Janesville33.9°

UW-Whitewater is a serious player in economic development

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JAMES P. LEUTE
August 15, 2010
— After a sleepy summer, the UW-Whitewater campus soon will awaken with thousands of students pursuing hundreds of degrees.

But officials at the campus 20 minutes from Janesville haven’t been napping.


Earlier this summer, the U.S. Department of Commerce tapped UW-W to administer a $5.9 million grant to help entrepreneurs start companies and small businesses expand in six state line counties.


The university’s responsibility for the grant is indicative of the school’s role in the region’s economic recovery. Much more than just a four-year university, UW-W is a serious player in economic development efforts.


The grant will help UW-W and its partners eliminate duplicative services, fill known gaps and generally create a platform for economic development, namely new business startups and expansions that can benefit from the resources and knowledge the university and its partners offer.


“Outreach was not something we were taking seriously,” said Choton Basu, a UW-W associate professor who heads the university’s Global Business Resource Center. “But we’ve heard stories of the incredible impact this university has had on students and companies and been blown away.


“We have a very compelling story to tell.”


More coordination

UW-W has long been involved in outreach efforts. Students and staff routinely worked with area businesses.


But too often, officials say, those efforts were independent of each other. One group often didn’t know what others were doing, and clients were shuffled from one office to another.


Denise Ehlen, the university’s director of research and sponsored programs, said the grant will help UW-W tie up its own loose ends and join a group of regional partners to offer a complete menu of services.


“Everyone was doing good work, but there was some duplication of service and gaps,” she said. “The big problem was that it wasn’t coordinated.”


The grant, she said, will strengthen the effort and position the university to help the region’s economy.


“We have to be a regional player, and in my opinion, we’ve been under involved in that in the past” said Chancellor Richard Telfer. “But as a matter of fact, our mission is to serve the region.”


That goes well beyond the university’s on-campus students, more than 60 percent of whom come to Whitewater from Rock, Walworth, Dane, Milwaukee and Waukesha counties, he said.


Real-life projects

Businesses in the region routinely tap UW-W for help. They also hire UW-W students and lend their own expertise and financial support back to the university’s programs.


“It’s important that we provide something to these folks. They want access to our students, and we want to help shape the regional economy,” Telfer said.


It’s a fundamental relationship, said Christine Clements, dean of the university’s College of Business & Economics. More than 80 percent of Whitewater’s graduates stay in the state, she said, which is a compelling reason for the university to be involved beyond its boundaries.


“The university needs to be a resource for the community,” she said. “As a business school, we combine rigorous academics with applied work, and the business community is our classroom of the world.”


Basu said the economic development role of universities has changed. Typically, universities graduated workers.


The trend now involves real-life projects that industries bring into classrooms. Students become engaged, he said, and hopefully will stay in the area and become industry leaders.


Economic duress fueled the school’s growth in business outreach services, Basu said. Integration of the services, spurred in part by work toward the EDA grant, is bringing together the business community, government agencies, students and alumni.


Basu is a supporter of higher learning based much more on regional, national and global communities than on traditional bricks and mortar at an institutional university. It is based more on Internet learning than it is on classroom lectures.


“This new platform will eventually allow businesses, other educational institutions, government agencies and organizations to plug in in ways that will lead to incredible economic activity in the region,” he said. “Students can plug in from one side, and the business community from the other side.


“There will be a dynamic meeting in the middle, which is the university.”


‘Hands-on approach’

John Beckord is president of Forward Janesville, a private economic development organization that makes office space available for UW-W’s Small Business Development Center in Janesville.


Beckord said Janesville is fortunate to be served by UW-W, Blackhawk Technical College and UW-Rock County, three economic development partners who complement one another.


“All three add value to the local economy in that they educate people,” Beckord said.


But beyond that, he said, BTC is the technical education expert that can turn on a dime to develop programs to meet local market demands. UW-Rock County, he said, serves as the launching point for students who want to pursue a four-year degree.


But with the exception of the four-year nursing and engineering programs offered at UW-Rock County, Whitewater is the area’s four-year campus, he said.


“The UW-W leadership has taken a real hands-on approach to developing programs that add real value to the local economic development effort,” Beckord said.


“They’ve taken the time to ask local businesses and economic development officials what it is that truly adds value, and then they’ve developed a variety of programs to address it, whether it’s helping companies go international, find new niches for their products or start a business.”


UW-W OUTREACH

The UW-Whitewater College of Business and Economics emphasizes interactive business activities for students, faculty and regional businesses. Many of these activities are accomplished through outreach programs housed in the Kachel Center for Innovation and Business Development.


Here’s a sampling of some of the university’s business outreach programs:


-- Office of Research and Sponsored Programs is the lead organization and hub for implementing the collaboration and partnering for the recent grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce.


-- The Global Business Resource Center provides international resources to students, faculty, alumni, regional businesses and entrepreneurs.


-- Department of Geography/Geology will develop and maintain an interactive GIS map of facilities, services, capacity, supply chain opportunities and other resources in the region. It will offer mapping services to partners, business and entrepreneurs for business development.


-- Small Business Development Center supports entrepreneurs in Dodge, Jefferson, Rock, Walworth, and Waukesha counties through affordable seminars and one-on-one confidential counseling sessions.


-- Wisconsin Innovation Service Center specializes in new product and invention assessments and market expansion opportunities for innovative manufacturers, technology businesses and independent investors.


-- The Fiscal and Economic Research Center focuses on regional engagement as well as improving programs and learning through students’ hands-on training in the field of economics. It provides research services for area businesses, not-for-profits organizations and government entities.


-- Wisconsin Center for Information Technology Services focuses on providing IT services to regional non-profits and small businesses, while giving students real-world experience.


-- Heartland Safety and Health Education Center is a new partnership between UW-Whitewater and Indiana University to provide safety and health training in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana.



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