University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Tom Neal was the first of four campus executive officer/dean finalists to present to the community. Last week, during a public forum that was part of his official campus visit, he spoke about the future of the Wisconsin Idea at UW-Baraboo in the face of contemporary challenges, touching on outreach, research, public service and teaching.
Neal has served in his associate dean role since 2010. He joined the campus in 1999, becoming an assistant professor of chemistry in 2001 and an associate professor in 2007. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in biomolecular chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught before starting in Baraboo.
Current CEO and Dean Tom Pleger, who has held his position since 2006, recently was named president of Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. He plans to take on the new role July 1.
During his presentation, Neal focused on the relationship of the university to the community and the benefits of such collaboration to students, faculty and residents.
“This is a place where you can really be not only student-focused, but also community-focused,” he said.
He highlighted the importance of programs and events that make the two-year campus unique, such as the Summerset Festival of the Arts, youth programming and other outreach efforts that bring university resources to the community.
Neal serves on a variety of committees, is on the university’s foundation board, advises the Green-STEM Club and coordinates the Engaging Students in the First Year program, which was affected by recent budget cuts.
He touched on the service learning aspects of the university’s new bachelor of applied arts and sciences program and ideas for fostering new community partnerships, something he said he’d be committed to doing as dean.
Neal said he is interested in exploring “how this university can be of even greater benefit to this county and to this city.”
During his talk, he addressed the challenges presented by recent budget cuts and a system-wide tuition freeze, the effects of which he’s seen firsthand as a member of the campus community.
“The biggest challenge, as all of us know who’ve been looking at the university situation here, is that we’ve had some budget cuts, and we’ve got some more coming,” he said.
Neal, who has more than 25 years of fundraising experience for a nonprofit organization with which he volunteers, said he’s committed to helping the campus secure financial support for its needs.
“If state support is going to stay stagnant, if tuition is going to stay stagnant, we have to find alternative revenue sources,” he said.
Neal said more than 15 years of experience on the UW-Baraboo campus make him a unique candidate. He’s been a part of developing the vision and plans for the new residence hall and science facility, he said.
“… With the two new building projects, I think having an insider who has a really good feel, and has been directly involved in the design, especially of the science facilities and what they’re going to mean for the campus, is a very important part,” he said.
Neal cited efforts to connect in Reedsburg and the Sauk Prairie area, exploring new opportunities with planned facilities, and building partnerships with the local school districts, nonprofits and businesses among his goals.
“It’s important for the dean to reach out,” he said, adding that he plans to move from Madison if he gets the job.
During his presentation, Neal saved the topic of teaching for last.
“Why are we here?” he asked, showing a picture of a former student on the screen. “Great kids.”
Neal started to tear up as he talked about the students he’s encountered over his career and the opportunities those who work in higher education have to change lives.
He said he quickly found his passion when he stepped into the classroom to teach, and he is committed to encouraging students to explore their potential and to “believe in more.”
“This is what I was meant to do,” he said.
The remaining CEO/dean finalists will visit the campus this week and next, with Bill Wresch presenting Tuesday, Jon Dalager presenting Thursday and Tracy White presenting May 13. All presentations will be held on campus at 3:30 p.m.
Following each public forum, members of the community can e-mail feedback to Aaron Brower, interim chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin-Extension, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Our new dean will work closely with many groups and individuals to define the evolving role of the campus within the community,” Annette Kuhlmann, UW-Baraboo professor of sociology and chair of the search advisory committee, said in a statement. “We encourage as many people as possible to attend the finalist presentations and to provide feedback as part of the selection process.”
Brower has said that he plans to name the next CEO/dean by June 1, and that that person will start by the beginning of the fall semester.