It seemed like it would never happen as UW-Milwaukee boot-strapped its way over the last two decades toward its destiny as a world-class urban university.
But there last Thursday was Ray Cross, president of the University of Wisconsin System, standing in the middle of an outmoded UWM chemistry lab and telling a group of students and faculty that they would be getting a new $130 million chemistry building as part of the 2019-21 state capital budget.
The existing building, built in 1972, is obsolete. Its power and ventilating systems are past their useful lives, to the point of crimping research.
That’s relevant to UWM’s newly achieved status as an R1 university, one of the top 115 research universities in the country. The chemistry faculty and grad students are bringing in $5 million per year in federal and business research dollars.
That’s a big chunk of UWM’s total R&D of about $60 million. (FYI: The regional total with the Medical College of Wisconsin, Marquette U, the Versiti BloodCenter of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee School of Engineering is about $300 million.)
UWM’s $60 million is a great start, but still falls way below R&D dollars at number two universities in other states, like Washington State at $334 million; Utah State at $180 million; Oregon State, $254 million; Michigan State, $613 million; Wayne State, $221 million; and Iowa State, $328 million.
The new chemistry facility will help UWM to play catch up, as will a new engineering building that is included in the state’s 2021-23 budget. Both will help UWM to attract STEM students, top notch faculty and more federal and business R&D dollars.
How much more could UWM’s chemistry department pull in? It’s already a formidable department with 19 faculty, 250 undergraduate chem majors, 75 grad students and 11 postdoctoral students. Some 2500 UWM students take chemistry classes as a building block for other science majors.
As department chair Joe Aldstadt said, “Chemistry is the central science.” He added, “Our programs are thriving.”
The business community of the M7 region has lined up unanimously behind the elevation of UWM to world class. Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, commented at the press conference that “UWM is critical to the prosperity” of the M7 Region.
The business leaders all know what the political leaders don’t like to talk about: metro Milwaukee lags in job growth, is losing population and is seeing declines in household income. They see UWM as a lever for a better future. They know it needs more resources if it is to be a regional sparkplug.
Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, noted that the current chemistry building is in “the worst shape of any science building on a UW campus.”
Previous UW chancellors complained loudly and often about the lack of construction cranes over their campus. It may have been a factor in their early departures.
Mark Mone, the current chancellor, put UWM’s role into a broad perspective, “UWM is the crucial catalyst for economic well-being in southeastern Wisconsin as the state’s only public urban research university.”
As an example of what that catalyst means, the chemistry department is now home to the Institute of Drug Discovery, and one of its current projects is an asthma medication that would eliminate the need for inhalers. That startup company has patents, experienced leadership, some grant money and a west coast alliance. It will need capital from Wisconsin as well as it works through the drug approval process.
Repeat that process over and over in coming years and we have a partial answer to a higher level of economic performance in the region.
That extends to the state, too, because as many have said, “As Milwaukee goes, so goes the state.”
The subtext reads, “As UWM goes, so goes Milwaukee.”
Advances like Fiserv Forum and Foxconn will help. But their impacts pale in comparison to the impact of UWM.
UWM graduates stay here and build our economy. Point in case: NML, one of our brightest economic stars, employs 2000 employees UWM graduates.
You get the point.
Judging by the recent wins for UWM’s campus, it appears that President Cross, the UW regents, Gov. Evers and the legislative leaders now get it, too.