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UW-System looks to improve efficiency, graduation

February 25, 2010

The Advantage Wisconsin initiative, started by the UW System in 2007, has begun to expose areas in the Systems operation that need improvement, UW-River Falls officials said.

Alan Tuchtenhagen, associate vice chancellor for enrollment services, and Lisa Wheeler, interim vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance, took part in the think tank portion of the Advantage Wisconsin project.

“Every organization needs a strategic plan to stay successful,” Tuchtenhagen said.

Seven individual think tanks were convened in Madison in December 2007 for two days to determine what steps the schools in the UW System needed to take save money, time, graduate more students and, ultimately, help grow Wisconsin’s economy. 

The think tank groups comprised of individuals from every UW System university as well as individuals from the health care, journalism, financial and biotech industries, according to the UW System Web site.

Members of his think tank were assigned to find ways to increase graduation rates in the System and investigate why the state lacks job opportunities for many of its graduates, Tuchtenhagen said.

“It’s about helping more students who are currently enrolled to graduate, getting students to come back and finish their degrees, and then expanding job opportunities for them in-state,” he said.

Though Wisconsin has a history of providing accessible higher education, Tuchtenhagen said current economic issues in the state are making it harder for today’s students to not only graduate, but to find employment after graduation as well.

“The financial aid issue continues,” he said. “We’ve got some students who are just hanging on by their fingernails. Students have to share a larger part of the cost of higher education than in the past.”

Wisconsin was 30th in the nation in the percentage of its population over age 25 with a bachelor’s degree in 2007, when Advantage Wisconsin was launched. At that time, UWRF graduated 55 percent of its students within six years, four percent below the UW System average, according to its Office of Policy Analysis and Research.

In that same year, Wisconsin’s per capita income fell $4,700 short of Minnesota’s and was $2,300 below the national average, according to figures from the UW System Web site.

“Minnesota and the Twin Cities are a big importer of people with baccalaureate degrees,” Tuchtenhagen said. “Many of those are from Wisconsin.  We’d love them to stay here in Wisconsin and work.”

Tuchtenhagen said Minnesota’s strong business foundation built on companies such as Best Buy, Medtronic and 3M gives the state a strong advantage when it comes to hiring graduates from Wisconsin’s colleges.

In 2007, Wisconsin ranked 34th in the nation in the number of jobs available in technology fields, according to the System Web site.

Though the problems have been made visible, Tuchtenhagen said deciding where to start the solution problem could be difficult. 

“It’s kind of a chicken and the egg scenario,” he said. “Does the legislature try to bring business here first, or do we concentrate on higher education and hope that attracts companies to relocate in Wisconsin?” 

While Tuchtenhagen’s think tank exposed some of the underlying issues the UW System hopes to address, Wheeler’s group was charged with improving operational excellence in the System by “becoming more flexible, nimble, responsive and cost efficient,” according to the report on the System Web site.

“It was about figuring out how to run a university more like a business,” Wheeler said. “Part of the reason I was asked to be a part of it was my background in different types of organizations.” 

“When I worked in a business and I needed to hire a manager, I’d talk to human resources and we’d have somebody hired within three weeks,” Wheeler said. “Here, we have a very long and participatory process.  Sometimes you lose good candidates because someone else makes them an offer first.” 

Though the System may seem to have a flawed hiring system, Wheeler said these types of delayed processes are not uncommon.

“It’s just a feature of a public institution,” she said.

She also emphasized that changes are being made.

“The whole UW System is in the process of implementing a new HR system,” Wheeler said.

Pam Rudesill, office manager in facilities management said drastic changes are being made in how work orders for maintenance are processed.

“Until Jan. 11 [2010], all our work orders were paper,” she said. “Now we have online work order systems.”

Facilities Management maintains all the buildings and infrastructure on campus and the university farms, Rudesill said.

The change was spurred by findings made during a two-day study of UWRF’s work order system this summer, Rudesill said.

“We estimated how long it took us to process the information,” she said.  “Anytime the process had a delay, there was a loop in the system.”

Rudesill said officials at UW-Stevens Point, Milwaukee, Whitewater, and La Crosse also studied the work order processes on their respective campuses and combined their results to develop the new system which is now used all over the UW System.

“It was done as a time-saving measure and to standardize the process throughout the state,” she said. “Together we came out with a perfect work order process.”

Rudesill said that once the new electronic work order system was put into service, improvements over the old system were very apparent.

“The max time a work order may sit now is two hours,” she said. “You’re immediately saving that day it’s in the mail, at least.”

The money and time saved by the new system can now be used in other areas of the university, Rudesill said.

Susan Bischof, head of information systems in facilities management said problems with the new system have been few and far between.

“For the most part it’s been a smooth transition,” she said. “We were pretty well prepared to make the switch.”