Reflecting On the Past

retiring UW-Stout chancellor recalls highs, lows of 26-year tenure

Tom Giffey

YOU OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES. Outgoing UW-Stout Chancellor Charles Sorensen posed in May with a portrait painted by retired art professor Doug Cumming.
YOU OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES. Outgoing UW-Stout Chancellor Charles Sorensen posed in May with a portrait painted by retired art professor Doug Cumming.

Outgoing UW-Stout Chancellor Charles Sorensen once lost 25 pounds in a single month. He mentions this not to brag about some extreme weight-loss technique, but to explain the stress caused by the biggest crisis of his professional career: a vote of no confidence in his leadership taken by the university’s faculty in 1996. That crisis – brought about by Sorensen’s exploration of making UW-Stout an independent charter school – was taxing for Sorensen, but he says it helped him become a better leader for the institution he’ll retire from on Aug. 15. Ultimately, the crisis led to changes that helped UW-Stout win the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award, a prestigious honor given to only a handful of U.S. organizations each year by the president.

“We infused the Baldridge practices into the very DNA of who we are, and we transformed who we are,” explained Sorensen while sitting in his half-packed-up office on the Menomonie campus. “It was very good for us. But it came out of a crisis.”

Sorensen, 73, spoke recently to Volume One about his 26-year tenure at the university, including how being a historian helps at a high-tech institution and how higher education can – and must – change.

VOLUME ONE: At other institutions, including UW-Eau Claire, it has become common for chancellors to come and go frequently. What explains your longevity?

CHANCELLOR SORENSEN: In all honesty, I came to stay seven or eight years. The jobs I wanted I didn’t get, the jobs offered I didn’t want, so you reach a breaking point and say, “Hey, let’s just stay.” My wife had a very good job at Eau Claire, so we landed together within 30 miles of each other, so that had an influence on our decision to stay, and I fell in love with the school. I fell in love with applied education, with the focus on reaching out to industry and corporations. I was always at schools more like Eau Claire – big liberal arts schools with a few professional schools tacked around them. And this is different. It’s a better-integrated model. I liked it, and I think Stout was open to change. We changed quite a bit during my tenure here. It became very enjoyable, very challenging, but I think I saw in Stout the future of public higher education nationwide. Every school is going to go in some way, shape, or form this direction. To blur the boundaries between campus and the private sector, to reach out and endorse economic development, to provide co-op experiences for most students. We have 90 percent of our students getting some kind of experiential learning before they graduate. That’s the wave of the future. Technology: We’re on the front edge of that. That’s been very exciting to develop. The whole laptop program was pretty dynamic, and it still is. All those things kind of wrapped together. And at a certain point, you say, “Gee, why leave now?” You really do.

How does the standard model of a liberal arts institution differ from how UW-Stout operates?

No. 1 is we do not have liberal arts programming, basically. We have some that come close to it. We don’t have history, philosophy, English – if you look at the array of programs that normally (are housed in) a university, we don’t have that normal array. We have a more career focused (program): We have packaging engineering, we have construction engineering, we have engineering in plastics and computers. So we have programs that relate more directly to careers in the outside world. And we promote that. Every program has an advisory board of industry people. Most programs even require or encourage co-op experiences so that by the time (students) leave here and graduate, they have some experience in the industry they want to get into. That’s why we have such a high placement rate; there’s no secret to that. People say, “How do you do that?” It’s pretty simple: Get the students out there early and test their mettle. So I think that that kind of integration is much more complete than at a school like Eau Claire. Now Eau Claire is simply a great school, and we came from a school just like Eau Claire in Michigan (Grand Valley State University). … But this different, this is a different integration of education. We do liberal arts here, every student must have a gen ed program, we have historians here and they publish and all that, but we simply don’t have majors in all of those areas.

“These are very smart young people, they’re committed. They’re much more attuned to social issues than we realize. They want to help people.”
– UW-Stout Chancellor Charles Sorensen, on today’s students
You’re a historian by training. How has that perspective impacted how you administered UW-Stout?

The study of history – and I have a Ph.D. in history – is simply the study of change over time. That’s what it boils right down to – history, that’s how I define it. I studied generational change throughout my doctoral program, and I wrote a dissertation on generational change taking place in the 17th century. So I was very comfortable with looking at (how) change is mandatory … and how do you manage that. And I kind of peeked at the past and peeked at the future, and I'm not sure I saw clearly where we are going, but I had a sense of the forces that were shaping and reshaping public higher education, and could work with the faculty and staff in giving some direction to that change. … (The laptop program) was radically new back in 1999, when the first experiment was. It’s not now. But we kind of peeked at the future, and said, “Wow, this is a tool that’s being used and will be used more frequently in not only the business side of who we are, but the educational side.” And we’ve proven to be exactly right. So that’s how I think the profession of history helped me look at the school a little bit differently. What I try to do is scrape off the sharp edges of professional programs and make them a little bit more open to broader interpretations of who they are in the liberal arts. We have one of the finest art departments in the entire state, or the entire Midwest. So we do that blending of programs.

