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by Robert Green

Quality Achievements

• Since 1996 the job placement rate for graduates has been above 98 percent.

• About 90 percent of alumni say they would attend UW-Stout again.

• UW-Stout’s "Mission-Driven—Market Smart" focus is characterized by an array of programs leading to professional careers primarily in industry and education.

• Ninety-nine percent of employers surveyed rate UW-Stout graduates as well prepared.

On March 7, 2002, President George W. Bush and Commerce Secretary Don Evans presented five organizations with Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards in recognition of their performance excellence and quality achievements. Among the winners was the University of Wisconsin-Stout, which won in the education category. Located in Menomonie, Wisconsin, UW-Stout was one of three educational organizations to earn Baldrige Awards in 2001; previously there had been no winners in the education category.

One of 13 publicly supported universities in the University of Wisconsin system, the 110-year-old UW-Stout employs about 1,200 people, serving nearly 8,000 students. Its annual operating budget is $95 million, with which UW-Stout offers 27 undergraduate and 16 graduate degrees through three colleges.

This distinctive array of degree offerings stems from UW-Stout’s "Mission Driven—Market Smart" focus aimed at developing students for careers in industry and education. This mission guides all key processes, including strategic planning, program development, partnership building, and teaching and learning.

UW-Stout uses a comprehensive set of methods for listening to and learning from students throughout their academic careers and beyond. Student needs, expectations, attitudes and performance are tracked through surveys, course and program evaluations, and myriad "success measures" that link student performance to educational effectiveness. UW-Stout seniors exceeded the national peer averages of "active" learning—traditional instruction reinforced with real-life experience—by 13 percent in 2000.

What follows is an interview with Charles Sorensen, the university’s chancellor for the past 14 years. This is the fourth of five interviews, conducted with a representative from each 2001 Baldrige Award winner, appearing in consecutive issues of Quality Digest.

QD: How were you first introduced to the Baldrige Award?

Sorensen: In the 1990s, we flirted with quality tools like TQM, and we had teams looking at possible process improvements. It worked extremely well in some spots. Then we made some major changes in 1996 that flattened our organizational structure by opening up the campus through more participation in identifying university priorities and awareness of budget decisions. We appointed a CIO for our technology effort and created a new office called the office of budget, planning and analysis, which functions like a CFO would.

When the Baldrige developed higher education criteria in 1999, we had an alum that had worked with IBM on its Baldrige Award effort. He said what we were doing matched up pretty well. We liked the paradigm of the Baldrige. It was tight, it was focused and it didn’t necessarily tell you what you had to do within those seven categories. It allows you to really address those things in your mission and how you function.

QD: You said it was the mid-1990s when you really started flirting with some quality tools. What were your major goals then?

We were actually encouraged by the UW system to adopt some quality tools to become more efficient. That was the purpose, and it worked pretty well in some areas. For example, we changed our admissions policies and processes.

QD: You say the school underwent some structural changes in 1996. What was the impetus for those?

Sorensen: We had to cut 5 percent of our budget. But as we made decisions about cutting back, we were also investing heavily in technology infrastructure. We first created what we call the Chancellor’s Advisory Council, which comprises students, faculty and staff. Everything we discuss as priorities or as budget-making decisions, CAC discusses and makes a recommendation to me.

We opened up the process for prioritization. We go out every fall and ask nine focus groups what they think are the priorities. This feeds back to the CAC and really opens up the campus to anyone who has an idea. Then we added the office of budget, planning and analysis. We put planning and budget in one organization. And then we appointed a CIO because we were doing so much with technology that we had to have one voice speaking for the campus in the area of technology.

QD: How were you able to pay for the Baldrige application and related fees?

Sorensen: I think the application fees were about $1,500. We promised the campus when we went for the Baldrige that we wouldn’t create a new center of quality. We wouldn’t go out and hire staff or create a whole new bureaucracy for the process. We assigned this out to current staff. My leadership team all participated in writing portions of the application and we all read the criteria. We had a consultant, the alum I referred to earlier, work with us as well. So although we didn’t spend a lot of money on this, we did spend a lot of time on this.

QD: What was the most difficult part about getting to the Baldrige level?

Sorensen: I think it was reinventing the campus, seeing the campus not as a collection of isolated departments, but as a set of systems that all relate to one another in some way. It sounds simple, but it wasn’t.

QD: What have been some of the major quality improvements you’ve seen during your Baldrige journey?

Sorensen: We think differently at this campus now. We think in terms of improving everything on a continual basis. We don’t look backward anymore. There’s been constant improvement in every process we have. We think with more vision than we ever did before, always looking ahead five years at what we want to become and how we’re going to get there.

QD: Are there any areas in which you think that the education criteria are lacking?

Sorensen: I think that the strength of the Baldrige is that it’s not prescriptive. You can even take the criteria and drive it into the classroom very deeply, but we chose not to do that because we felt we had enough classroom admissions, retention and graduation rate measures. I don’t think that the Baldrige criteria have any major weaknesses because you can decide what you want to do within the seven criteria, based on your organization.

QD: Throughout the process, did you find facets of the criteria that made you say, "This really doesn’t apply to us?"

Sorensen: There’s a pretty good alignment, actually. We have about a $100 million budget and we employ 1,200 people. For example, we house students, so we look at things like the efficiency of energy usage. There are a lot of things that align very nicely because one-half of what we do is focus on a business model. You have to be accountable for the business functions that you operate.

The alignment is less clear on the academic side. Nonetheless, every department has to have a plan.There’s also a misalignment on the issue of complaints. We were criticized on the first site visit in 1999 for this. There were eight evaluators; five were from the private sector and three from higher education. They wanted to know about our complaint process. We told them that if it’s a student issue, it goes to the dean of students. If it’s a faculty issue, it goes to the provost. If it’s an issue of a hostile environment, it goes to the affirmative action office. They said: "No. Where is your office of complaints?" Well, we didn’t have one because it doesn’t fit our culture here. Later we created a roll-up process for all the different areas that had responsibility for complaints, and we look at these every quarter to identify trends.

QD: How has life changed since you won the award?

Sorensen: It’s wonderful. I was just talking to my associate vice chancellor, who helped lead our Baldrige effort. After we won, we received numerous phone calls from around the country. We’ve had schools in 13 nations contact us. We visited three: Turkey, Japan and Austria. Domestically, it was maybe 75 schools in about 30 states. We’ve probably given about 50 presentations. But now things are starting to roll in a much deeper way. People want us to consult with them, to assess their progress toward the Baldrige or at least toward a quality system for improvement. So we’re getting a lot of attention from organizations that focus on higher education as well as the private sector.

We’re going to identify a center on campus to handle the mass requests on our time, including visits from people coming here, and to read and review state and national award applications.

QD: So, feedback from your peers has been largely positive?

Sorensen: Initially a lot of my friends from outside Wisconsin were saying, "Well, it fits you, but not us," or "This reeks of higher ed." But I think that we’ve demonstrated at UW-Stout that the Baldrige is a clear fit for any university or subsets of any university because it’s not prescriptive, but it forces you to drill down into your organization and look at the specific issues that drive your organization.

For more information about the University of Wisconsin-Stout, visit www.uwstout.edu/mba, call (715) 232-5901 or e-mail Julie Furst-Bowe at furst-bowej@uwstout.edu.

About the author

Robert Green is Quality Digest’s managing editor. Letters to the editor regarding this piece can be e-mailed to letters@qualitydigest.com.