Chancellor Joe Gow painted a rosy picture of UW-La Crosse’s state of affairs Wednesday, highlighting a flurry of new construction and an incoming freshman class that will be the largest in school history.
But he also acknowledged a few issues, some new and some nagging, that threaten to hold the university back — from subpar compensation of staff and faculty, to the university’s dwindling population of international students.
“When people ask how things are going, I tell them that there are a lot of great things going on at UW-L,” Gow said during his annual address to staff and faculty at the Student Union. “But there are challenges, too.”
From this time last year, the most noticeable change to campus is the presence of the Prairie Springs Science Center, an $82 million lab and research facility that school officials are hailing as state-of-the-art.
The UW Board of Regents last week signed off on another $200 million worth of construction projects at UW-L, including the second phase of Prairie Springs. That’s not to mention the Student Union, which opened in early 2017, and the expansion of the Recreational Eagle Center, which will open this fall.
The chancellor also threw a spotlight on the university’s new hires and promotions, its long list of internship and service learning opportunities, and its efforts to raise $15 million for scholarships.
But the news of the day was enrollment.
When classes begin Tuesday, UW-L will welcome 2,178 first-year students to its campus — 78 more than the university’s target and 53 more than its previous record.
“It means people are enthusiastic about what we do and want to be a part of that,” Gow said. “Enrollment can swing wildly at different campuses. We’re fortunate because our enrollment keeps going up.”
But UW-L has a few clouds, if not storms, hovering on the horizon.
The $200 million for new projects, for example, is not yet in the university’s pocket. That funding must be approved by the Legislature and governor — a fact that could make this fall’s gubernatorial race between Scott Walker and Tony Evers a pivotal one for the university.
Gow identified two projects — Phase II of Prairie Springs and the construction of a new residence hall — as especially critical.
“It’s never mattered more who the governor will be,” he said. “They will have the power on this.”
“If you’re going to call yourself the education governor,” he added later, referring to Walker, “then you better have a track record.”
The decline in international students — the university has roughly 50, half of a recent high — also put a damper on Wednesday’s enrollment announcement.
That, too, could be attributed to policy and politics that are outside the university’s control, Gow said. Colleges across the country have reported waning interest from international students in the wake of President Donald Trump’s disparaging comments about immigrants and foreign countries.
“I don’t get it. What’s the downside to having more international students in the United States?” Gow said. “Hopefully that will change … and we’ll get back to where we were.”
The chancellor also touched on UW-L’s inability to pay staff and faculty competitive salaries.
Gow said recent tuition freezes, among other external factors, have prevented UW-L from paying its employees “what you deserve.” The university is $1.3 million short of meeting its compensation goals, according to Gow, and even those are below national medians.
“Even if we get to the middle, that’s not what you deserve,” he said. “But it’s the best we can do."