How has the university changed – or not changed – during your time here? And how has the public’s impression of it changed?

I would go back and say that the ’60s were a great decade of change for the school. Bud Micheels was president. He introduced the art into Stout, and did so – he was an industrial technology person – and he did so because he saw that technology and art blended very nicely together. You have to have good design in engineering, and you have to understand what design is in art as well. He brought that phenomenal change, and it was very controversial when that happened. And what we did in my 26 years here, we did soften some of the edges to technology to make sure that it wasn’t just pure, hard, sharp engineering. And we introduced programs that I thought we had to have. I think we were at a crossroads in 1988. We couldn’t continue just doing technology, we had to do engineering, that was the wave of the future. So we did introduce engineering programs. …

That was a pretty phenomenal change we introduced, I think, was that to have engineering equal to (UW-)Madison, equal to (the University of) Minnesota, and they are. At the same time, we advanced an aggressive program of development of new programs. And so we took an art program that was very good and made it even better by hiring great faculty. You probably don’t even realize that back in the ’70s we were called the Menomonie Miracle in art. We hired a bunch of young people in art that really created a reputation in the Midwest and sometimes nationwide. I had my portrait painted for my retirement by a man who shows his work in Europe every year. Has for 25 or 30 years. It was called the Menomonie Miracle, and I didn’t know that actually until I met the guy. So we strengthened art, we put in place industrial design, which fits really well into engineering – you’ve got to have both if you’re going to have good engineering. And we hired some extraordinarily talented people in industrial design, so today that’s one of the strongest programs at Stout. So we built on who we were. We always looked at ourselves through the prism of the polytechnic, or applied learning, and we built programs around that. We didn’t try to vary. I would love to get into health sciences, but we didn’t. We have some programs related to health sciences, like voc rehab and dietetics and programs like that, but we don’t have health sciences, which has been one of the hot programs. The nursing program at Eau Claire is superb, and they’ve really built on that. La Crosse has superb physical therapy, and they’ve built on that. So we’ve lacked that and didn’t pursue it, and they probably wouldn’t have let us, but we didn’t pursue it because it wasn’t in our mission. We simply built on what we had, and made sure our general education program was always very strong, and it is. So (you have) a good blend of the professional applied and a good dose of the more liberal arts, broad-based, general education programs.

And that’s obviously what separates you from a purely technical college. You’re still preserving that liberal arts idea that you need a well-rounded citizen.

Exactly. And right now there’s a big, big push in the liberal arts to focus on communication skills, writing skills, critical thinking skills, creative thinking skills, but if a good engineering program doesn’t do that, they’re not a good engineering program. We take the same set of skill areas that I got as a student of history, and we apply that to engineering. It’s just common sense.

Every university faces “town vs. gown” conflicts. We’ve seen that in Eau Claire with various projects. How has the relationship between the Menomonie community and UW-Stout evolved over time?

I think that – this is my analysis – on the professional level, on the business level, we’ve always had a close working relationships. Our technology park was put together as a relationship between the city, NSP (now Xcel Energy), our foundation, and Stout, to open the tech park. It’s a great success story. But in the neighborhoods, where you have more the old-time Menomonie people, there’s been tension periodically over house parties, over rentals, as you can imagine. And in a sense, I wouldn’t say a resentment, but a lack of understanding that we have problems attracting qualified faculty because we’re in a national market for pay, and I hear people say, “Well, they make 50 grand a year, I don’t make that,” and so there’s been that kind of tension always. But, for the most part, it’s been healthy, and it’ll pop up in odd (places). We did a downtown study, spent a ton of money on it, about three years ago, and nothing came out of it, in large part, I think, because we did the study. And our study showed what should be happening, some of it is now: we’ve finally got Don’s Super Valu torn down, we’ve got the CVS going up, the food co-op is going to build in one of the old government buildings at the end of Main Street. … When we brought the consultants in, they did a whole lot of focus group things, and they told me this is the most fractured town they’ve ever seen in terms of not uniting behind an idea. Eau Claire has done a phenomenal job. I keep trying to throw Eau Claire up to us (in Menomonie) and say, “Look what they’re doing and what we’re not doing. C’mon folks.”

