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Q&A: UWM Chancellor Mike Lovell

A little more than a year into his tenure, Lovell spoke to Patch about his experience so far, progress on his initiatives and more.

Whitefish Bay Patch recently talked with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee chancellor Mike Lovell, who has been at the helm of the east-side Milwaukee campus for a little more than a year.

Here's what Lovell had to say about his experience so far, progress on some of his initiatives and more.

1. You've been chancellor now for a little over a year. What have you learned from your new role?

Unlike other positions that I have held in the past, the role of Chancellor exists in a very public and sometimes political environment. Being an engineer and scientist, I am used to data and logic driving decisions. In the political arena, however, emotions and ideology are added to the decision-making process. When advocating for UWM and the Milwaukee region at the state capital, I have to make certain that people understand how our university can impact their lives and the future of their communities.

2. You have three academic degrees in engineering and previously taught mechanical engineering. Why did you decide to switch over to the administration path? Do you think your engineering background gives you a different perspective in your current role?

Moving from the engineering faculty to administration is something that happened somewhat naturally. I started down the administrative path as a director of a research center and then as an Associate Dean for Research. Both of these roles provided me with administrative experience while allowing me to still teach in the classroom and support a full research program. When I accomplished everything I believed I could as an Associate Dean, I decided to move into a Dean’s position because I felt that I could make a greater impact on students, faculty, and the engineering community.

My engineering background provides me with several natural advantages to serving in administration. First, as an engineer, I have been trained to think at the system level and understand how many variables can influence outcomes far downstream. This has given me an appreciation for the importance analytically making deliberate decisions at an international research university, which is a very complex system that includes the interaction of parts. My engineering background has trained me to try to look at problems and challenges from every perspective so that my decisions, I hope, have minimal unforeseen outcomes. Second, many of the major engineering academic and research initiatives with which I’ve been involved have required the need for partnerships. Improving systems, interactions and partnerships require a keen ability to listen — and I’ve certainly been doing a lot of listening since becoming chancellor.

3. When you were inaugurated, you initiated a residency requirement for freshmen with the goal of boosting the graduation rate. Has the new policy been successful?

The residency requirement is actually a University of Wisconsin System policy that has been in place for decades. UWM, however, never had the facilities to accommodate the policy, so we were granted a waiver. With the opening of the two housing facilities on North Avenue in recent years, we finally have the beds necessary to require new freshmen to live in university facilities and will put that policy into place for the Fall 2012 semester.

From our perspective, the mandatory housing policy has nothing to do with being in the real estate business and everything to do with student success. There are national studies plus our own data which show that students who live in university housing facilities, who get more involved in the university by virtue of living there, are significantly more likely to make it to their second year of college and ultimately earn their degrees.

4. At the time of your inauguration, you also mentioned you wanted to double the international student enrollment. Has UWM been able to attract more international students? If so, how?

UWM has had excellent growth in international students over the past decade, and we had approximately 1,000 international students on campus last year. We know adding more international students will further diversify our student body and give our faculty, staff and students the benefit of better understanding issues from the perspectives of individuals beyond their own, sometimes limited circles of colleagues and friends. These perspectives are critically important as we know that our students will likely work with others around the world during their professional careers. Bringing in international students to campus will also strengthen a revenue stream to the university that can offset demographic projections that college-age students in Wisconsin and elsewhere will decrease in coming years.

We have a goal of having 3,000 international students on our campus in the next 5-7 years. To this end, I was part of a Milwaukee delegation last December that went to China to sign an agreement with CERNET, an affiliate of the Chinese Ministry of Education. There are many aspects to the agreement, but the essence is we intend to add a thousand students from China to UWM over the next 4-5 years.

We have other programs just starting or under way in other nations that also seek to recruit college-age students to UWM. In fact, we recently signed an agreement to bring 150 students from Korea to UWM each year. These are in addition to long-standing programs available through our Center for International Education.

5. With the new Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health and the School of Freshwater Sciences, UWM seems to be evolving quickly. What types of advancements is UWM making through these new schools?

Both new schools were many years in the making so I am not sure how quickly we are evolving. Wisconsin requires all such new academic institutions to be approved not only by the Board of Regents but also by the state legislature and the governor. In the last year, however, the activities in both schools have significantly accelerated with the hiring of new faculty, recruiting of our first classes of students, and building new state-of-the-art facilities.

Among the most significant advancements UWM has made with these new schools is establishment and further strengthening of community partnerships that will make a greater impact in the lives of others. With the Zilber School of Public Health, we will be able to better work with our partners including the City of Milwaukee Health Department, Aurora Health Care, and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin to better understand and respond to the public health needs of our community. Many of the challenges facing Milwaukee — infant mortality, teen pregnancy, diabetes, and high blood pressure — are all largely preventable. By locating the Zilber School of Public Health downtown at the Pabst site and by providing significant space in the new facility to the City’s Health Department, our faculty and students will have greater access and will be able to better serve the populations that are in most need of preventative health care. Ultimately, this will allow UWM to address many of the problems that cripple our health care system and serve as a model for other cities across the US and world.

At the School of Freshwater Sciences, we’re further strengthening our work with the groups such as the Milwaukee Water Council, Growing Power, and Sweet Water Organics to address global water challenges. As Milwaukee strives to join Stockholm and Singapore as an international water hub, our water-related research and educational activities have become even more critical. UWM has the first School of Freshwater Sciences in the US, and our $50-million addition to the Great Lakes WATER Institute on Greenfield Ave. will provide us with cutting-edge research and educational facilities that will ensure we will be the best for years to come. Students from across the US are applying to the School of Freshwater Sciences, and these individuals will provide a talent pool for the expand water industries in Southeastern WI.

Finally, we have further connected ourselves to the public health and freshwater sciences fields by being able to hire absolutely top-tier individuals, Dr. Magda Peck and Dr. David Garman, to be the founding deans of these schools. This has immediately raised the schools’ profiles and reputations locally, national and internationally.

6. If you had to share one thing about UWM that people might not know about or might have a misconception about, what would it be?

The phrase “commuter college,” long attached to UWM, no longer applies. Two decades ago, more than half of our students came from Milwaukee County and three-quarters came from the six-county region. Today only a third of students come from our county. We have students from every county in the state, every state in the country and 86 foreign countries. We’ll always be Milwaukee’s public university, but we’re becoming so much more. With $300 million in capital projects under way this year, the campus is truly transforming into an international research university.

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