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Van Galen reflects on decade as chancellor

January 27, 2019

Since the turn of the 21st century, the University of Wisconsin-River Falls has had six different people as chancellor. Out of those six people, Dean Van Galen, the current chancellor of UW-River Falls, has been in the position for ten years. Van Galen was named into the position on Jan. 16, 2009. His term officially began on June 1, 2009. Yet, Van Galen’s time in academic administration or the state of the Wisconsin did not begin at UWRF.

Van Galen was born and raised in Waupun, Wisconsin, located about 250 miles southeast of River Falls. Van Galen was a first generation college student, and went onto attend the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry. Continuing his education, Van Galen attended Kansas State University where he earned a doctorate in analytical chemistry. Van Galen said, “I did postdoctoral research for a year at UC-Berkeley and then accepted a teaching position as a chemistry professor at Truman State University which is in Kirksville, Missouri.”

Although he became chancellor in 2009, Dean van Galen's inauguration did not take place until the spring of 2010. Here, van Galen (right) walks in the ceremony procession. (Sally King / Student Voice)
Although he became chancellor in 2009, Dean van Galen’s inauguration did not take place until the spring of 2010. Here, van Galen (right) walks in the ceremony procession. (Sally King / Student Voice)

Continuing on Van Galen said, “I taught chemistry for a number of years, [and] had the opportunity to participate in an administrative fellowship program called the ACE Fellows Program, came back to Truman State and had the opportunity to try administration. So I became the vice president for university advancement. Advancement is the external arm of the university, alumni relations, fundraising, community relations and I severed in that role for about seven years. Then I took the position at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida as vice president for advancement at that institution.”

While working at the University of West Florida, Van Galen was offered the position to become the chancellor at UWRF.

Van Galen elaborated, “One morning my phone rang and a colleague of mine said, ‘You’re going to receive a call from a search firm in a few minutes about a job in Wisconsin, and you should think about it.’ So I did learn about the opportunity at UW-River Falls in 2008, and given that I thought there was a good fit between my values and the values of UW-River Falls, and that I was from Wisconsin, I decided to apply for the position, went through the process and ultimately was named chancellor beginning in June of 2009.”

Van Galen discussed the uniqueness of his position and what he has enjoyed about the opportunities it has provided him. “My role here is extremely diverse and interesting. Everyday is different. I enjoy supporting our faculty, staff, and students. I enjoy the external part of my role, I have probably spent a third of my time externally off campus involved in community relations, fundraising, working with board of regents, working with legislatures. So I do enjoy that external part of my job, but in the end probably what I enjoy the very most engaging with our students. That really is what motivates me in my role everyday. I believe deeply in the value of education and I think we have a wonderful group of students on our campus,” Van Galen said.

Through the years, being chancellor has presented  Van Galen with many challenges. A large challenge, for example, the decline in state funding.

Van Galen said, “Historically, Wisconsin has been very supportive of public higher education, but during my tenure here we have had periods where that state support has not been strong. Several years ago we had a major budget cut, so that has been a major challenge and has caused us real difficult times for our faculty, staff, and students. The positive side of that is the support for public higher education in Wisconsin is increasing. Our enrollment on campus after some time of decline has now trending upward. Last two years we have had our two largest freshmen classes in the last nine years. In the end, the impact of those budget cuts on our campus have been very challenging to deal with and it has been difficult to see the impact on our faculty, staff and students.”

For many jobs, with time comes wisdom. Through his position as chancellor, Van Galen was able to be connected with his personal values. Van Galen said, “I view really any leadership role as more than a job. It is something you live 24/7 and it’s important believe deeply in the mission of the organization. For me, I am fortunate to have that fit between the role I have here and my personal belief in the value of education. The other aspect of leadership that I have seen as very important is resilience and trying to be optimistic even during difficult times and to communicate that optimism and help ensure our faculty and staff feel valued, even when the university may be going through a difficult time. So those are the things as I reflect I guess I have learned and I view as being important as a leader.”

Since 2009, UWRF has grown more diverse as a university in many different ways. Chancellor Van Galen discussed how he has noticed this growth in diversity since he first arrived on campus ten years ago.

“We have a really amazing diversity of students in many different ways. Every fall when new students are on campus I’ll visit with them and most years there is a new student who tells me, ‘I have never lived in a town this large.’ And there is a student who will tell me, ‘I have never lived in a place this small.’ So we bring students from many different backgrounds and I think there is a great opportunity for those students to learn from one another,” said Van Galen.

“The racial diversity of our campus has increased over the last ten years significantly. I think the diversity of viewpoint is something we value and need to learn from each other as we look at different viewpoints and different experiences of our students. So I think diversity and the need to continue to increase diversity is a strength of our campus,” said Van Galen.

Chancellor Van Galen talked about the different ways he has involved himself with the community of River Falls outside of the university.

“River Falls is a wonderful community and there is a very strong and positive relationship between town and gown. I think we’re fortunate because that is not always the case in a city that hosts a campus. I have been very involved in the local rotary club on campus which meets once a week and that includes a lot of the community leaders. I interact a great deal with leaders in the school district, the business community, I think it’s important that the university serve as a convener and a hub for a lot of the activities that can help move River Falls forward,” said Van Galen.

Van Galen discussed the people he has spent a lot of his time with on campus over the decade. “Certainly I spend time with members of the Chancellor’s Cabinet and especially the University Provost who of course provides leadership for all our academic programs as well as our chief business officer, Elizabeth Frueh. I interact significantly with our shared governance leaders, faculty senate, academic staff council, the university staff senate, and student government association. I certainly enjoy those interactions,” said Van Galen.

Van Galen has a large appreciation for the support his wife has shown over the years. Van Galen said, “Mary has been a wonderful partner in helping serve this university. She shares my belief in the value of what we do here. She loves interacting with students, faculty and staff and I am very fortunate she continues to be a wonderful partner.”

The chancellor shared his goals and aspirations of what he hopes to accomplish moving forward.

“Certainly to continue to support our faculty staff and students, including as serving as an effective advocate with the legislatures and the alumni and friends that support our university. As we look to the future to the year 2024, will be our university’s 150 year anniversary. I think that is a milestone that will enable us to not look back at our history, but dream about our future.”Van Galen continued, “At a practical level, we’re looking to secure state support for a new science and technology innovation center so I am looking forward to that. That certainly is a priority of mine and the university. We are seeking $111 million from the state of Wisconsin as a part of the state budget process. The project has been recommended by the board of regents, but it will still be a challenge for that facility. Right now the state budget process is just beginning and will run roughly the next six months.”

The plan for a new science and technology innovation center is one of many goals that Van Galen would like to accomplish over the next few years. For more information regarding the project, info can be found at www.uwrf.edu under news.