Helping the university win the Baldridge Award in 2001 was probably one of your biggest achievements. Talk about how you came to pursue that in the first place. You’re still the only four-year university to win it. Isn’t it typically won by businesses?

They’ve adapted that. It began as a way to be more competitive with Japan in manufacturing. Then they spread out to education, philanthropy, health care. …
It’s an intriguing story. It goes back to the vote of no confidence crisis of 1996. We were in the first real budget crisis in 1995-6. And we had a lot of discussion at the (UW) System with Katherine Lyall, who was the system head. She said what’s different in the nation that we could try to do a better job in efficiency and all that. Maryland has gone through some budget cuts and they allowed a school, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, to become an independent state university. They called it a charter school. Now every school Michigan has its own board, so I was very used to that model. So I said, “We’ll try that” – naively. So I spent with my vice chancellor for administration about six months drafting a paper … asking for permission to plan a charter school, and they granted me 18 months to see whether or not it makes sense to create an independent UW-Stout, state supported, but outside the system, deregulated, out from under some of the onerous regulations of the state. And Katherine Lyall liked it, the Board of Regents liked it, the governor liked it – Tommy Thompson.

The faculty went crazy. They went absolutely freakin’ crazy, and they rose as one and asked for my head on a platter. So they went through a vote of no confidence. I had done nothing wrong, immoral, illegal, nothing, but I decided I’d listen to what they had to say. So we had some very intense sessions. And they felt we didn’t have any open planning process, they felt that we weren’t open on budget decision, which I think we were, they felt that we needed a CIO (chief information officer) because we had all this technology and we didn’t have office controlling how we spent that. So we made some fundamental changes in 1997 and ’8.

And about a year and a half after the crisis, the campus had kind of resettled and I felt I was back in the good auspices of the faculty, and in the meantime we had a graduate who worked for IBM in Rochester, (Minn.), and they had gotten the Baldridge in like 1990. And he came to me, and said, “You know” – he was on our foundation board, so I fed them all the stuff that we were doing – he said, “It looks as though you are really Baldridge material, because you’re driven by metrics, you measure them, you make decisions on them.” He said, “Let’s look at that.” So we did. We sat down with him one day for eight hours and went through the Baldridge application. He was by that time an evaluator and a judge, and he said, “You’re up there in points where you should be to get a visit,” so we decided to write an application, and we did. Year number one, we got what they call consensus, that we were good, but not good enough to get a site visit. Then in year two we got a site visit. Eight people came and spent about three or four days with us, (but) we didn’t get the Baldridge. Year three, we won the award.

And I think the impact has been that we really adopted continuous improvement metrics in everything we did. And you wouldn’t sit through one meeting today with my cabinet or my advisory group unless we were talking about metrics. We talk about trends going up and trends going down. When trends go down, we try to dive in and see why. And we’re really driven by data. And we try to improve our processes continually. So we have a very robust and complete planning process here, and the Baldridge helped us change that. To change our planning process, we involve the entire campus now in looking at priorities, we have a CIO, we’re very careful about how we use technology where we use it extensively. We have an office that does all planning for us, does all the analysis for us, so we changed pretty fundamentally who we were and how we operate. It’s been very good for us. And right now you walk around campus, people know we won – some do, some don’t – but it’s a changed campus. We infused the Baldridge practices into the very DNA of who we are, and we transformed who we are. It was very good for us. …

When you look back on that initial crisis, was it a blessing in disguise? I’m sure it didn’t seem that way at the time.

It was the worst six months I ever had in my life, professionally. I lost 25 pounds in one month. What I did though, is I gutted it up, I had a couple of key advisers, and I decided the day after the (Faculty) Senate meeting that demanded my head, I would go out on campus and talk to everyone I could. That was very hard to walk in on the man who just asked for my head and say, “Let’s talk about this.” I did that for months and months. Every group that would meet with me, I met with. Every person that I could find, I would talk to. That began to build trust again. I had lost trust, no doubt about it. And I had to rebuild that trust, and I did exactly that.

Do you regret that, or was it just a learning experience as a manager?

(Laughs.) I think it was a learning experience as a manager. I found out as we traveled around giving talks working with other Baldridge companies that a number of corporations went through a crisis before they won the Baldridge. There is a kind of a logical path, but it wasn’t very much fun. …

Beyond the Baldridge Award, can you outline a few of your other proud moments as chancellor?

