Blank’s Slate

A trip up north: My visit to Superior & Ashland

Photo: Bretting Manufacturing

One of the goals during my first year as chancellor was to visit each of the University of Wisconsin System’s 13 four-year campuses. I was on the southern shore of Lake Superior this week, in Superior to visit UW-Superior and then over to Ashland. I lived in Marquette, MI, for 2-1/2 years as a child and have been back along the rocky Lake Superior lakeshore a number of times since. It’s always beautiful up there. But also cold. As we flew into Superior, we could see several hundred yards of ice still present along the Superior shoreline.

I had a good conversation with Chancellor Renee Wachter and received a great tour of the UW–Superior campus. It’s the smallest four-year school in the system, with only about 2,800 students.

As with other trips, the campus visit was only part of my agenda. In Superior I met with local legislators and did interviews with local newspapers in Superior and Ashland.  Local business and community leaders joined me at Bretting Manufacturing in Ashland for a roundtable discussion focusing on the economic challenges facing the region. Bretting is a fascinating company, with fourth-generation family owners.  If you need a specific machine, built to specific design, they will make it for you. From Ashland, they do business around the world.

I’ve held discussions about the economy across the state to hear from business people about what we can be doing to work with them and help create more jobs and economic growth. If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I strongly believe that outreach is one of our core missions as a public university – what everybody here calls the Wisconsin Idea.

At UW–Madison we make two contributions that are essential to a 21st century economy: We train highly skilled workers, and we are the primary engine of development, discovery and innovation in this state. For the state economy to succeed we need to be an active partner in economic development, whether through one-on-one partnerships with businesses that want to interact with our researchers, helping startup companies emerge from our labs, or by sharing the expertise of our staff and faculty to promote best practices.

The barriers to economic growth the far northern region of Wisconsin faces are not dissimilar to those of other rural areas. Tourism is an important industry, but is highly seasonal. The biggest concern among those I met with in Ashland was the lack of a four-lane highway, making it a less attractive location for business expansion or start-ups.  They also worried about the problems of attracting skilled workers to the northern edge of the state. I encouraged them to offer internships to UW-Madison students with an interest in their industry. Internship programs offer students real-world experience, while businesses get a connection into upcoming graduates here at Madison. Students who do an internship are far more likely to take a job with a company, which can help attract them to the Ashland area.

Chancellor Blank, and Wisconsin Alumni Association Chequamegon Bay Chapter’s Badger of the Year for 2014, Carol “Coke” Lindsey, at the Founder’s Day program. Photo courtesy of Rick Olivo, Ashland Daily Press

Chancellor Blank, and Wisconsin Alumni Association Chequamegon Bay Chapter’s Badger of the Year for 2014, Carol “Coke” Lindsey, at the Founder’s Day program. Photo courtesy of Rick Olivo, Ashland Daily Press

My visit ended with a Founders’ Day dinner with a superb group of enthusiastic alumni in Ashland. I also met six high school seniors who will be attending UW–Madison next year with scholarship help provided by the Chequamegon Bay Area Chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association.

My primary resolution after this trip:  Bring my husband back for a long weekend to explore Ashland/Bayfield and the Apostle Islands.  It’s a beautiful area of the state.  But I’m going to wait until the ice is entirely gone from Lake Superior.