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UW-Milwaukee Poised for Growth

University-based research can fuel Milwaukee’s economic development

Apr. 15, 2009
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The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is in the midst of a metamorphosis. UWM's leadership is shaking off the institution's old reputation as a second-tier, underrated commuter campus by embracing a bold plan to expand its research capacity. Focusing on research will result, hopefully, in more federal dollars for the university, an invigorated regional economy and enhanced stature for UWM.

UWM Chancellor Carlos Santiago said the strategy comes from a careful reading of UWM's mission-to be an urban educational institution and to produce research of service to the community.

The proposed expansion would create two new graduate schools, the School of Freshwater Sciences-the first in the nation-and the School of Public Health-the first such accredited in the state. Both must be approved by the state Legislature.

UWM has also proposed to move its College of Engineering and Applied Science to a new campus on the County Grounds in Wauwatosa, to be named the Michael J. Cudahy Innovation Park, which would include public/private research facilities on a 70-acre parcel. Milwaukee County's Committee on Economic & Community Development is expected to vote on UWM's $13.5 million offer to purchase the land May 11.

"We are trying to grow our research in a very focused, strategic way that fits with the economic needs and strengths of the region," Santiago said.

UWM is getting some key support from the state. In his proposed budget, Gov. Jim Doyle included $240 million over six years for the "Milwaukee Initiative," which would support UWM's acquisition and renovation of Columbia-St. Mary's Hospital, the creation of the School of Freshwater Sciences, the construction of an integrated research building on the Kenwood campus, and UWM's plans to acquire land outside of its East Side footprint for the School of Public Health and the College of Engineering. The initiative faces approval by the Joint Committee on Finance and the state Legislature.

"This would be the largest commitment to UWM ever," said state Rep. Jon Richards, whose district includes UWM. "I think people are looking at this investment as an important tool to help build this region's economy."

The proposed state funds follow $10 million already in the current budget to hire new UWM engineering faculty and staff, with additional installments potentially totaling $20 million.

Challenges and Opportunities

The governor's support for the Milwaukee Initiative contrasts with the decreasing levels of state funding for UWM's general budget, on top of a historic funding gap.

Most strikingly, UWM receives significantly less state funding (and less per capita) than the state's only other doctoral research university, UW-Madison. The state contributes approximately $4,617 per UWM student and $11,080 per UW-Madison student.

Even this amount is being reduced. The governor's proposed budget has cut funding for the UW System, forcing UWM to sustain an approximate 5% cut across the board, which is not expected to be offset by an anticipated 5% tuition increase.

Future state funding uncertainties underscore the importance of UWM's desire to diversify its funding streams by stepping up its research capacity. Provost Rita Cheng pointed out that federal research dollars bring with them overhead funding that can benefit the entire university, theoretically supporting non-research programs.

Individuals and the private sector are chipping in, too. Following a 2008 capital campaign that raised $125 million, UWM has raised more than $11 million in private support in the first seven months of this fiscal year, more than its previous annual average of $10 million, reported Patricia Borger, vice chancellor of development and alumni relations.

But demographic trends show a competitive decade ahead, with significantly fewer traditional aged undergraduates available. The peak of 71,000 Wisconsin high-school graduates in 2009 is projected to drop to fewer than 63,000 from 2013 to 2016, before cycling back up. Partly in response, UWM is preparing to appeal to older, working adults who want to refocus their careers.

Expanded Engineering College

Perhaps the most controversial component of UWM's expansion plan is the university's desire to relocate the engineering college far outside of its East Side campus, to the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa.

Michael Lovell, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science, argued that an expanded engineering campus that partners with industry is a critical component of metro Milwaukee's transformation into a high-tech growth city modeled after Pittsburgh or even Madison, which has become a biotech hub, thanks to the University of Wisconsin's researchers.

"The driver of that is going to be the universities and the technology we develop here," Lovell said.

Lovell said Milwaukee is the third-biggest industry center in the country, with 1,300 engineering firms, but that they need to partner with a strong engineering school doing research and development. One focus of Innovation Park on the County Grounds would be bioengineering, Lovell said, and the college would benefit from proximity to GE Healthcare and access to clinical data at the nearby Medical College of Wisconsin.

To build research capacity, the college needs more faculty members; to accommodate more faculty members, it needs to renovate existing facilities and expand to another campus, Lovell said. With 50 additional engineering faculty planned, Lovell anticipates generating $50 million in research in 10 to 15 years, up from $3 million last year. Lovell said that undergraduates would stay put on the Kenwood campus, while faculty researchers and grad students would move west.

The Wauwatosa site has been criticized for disrupting the habitat of monarch butterflies, isolating a component of the university from its core and not being in the city of Milwaukee. Some critics see the proposed move westward as sapping resources and prestige from the city. Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman even told a reporter that Chancellor Santiago had "declared war" on Milwaukee by refusing to consider a Downtown site.

But Santiago argued that the Wauwatosa campus is the best fit for the university and related businesses.

"Unless you move the medical school somewhere, I'm not open to any other sites because they don't make sense," Santiago said. "Why would I put our engineering school somewhere that it doesn't have the potential partners to thrive?"

School of Freshwater Sciences

The Innovation Park would be UWM's second non-Kenwood campus. UWM's Great Lakes WATER Institute, located in a former ceramic tile factory at 600 E. Greenfield Ave., is already the largest academic research institution on the Great Lakes.

The WATER Institute serves as a "research umbrella" for freshwater studies focusing on understanding Great Lakes ecology. With the approval of the state Legislature, the proposed School of Freshwater Sciences could be launched as early as September 2010, eventually expanding WATER faculty from 12 to 40 or 50, said Val Klump, director of the Institute. More faculty means more lab space, which would be built out immediately west of the current facility.

Klump pointed to the $400 billion water industry, of which water technology comprises $90 billion to $100 billion, as an opportunity for the city and the university. Milwaukee has about 120 companies involved in water, Klump said, and expanded UWM water research should help make them more competitive.

Rep. Richards said Milwaukee could be a leader in this emerging field.

"Supremacy is important on this because the real dollars in the future of the industry are going to go to the place that has the best capacity to move this new industry forward. And we have the potential to be there," Richards said.

School of Public Health

Although not as flashy as the engineering and water research centers, the proposed UWM School of Public Health could more directly impact the lives of Milwaukee residents.

"This community has the second-highest rate of asthma in the country, one of the highest incidences of diabetes in the country, some of the worst infant mortality numbers in the country. We have major public health issues here," Richards said.

Santiago said discussions are still ongoing to acquire a School of Public Health site in or near the former Pabst Brewery, attractive due to its proximity to Aurora Sinai Medical Center. Philanthropist Joseph Zilber offered $10 million for a Milwaukee-based public health school.

UWM is proposing an academic health center where its College of Nursing, College of Health Sciences, School of Public Health and possibly the School of Social Welfare graduate faculty would collaborate to research population health, health promotion and wellness, said Sally Lundeen, dean of UWM's College of Nursing, who is on the School of Public Health steering committee.

Lundeen anticipates adding between 25 and 40 faculty members. She said the new school would keep talent in the state and direct research to real health problems, particularly those facing inner-city residents, such as lead poisoning.

Santiago said the school would help to integrate the university into the larger community.

"It really is an expression of sort of moving the university beyond its boundaries, to try to meet the needs of the city and the region," Santiago said.

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