EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Did the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt have to meet with 50 regional CEOs in his first 50 days as the university’s chancellor in November 2013? No. Did he? Yes. Schmidt knew those meetings were crucial for setting the tone for his tenure at the helm of the campus.

 “I am a big believer in building those relationships early so that you can figure out how best the university can serve the area industries,” said Schmidt.

He figured out right away that the university needed to play a larger role in training nurses for the region’s hospitals. He learned that the nationwide nursing shortage was impacting health care systems across the Chippewa Valley and, with record retirements, that shortage would persist for years to come.

“UW-Eau Claire is the only UW school nursing program west of Madison so we carry a big responsibility for western Wisconsin and frankly, some of the rural parts as well,” Schmidt said.

He also learned his campus wasn’t quite ready to meet that need. There weren’t enough classes to educate nursing students or facilities for those students to take part in work placements. The university tapped its health care partners in the region, including Marshfield Medical Center and Mayo Clinic Health System, to find solutions. In 2021, the partnership with the Mayo Clinic resulted in a $9.4 million workforce innovation grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to increase nursing classes.

The university plans to spend the money on six new programs to increase nursing classes, create a Master of Public Health degree and expand programs focused on rural health care.

The partnership with Mayo Clinic also allows students to get involved with research during their undergraduate studies. The university is just the second in the world to sign a universal research agreement with Mayo Clinic. The program, which marked its fifth anniversary in 2022, allows students to work with Mayo researchers as early as freshman year.

“We’ve got some students just two years ago that were involved in a research program to try to figure out how to make ablation procedures more effective without harming a lot of the healthy cells around cancerous cells. Those students will be a part of what will become the first joint patent between the Mayo Clinic and UW Eau Claire and they’ve been published in peer-reviewed journal articles. No other student, no other college in the country really offered that kind of opportunity for students.”

Schmidt says ungraduated research has been a part of UW-Eau Claire since the 1960s. He adds, the opportunities aren’t just in the sciences, with liberal arts students also conductions research alongside their professors. In fact, according to the chancellor, more than 40% of students complete an undergraduate research opportunity. The university is preparing to roll out the red carpet for researchers from across the country.

In April, the campus will host the National Conference of Undergraduate Research and expects to welcome 4,000 students from colleges and universities all over the United States to share their work and network.

The university is one of nine UW system campuses that recorded a drop in enrollment from fall 2021 to fall 2022. Data from the UW system shows 10,060 students enrolled as of the 10th day of classes in 2022, a 6% drop from the year before. Schmidt acknowledges, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the school hard, especially the music program and the 25 intercollegiate sports on campus. Schmidt predicts enrollment numbers will rebound, due in part to investments in new facilities and new programs.

“I think we’re setup for success. We’ve had a number of new programs being offered that are in high demand for students. Things such as biomedical engineering, neuroscience, bio-informatics, really leverage that partnership with Mayo Clinic.”

Schmidt and the college staff are looking forward to breaking ground in about a year’s time on a $345.5 million science and health center. The building will replace Phillips Hall to provide state-of-the-art science facilities for classes and research. Several departments will call the building home, including biology, nursing, geology and public health and environmental studies. Mayo Clinic has pledged to support the project with fundraising and upon completion, will occupy a 10,000-square-foot shared research workspace in the building. The state legislature will consider second phase funding for the project in the next state budget. Construction should begin in late 2024 with a projected opening in fall 2026.

“I believe the building blocks are in place for UWEC to have a terribly bright future and really become a nationally known institution,” says Schmidt.

Work is also moving forward on the County Materials complex. The $107 million building replaces the existing Zorn Arena and will house the university’s men’s and women’s basketball teams plus a fitness and wellness facility. The complex will include the John and Carolyn Sonnentag Fieldhouse and the Sonnentag Events Center. The alumni donated $70 million to the project, the largest in university history.