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A century of service.

For 100 years and counting, UW-Eau Claire has been providing students with rich learning experiences while fostering their creativity and preparing them for a lifetime of personal and professional success.

If you ask Chancellor Jim Schmidt, that’s a cause for celebration.

“It’s a significant milestone for any organization to hit,” said Schmidt, who became chancellor in 2013 and is in the midst of his fourth school year at UW-Eau Claire. “The centennial provides a wonderful opportunity to reflect, be grateful and learn from the past — taking full stock of where the institution is now and forming a plan for our second century.”

The university’s 100th anniversary has given him good reason to pause and take note of the important role it plays in the Chippewa Valley and the many ways it serves students, residents and visitors — bringing educational, economic, cultural enrichment and improved quality of life opportunities to all who work and play here.

A century of changes

UW-Eau Claire was established as a teacher training institution with a focused mission of preparing teachers for employment in the expanding schools throughout our growing state. While teacher education is still an important part of what UW-Eau Claire does, it’s no longer its sole focus.

The university has added a broader program of arts and sciences, in addition to professional schools in business, nursing and health sciences and communication sciences and disorders. It’s gone from offering two-year teaching degrees to full baccalaureate programs, as well as master’s degrees and doctoral programs.

“From a curricular perspective, the mission of the institution has evolved into a full-blown comprehensive university from its original roots as a single-focused training institution,” Schmidt said.

Running parallel to the university’s change of focus was the expansion of its student body.

According to Schmidt, enrollment at the university “was growing at a breakneck pace” during the 1960s, climbing from 1,500 in the early '60s to more than 10,000 a decade later. To maintain its focus on quality and excellence, the university “very intentionally” kept the size of the institution stable for the next 40 years, and today is just under 11,000 students.

Leaving its mark

Little did leaders know it, but the founding of the teacher’s training school formed the framework for the lasting impact the university would one day make on the region.

“If you take a look at the (Eau Claire) Area School District, the public and private schools in the entire region, a lot of Blugolds are making those institutions the institutions they are,” Schmidt said. “Then, as you expand to the rest of our curriculum, we’ve got nearly 15,000 Blugolds who are living and working in the Chippewa Valley, impacting all walks of life and companies large and small.”

UW-Eau Claire graduates are serving on city councils, school boards, Kiwanis clubs and church boards. They are also coaching little league baseball and youth soccer and football.

“Institutions like UW-Eau Claire prepare people for civic engagement and leadership,” Schmidt said. “If you look at a place like Harvard, they’re preparing many of their graduates to run Wall Street. We have, I think, an even more important mission, which is to help make sure that communities and regions grow and prosper.”

Economic impact

Mike Schatz, economic development director for the City of Eau Claire, said UW-Eau Claire generates more than $317 million in spending in the Chippewa Valley, which gives “a significant boost” to the regional economy.

“Just as important is the cultural resources it brings to the area through programming of national speakers, music and art,” Schatz said. “Our citizens and businesses benefit from the youthful vibrancy of the students and faculty, and we are fortunate to have a fresh supply of talent ready to join our labor force each year.”

Likewise, UW-Eau Claire “has been a leader in creating public-private partnerships in the Eau Claire community,” he said, and has played a role in helping to revitalize the downtown area.

“It’s a tremendous asset as we become a desired location for people of all ages to live,” Schatz said.

A look ahead

As successful as the last 100 years have been, it begs the question, “What might be in store for the next century?”

Schmidt noted that the university is committed to community partnerships in terms of development — and has no intention of slowing down any time soon. The Confluence Arts Center is one such example.

“Even before we broke ground in October, an estimated $90 million in additional capital improvements already occurred in the immediate area around that site,” he said. “It shows the multiplier impact. Had we chosen to simply put an addition on Haas Fine Arts Center and squeeze another theater back where Kjer Theatre is located on our campus, it wouldn’t have had that big of an impact on our community.”

Looking further down the road, UW-Eau Claire is also partnering with the YMCA and Mayo Clinic Health System on the Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex redevelopment project along Menomonie Street.

“If you look at the next 100 years, this university sees its future deeply connected with our partnerships for the business community, for the civic community and for the cultural community of the Chippewa Valley,” Schmidt said.

Academically, UW-Eau Claire adopted a new strategic plan last fall focused on re-shaping curricular matters at the university and placing a greater focus on equity, diversity and inclusion. This new academic master plan is guided by four primary goals:

  • Having 100 percent of students partake in at least two “high-impact experiences,” such as an internship, study abroad program or undergraduate research, before they graduate.
  • Improving freshmen-to-sophomore retention rates.
  • Increasing four-year graduation rates.
  • Better serving the growing diverse group of students in the region.

“We want to make sure that we have helped close the opportunity gap,” Schmidt said. “That means students of color are graduating at similar rates, being retained at similar rates and that they’re involved in things such as our Honors Program.

"We are not sitting back on our laurels of our 100 years. We have set forth a purposeful course for our future that, I believe, is reflective of the values of the state of Wisconsin, the passion of our students and the value that our parents place on these skills."

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Jennifer Schmidt is a freelance writer based in Tilden.

Photos for this story provided by UW-Eau Claire, with historic images from the Special Collections and Archives department of UW-Eau Claire’s McIntyre Library.


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