UW-Madison UniverCity Year program to partner with four communities in 2021

Faculty are encouraged to join the UniverCity Year program as it partners with Marathon County, Racine County, the Village of Waunakee, and Milwaukee to find practical solutions to community-based challenges.

This mission is at the heart of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s UniverCity Year program, which brings faculty, students and members of Wisconsin communities together to address local challenges through engagement, university research, and state-of-the-art problem-solving approaches.

Launched with the Wisconsin Idea in mind, this program bridges university resources with community knowledge to improve sustainability, resilience, livability, and the general well-being of Wisconsin communities through a three-step process. First, the community and UniverCity Year work together to identify a number of community-based projects. Once the projects are identified, stage two begins as UniverCity Year staff match a project to a UW–Madison faculty member, who incorporates the selected project into their coursework. At the end of phase two, faculty and students present a plan of action and research findings to the community. Finally, in stage three, UniverCity Year staff provide project implementation support as the community and faculty partners work together to create positive change.

The first partnership occurred in 2016, when UniverCity Year and the city of Monona began work on over 30 projects, engaging more than 496 students. The projects ranged from transportation and housing to health and agriculture. UniverCity Year partnered with Dane County in 2017, Green County in 2018, Pepin County in 2019, and seven additional localities in 2020.

“Given what has happened over the last year, we weren’t really sure where local governments were in their thinking about doing UniverCity Year. To our surprise, they seemed hungry to tackle issues that will help them build back stronger after the pandemic,” said Gavin Luter, director of the UniverCity Alliance and the UniverCity Year program. “Our four communities represent urban and rural communities and tackled a range of issues. One common theme across the four communities is diversity, equity, and inclusion. It was refreshing to see an openness to be thinking about how welcoming our state is to people of all backgrounds. This cohort for UniverCity Year promises to be a great one!”

The communities are eager to work on projects ranging from environmental and health to engineering and economics, so faculty from all academic disciplines are encouraged to be a part of this program.

“UniverCity Year has developed a pretty positive reputation and we’ve been watching and have seen success and how pleased the communities are,” said Todd Schmidt, the Village Administrator and Economic Development Director for the Village of Waunakee. “I would certainly encourage other communities to give it a strong look. Up until now the perfect alignment of project stars hadn’t aligned, but this past year was very, very interesting with pressures placed on us in many areas of concern. One of the biggest for us was the issue of racism and systemic racism as well as the lens on local government in terms of what we are doing to address it. What we’ve realized here is that we are not doing enough and that is what presented the perfect alignment of project stars. All of our seven projects have, in some aspect, a related focus to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Likewise, Marathon County Administrator Lance Leonhard shared his enthusiasm for the program and the collaboration ahead.

“In an environment with constantly tightening budgets, local governments are always looking for partnerships to help us develop strategies to accomplish our goals,” said Leonhard. “We are excited to be part of the UniverCity program, as it is an opportunity for us to address needs across a wide range of subject areas.”

Additionally, UniverCity Year is actively seeking other higher education partners in nearby areas of the state to explore collaborations. This year, UCY reached out to UW–Parkside and UW–Stevens Point at Marathon County to discuss projects that align with faculty interests.

“We believe the Wisconsin Idea extends beyond just UW–Madison and is about how all universities and colleges are helping address community-defined issues” Luter said. “That’s why we seek partnerships with these other higher education partners. In the past, we have worked with UW–Milwaukee, Marquette University, and UW–River Falls to complete projects. We want this collaborative tradition to continue.”

Faculty interested in partnering with this program are encouraged to contact gavin@cows.org.

This story appeared first at news.wisc.edu.

By Rebekah McBride/ February 18, 2021