Dane County Crops

A farmer collects hay from a town of Springfield in 2012. A partnership with the university will help Dane County study, among other topics, sustainable agricultural practices that improve the quality of the county’s waterways.

John Hart

In a one-year partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dane County will attempt to harness the university’s resources by working with students and professors to develop possible solutions in four challenging areas the county faces.

The program, called UniverCity Year, is designed to pair faculty, students and courses with a local governing body that could benefit from expertise in particular areas. Dane County will be working with the university on economic and development programs, housing gap issues, frequent users of county services and water quality and nutrient management.

“We feel like it’s a huge opportunity to take advantage of this enormous asset we have in our community and apply the knowledge in the university to real life problems in the county,” Dane County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Corrigan said.

UniverCity’s partnership with Dane County kicked off in September and cost the county $40,000. The project is funded through the end of the semester but could continue throughout the spring of 2018 if the county adds additional funding, Corrigan said. 

The program’s price tag offsets staffing costs, transportation for students out into the communities and professional-grade materials for the final reports to the client.

Corrigan said she hopes the partnership will result in “innovative, cost-effective” public policy measures to address problems in the county and that the program creates a pipeline of getting students engaged in local government.

“This is really an extension of the Wisconsin Idea,” Corrigan said, referencing UW-Madison’s mission that education should influence people’s lives beyond the university. “It truly is the boundaries of the university expanding beyond the campus.”

The partnership is housed under the UniverCity Alliance and is modeled on an initiative out of the University of Oregon that a number of universities have adopted. Joel Rogers, co-chair of the program’s advisory board, said the partnership is “refreshing” because the communities working with the university drive its outcomes.

It’s “demand driven technical assistance,” Rogers said.

Like Corrigan, Rogers believes the partnership is the Wisconsin Idea in action. While local municipalities receive research that can inform policy decisions, the university is fulfilling its mission of working in and with surrounding communities.

“It gets a deserved reputation for contributing to life in the community in a positive — and not, ‘We’re the pointy heads from Madison’ — way,” Rogers said. “This is what the university should be doing, and the state should be welcoming it.”

Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Director Paul Robbins, who also co-chairs the program’s advisory board, would like to see the partnership grow statewide to other UW System schools and work with more rural communities.

“As we move this thing away from Madison’s reputational stronghold, which is down here in Dane County, the more we can serve students and community around the whole state,” Robbins said. “I think that really reminds people that Madison is there for everybody, that this campus is there for the whole state.”

Tom Landgraf, senior lecturer in the Department of Real Estate and Urban Land Economics, teaches real estate development courses at the university. He participated in the inaugural year of the partnership working with the city of Monona and is continuing this year.

A majority of Landgraf’s students are graduating seniors, and he said he wants to provide his students with “real world” learning experiences are achieved outside of textbooks and exams. This semester, his students will be focusing on the village of DeForest.

“We try to bring as much real world into the classroom and give them an opportunity to dip their toe into the water and see how that works,” Landgraf said.

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Mike Schlicting, a PhD student in transportation administration and community development, is Landgraf's teaching assistant for the semester and working on residential development and health care projects for DeForest through the UniverCity partnership. In another urban planning class connected with the partnership, he is working on an affordable housing project for Dane County. 

Schlicting said the classes connected with the partnership exemplify the limits of textbook learning and that working with city planners and attending local government meetings was more beneficial. 

"It was great from our experience as students," Schlicting said. "It's kind of like a mini-internship." 

Though Schlicting wondered how much the partner municipalities get out of the partnership, Monona’s Economic Development Director Sonja Reichertz said the city received “a lot of mileage on the dollar” for the amount of work it received. The city paid $50,000 for the academic year 2016-17.

The city of Monona previously collaborated with the program during the 2016-17 academic year. Throughout the year 23 UW-Madison classes participated, working on 30 projects spanning topics of parks and recreation, housing and economic development, active transportation and digital resources.

“(The partnership) was really great way to get a lot of these projects unstuck that we haven’t been able to take up on a day-to-day basis,” Reichertz said.

Since the partnership completed, Reichertz said the city has made some direct changes as a result of the work such as installing two flashing beacon systems at intersections near schools.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.