I think No. 1, we identified very broad issues we had to improve on. This was before the Baldridge – before and right after. One was technology. We called ourselves a high-tech campus, and I’m not a technology person, by the way, but I could tell we weren’t very high-tech in a whole lot of areas. So we decided to invest in the infrastructure for technology. This was about 1996-7. So we spent a couple of million dollars on a Cisco network. It was redundant, it couldn’t fail, we installed it in a very short period of time. It became the backbone for technology. And from that, we totally wired our campus for technology, we developed the laptop program, which was innovated at the time, certainly, we became wireless – we were the first school to become totally wireless in the UW System. So I think that was one thing: We defined technology in a very broad way that we had to succeed in to be a good university. So in business practices, in classroom practices, it was uneven, but the fact is we did identify that and we did it. We decided never to have action items without funding them. If we couldn’t fund it, we didn’t do it. It’s as simple as that.

I think second was program development. We developed something like 17 new programs in the last 10 years. We only have 20 programs, and the student population at that time was 7,000, and we knew we couldn’t sustain that. We had two or three major programs: Hospitality, 1,500 students. Education, 1,000 students. We thought if those programs go belly up or weaken, we won’t attract students. So very aggressive program planning. … We doubled our programs from 20 to 45, I think, in 20 years. That was very healthy.

We became very aggressive in raising money for key things on campus. We have, I think it’s the only ethics center in the UW System that’s funded by an endowment of $2 million. We went out and raised money for an ethics center. It’s been a very vibrant ethics center. Going back to our original discussion, that kind of softens the issue of our tech programs, too. We infuse ethics into every program. … We consolidated our efforts to reach out to the private sector through the Discovery Center. Again, $2 million endowment from a very wealthy alum to consolidate what we’re doing under one office, so we do have one-stop shopping. If a company has an issue to deal with and wants to use us, they have one telephone number to call. Student research: We have monumental strides in student research. These young people are bright, they work with faculty. We have teams working on (Lake Menomin) right now, learning about what causes the horrible algae issues.

One last thing I’m really proud of: We didn’t have sciences when I came here. We offered sciences for the technology programs, for the dietetics program, (but) we didn’t have science. We created an applied science major, now we have I think 400 majors in it, and went out and hired some very, very good young scientists. We have a tremendous science staff on this campus. … When I first came here, to put a student in grad school out of UW-Stout was pretty rare. They may go to grad school after they’d been out in industry for eight or 10 years, but they didn’t normally go directly to grad school from Stout, like Eau Claire. Now that happens. It’s not rare anymore; it’s more common in the sciences to do that. In the sciences, they do research. We didn’t have a National Science Foundation grant until maybe 1997. Now we’ve had maybe 20. And so that whole emergence of science has been a phenomenal healthy development for UW-Stout.

Other than the crisis you talked about, what have been some of the darker periods? In the past few years, you’ve had some tragic things happen.

We had eight or 10 students die within about two years. There was a tragic fire in which three young people couldn’t get out of the house and died. That’s when we cracked down on drinking. After those three kids died, I said enough is enough. This is stupid if we don’t take a stand as a university on this, and we took a strong stand with a combination of good strong educational programs and tough love. So we’re pretty harsh on the students who violate our norms around here now. At this very table, I had two young men who were probably 21 or 22, they had been arrested for drunkenness and did some damage, and we expelled them, and they sat here appealing, and broke down and cried – these big hefty guys broke down and cried. We found out that if you interfere with their education, they notice. We kicked them out for a semester and they came back and did OK. We did a combination of tough love and good educational programs. We have metrics. The evidence is that we’re driving binge drinking down slowly. And more kids are coming to these schools, like Eau Claire and here, that don’t drink at all. We have a growing number of kids that don’t drink, and we’re trying to shift that culture. Those were dark days when you had students dying from alcohol, really dark days. And budget – that seems dark all the time.


Is there a way around those budget problems? When you look ahead, how are universities going to solve these problems?

Well, I think No. 1, if you’ve read the papers the last month or so, the (student) debt crisis is kind of skewed toward those who go to private schools or for-profit schools. Our debt is not inconsiderable – it’s about $7,000 after you graduate – but I think that it’s not quite the crisis it was made out to be for a while. I think (the solution is) more efficiency in how we operate. A lot more fundraising – we raise money around here. Our foundation’s net assets right now are around $50 million. We’re getting money for the Discovery Center, for the Ethics Center, for endowed chairs and scholarships as well. That doesn’t offset state (budget) deductions. …

