’s degree in 2007 before going to work for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2015, he was examining cysts on the gills of a flathead catfish — under a much more powerful microscope in his Onalaska lab — when he noticed two worms that didn’t match any of the known catfish parasites. It turned out both were undiscovered species.

One, which was formally identified in a paper published last year, he named for his mentor, former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Becky Lasee. The other, which took a little longer to go through the peer review process, he named for his parents.

Leis, who’s working on identifying what could be two additional parasites, notes there are more than 15,000 new species discovered every year.

Contributed photo 

Eric Leis with the microscope his parents gave him for Christmas when he was in middle school.

Despite the uncharitable portrayal of parasites in popular culture, Leis said the Ligictaluridus michaelalicea doesn’t seem to have any negative effects on catfish.

“There’s always a balance between the parasite and the host,” he said. “It’s unsightly and disgusting, but they’re just part of life.”

Leis’s parents got to look at their namesake through the microscope before the slide was sent to the Smithsonian Institution for preservation.

“It’s quite an honor,” Michael said. “Not many people can say that, I guess.”

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Eric Leis, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service peers into a microscope Tuesday at his lab in Onalaska. Leis recently named a parasite he discovered, Ligictaluridus michaelalicea, after his parents, Michael and Alice Leis of Cashton.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

United States Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist Eric Leis recently named an aquatic parasite he discovered, drawing below, after his parents. The gesture was a way of thanking them for supporting his interest in science when he was a kid.

Alice Leis

Michael Leis