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The new chancellor of UW-River Falls, Dean Van Galen, is a Wisconsin native who finds returning to the Midwest and a small town just the right fit. Van Galen takes over during a tumultuous period as Wisconsin budget deficits are affecting funding for all state universities. Photo by Phil Pfuehler
The new chancellor of UW-River Falls, Dean Van Galen, is a Wisconsin native who finds returning to the Midwest and a small town just the right fit. Van Galen takes over during a tumultuous period as Wisconsin budget deficits are affecting funding for all state universities. Photo by Phil Pfuehler

New UW-RF chancellor faces troubling times for higher education

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education River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

What a time to assume the leadership reigns at a Wisconsin university.

Your new $90-million operating budget must be slashed by $3.3 million (3.6 percent).

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Two percent wage hikes for your nonunion staff and faculty are off the table, replaced by a two-year freeze.

Salary hikes for full professors are on hold.

And all campus employees will be expected to take furloughs -- eight unpaid days of leave in each of the next two years.

Welcome to the job, UW-River Falls Chancellor Dean Van Galen.

"It's a significant challenge but one being faced around the country in at least 30 other states," Van Galen said Friday from his North Hall office. "What's most troubling and unique is the willingness of government to shift the burden of paying for a college education from the state to students and their families in the form of higher tuition."

Van Galen says he's battle-tested in budget crises since Florida universities have had the same problem faced by Wisconsin for several years.

The 47-year-old Van Galen comes to UW-RF from West Florida University in Pensacola. He was vice president for advancement.

Much of his leadership work there, from fundraising, alumni relations, marketing and communications, should serve him well as UW-RF's 18 chancellor.

UW-RF has a teaching campus reputation, as opposed to a research-oriented campus, and Van Galen relates to the former.

He was a chemistry professor at Truman State University in Missouri. Even as an administrator at West Florida, Van Galen taught a course in environmental science.

"I've tried to continue teaching when I'm able so I can stay connected to the students," he said. "I love teaching. In many ways it's my passion."

Road ahead

Van Galen's only been on the job at UW-RF since June 1, but he's quickly getting familiar with the many names, places, the campus and the community.

He and his wife, Mary, already have moved into a house on Golf View Drive in River Falls and been to the downtown Falls Theatre to see the "Star Trek" movie.

A new chancellor has a big learning curve. In Van Galen's case, that curve is even sharper because of budget cuts starting this summer.

While specific cost-cutting details are left to the various departments and the provost, Van Galen gave generalities that will likely occur:

  • So far at least 11 faculty and staff positions now vacant will not be filled.
  • Major equipment purchases have been postponed.
  • Class sizes are being evaluated with the possibility that some low-enrollment courses and electives will be eliminated.

    Despite the recession, budget cuts, wage freeze and more, Van Galen insists the campus mood is not one of despair.

    "There seems to be a strong sense of understanding of the need for all of us to work together," he said.

    Van Galen said UW-RF will continue recent efforts to promote regional economic development.

    "We want to make this area a better place to live," he said. "A great university reaches beyond its borders to enrich the educational, economic and cultural life of its region."

    Van Galen cited UW-RF's St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development with local governments as a "great model of cooperative efforts."

    Back home and loving it

    Van Galen was born in Waupun and attended UW-Whitewater. There, he met his wife, Mary, who's from Fort Atkinson.

    "We're excited to live in a small town in Wisconsin. It's very much a coming home for us," he said. "In Wisconsin and the Midwest, we find a spirit of honesty, humility and a commitment to the common good that is appealing."

    The Van Galens have a daughter, Ashley, who this fall will attend Rhodes College in Memphis, a private four-year liberal arts college, and major in neuroscience.

    In emphasizing his Wisconsin roots, Van Galen said his pro football allegiance should speak volumes.

    "I am a huge Packer fan and proudly own a cheesehead. Last summer Mary and I vacationed in Wisconsin and visited summer camp and the Packer Hall of Fame. I look forward to the friendly rivalry in River Falls, but cannot be neutral on this issue."

    More issues

    Van Galen said more than half of UW-RF's students are "first-generation college students."

    He can relate to that because so was he. In fact, Van Galen's parents never even graduated from high school.

    Van Galen said the importance of the "first-generation" demographic is that such students "typically come from families of modest means."

    Those families, he said, will be squeezed even more by the recession and if budget cuts force big tuition hikes.

    In a time of scaled-back government funding, Van Galen's priority is to encourage more "private gifts" to support the university.

    "That emphasis will play a bigger role," he said. "I believe that charitable gifts to the UW-RF Foundation will be essential in the coming years."

    An immediate goal is to lobby Madison for final approval to build the long-delayed, much anticipated Health and Human Performances facility.

    Van Galen said he's prepared to lead the charge.

    "This summer I will be welcoming Secretary of Administration Michael Morgan to campus for a tour of our facilities and will work at all levels, including our local legislators and members of the State Building Commission, to make this a reality."

    NOTE: This story has been edited for the online edition. The full story is available in the June 25th print edition of the Hudson Star-Observer.

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