There’s no doubt in my mind that higher ed will remain at somewhat of a premium for people. There’s much more attention on getting your kids off to the right start by sending them to a two-year college or two-year tech school before going to a four-year school. … I think the state needs a discussion about higher education. We need on a commission on are we overbuilt, what’s the next 10, 20 years going to hold for public higher education. They can’t keep pinching on both ends of the money conduit. They cut off our tuition and our state dollars. At some point it’s going to be injurious to the state of Wisconsin when schools can’t operate and function at the level we said. I’m a chancellor, and that’s my personal bias. I do think the state does need a blue ribbon commission on the structure. They’ve got to loosen up the structure, they’ve got to give us some relief from all the regulations that we operate under. If you’re in a private school, every dollar is green, and here, if you get a dollar from food, it’s got to be spent in that arena. You can have excess money over here, but you can’t spend it over there because we didn’t take it in over there. It’s absurd. … There’s a series of regulations like that that really have to change if the state wants us to operate really efficiently and effectively. I’ve heard for 26 years, “Operate like a private business,” but you can’t, there’s no way in hell, because all the regulations from the state say you can’t do it like that. So I think they have to look at regulations and maybe some restructuring in the UW System.

How have students changed in the past 26 years, either in what they’re looking for in higher education, or how prepared they are by the education they have when they come here? What’s the broad view?

Since I’ve been in higher ed, for 45 years now, we’ve always complained that high schools don’t prepare students adequately. There’s some truth to that in basic skills like English, math, and science. But they’re not dumb. These kids are smart – they’re smart in a different way. They’re wired. They understand technology. They learn differently than we did. They don’t learn in a linear, sequential way. They’ve been bombarded by information from all sides. They sort that out in their own way and make sense out of it. I think that they expect coming out of school to have skill sets that allow them to be a professional of some type. And sometimes they’re over eager, they want to leave here with a job as a top manager of an organization, and that’s not going to happen. And I think some of the expectations they have aren’t too realistic, where when I went to school, we knew we were going to start at the bottom and climb up. These are very smart young people, they’re committed. They’re much more attuned to social issues than we realize. They want to help people. They believe in the principles of democracy. I’m pretty impressed with them. We get students back here after 15 or 20 years, and they’ve done phenomenal things. It’s just incredible.

You talked earlier about being a historian and trying to peek backward and forward into history. Where do see UW-Stout in 26 years?

I think the trajectory is exactly right. I think we have a chance to become one of the premier schools, at least in the Midwest, that practice applied learning in a very efficient and very profound way. In some circles, we’re pretty well known. Very few state universities are known outside their region. I don’t care if it’s here, or Eau Claire, or Mankato State. That’s just a fact of life. We have a chance to become a well-known polytechnic that does good outreach, that does good research, that does good economic development. We can be in the class of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, or Cal Poly-Pomona, or RIT. So I think we’re on the right trajectory, we’re not there yet, but certainly we’ve set our sights rather high. As an example, we have to have peer comparisons for the UW (System), we have to have 20 or 25 peers that we compare everything to – our salaries, the grants we bring in, all that kind of stuff. So we got rid of all the peers that weren’t polytechnics. … So we measure ourselves against what we consider really the very best in the country among the polys. We don’t fare well in every category, but if you look at if you had a 1-to-10 kind of scale for everything, we’re about 5 or 6. We’re not bad. We set pretty high expectations for ourselves. I think Bob Meyer coming in here (as chancellor), he is an engineer, he’s been here before, I think Bob will have the ability to keep that trajectory going. I’m pretty optimistic about this school.

If you could only give one piece of advice to your successor, what would it be?

I would say keep your eye on the prize. Look at what we have done and what we’ve projecting ourselves to do. And be relentless in pursuing that. There were times when I was very unpopular here, but I had a vision for what could be, and I was dogged about that, I didn’t give it up. I was criticized for it. Much of what we did here was because the team of people surrounding me believed in what we were doing, and we set that target, and we completed it.

Just as an example, when I first came here, they always had a pretty good planning process, but when I came here, for some reason they had identified 13 what they called “thrusts,” but they never funded them. They had 13 priorities, but they were never funded. So we said, no, we can’t do that, and so we dropped all of that. …We are the first school that I knew of that aligned our vision with our budget. If the action items for that vision couldn’t be budgeted, we simply didn’t do it. That’s what you have to do to drive an organization, whether you’re a manufacturing company or K-12 or higher ed. You have to have that alignment. And that’s what the Baldridge did for us – it aligned our vision, mission, and budget directly. I did a lot of consulting for a while on the Baldridge, and I was amazed how many schools didn’t have the alignment. They’d have planning in one division and budget in another division, and they never aligned. We aligned it perfectly, and that’s how we succeeded.

What will you miss most once you leave?

The people. And some of the challenges and the excitement of setting some goals and objectives and getting them done. But it’s time for me to go, no doubt. (Laughs.) When I was a young, active administrator, I always wanted people to get out of my way, and now I have to get out of their way, and I realize that.

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