From first in his family to attend college to UWRF chancellor:
A Wisconsin Homecoming for
Dean Van Galen
by Kevin Harter
Chancellor Dean Van Galen and his wife Mary enjoy the warmth of their first UWRF Homecoming Parade.
As a first-generation college student, University of Wisconsin-River Falls Chancellor Dean Van Galen remembers the challenges of traveling the same academic path as more than half of students attending UWRF. They, too, are also among the first in their families to attend college.
The only son of working-class parents who did not graduate from high school, Van Galen knows first-hand the challenges students face. While he had the support of his parents, he did not have benefit of lessons from his parents’ own collegiate experience.
“My parents understood the value of education and that it was something that can never be taken away from you. I am forever grateful for their encouragement and support,” Van Galen (pronounced ‘gallon’) said.
It’s this experience that has helped shape the chancellor’s worldview and career path. “Although I did not grow up in poverty, I am sensitive to the plight of students and families who struggle to pay for higher education,” he says. “We must strive to keep a college education affordable, but also recognize that to be of genuine value an education must be of high quality. As a society we need to invest in education.”
A Waupun, Wis. native and UW-Whitewater graduate, Van Galen jumped at the opportunity to interview to become UWRF’s chancellor for many reasons, but at the top of the list was the University’s focus on students.
“UWRF is an outstanding student-centered university located in a dynamic, rapidly growing region of the state. The university has dedicated faculty, staff and students, a beautiful campus, and a community that is deeply committed to the future of UW-River Falls,” said Van Galen, who succeeded interim Chancellor Connie Foster last June.
UW System President Kevin Reilly and a UW System Board of Regents special search-and-screen committee interviewed five finalists before recommending that Van Galen, who was vice president for advancement at the University of West Florida, become UWRF’s 18th chancellor. The Board of Regents confirmed Van Galen’s appointment last January.
“This is the only job I have applied for in nearly seven years,” Van Galen said. “It was a special opportunity at a special place.”
Reilly said at the time of Van Galen’s appointment: “Dr. Van Galen, a Wisconsin native and UW alumnus, brings to this role a unique professional background as both a faculty member in chemistry and a highly successful advancement executive. That’s a rare combination of capabilities, and I’m confident that he is well prepared to advance the academic reputation of UW-River Falls as well as its core role in helping a rapidly growing part of Wisconsin pursue its future.”
UWRF physics Professor James Madsen, who chaired the 19-member search and screen committee, said Van Galen’s background was a match for the job.
“Dr. Van Galen stood out in that group because of his tremendous commitment to the values this campus is known for, including our shared focus on the student,” says Madsen. “He is someone who can help us move to the next level and help us spread the word about all the good things that are, and will be, happening here.”
A Pivotal Point
Van Galen earned a B.S. degree in chemistry from UW-Whitewater. After completing a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from Kansas State University, he went on to a post-doctoral research position at the University of California, Berkeley.
Van Galen began his career as a professional in academia in 1987 at Truman State University as a chemistry professor, earning honors as Educator of the Year in 1988-89. The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) named him Professor of the Year for the state of Missouri in 1991. In 1994-95 he was selected as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellow and participated in the nationally acclaimed leadership development program.
The fellowship was a pivotal point in Van Galen’s life and career.
“I love teaching and still enjoy teaching and the interaction with students very much,” says Van Galen. “But the fellowship was an opportunity to think broadly about higher education and the difference effective leaders can make.”
After the fellowship, he returned to Truman State University to become vice president for advancement. From 2003 to 2009 Van Galen oversaw alumni relations, development, marketing, communications, and the Foundation at the University of West Florida as vice president of advancement.
Change & Challenge
From his first floor office in North Hall, Van Galen oversees the western-most campus of the 26 campus UW System. Founded in 1874, the university has grown to more than 6,200 undergraduate students and more than 400 graduate students.
At a time when public universities are faced with state funding reductions, Van Galen brings strong experience with capital campaigns. Fundraising has necessarily become a higher priority at UWRF and other public institutions, he says.
“I believe that private charitable gifts to the UWRF Foundation will be essential in the coming years,” Van Galen says. “It is clear to me that UWRF is on a path to becoming a university of uncommon excellence. It will be my job to support and enhance these efforts, to build relationships beyond the campus, and be certain that the good news from UW-River Falls is heard throughout the region and state.”
Reacquainted to the State
Since arriving at UWRF, Van Galen has regularly met with students, staff and faculty as well as community leaders and residents. He has made trips to Madison to meet with state lawmakers, toured the St. Croix Valley, and visited dairy farms, businesses and local industry to learn more about the surrounding area.
His responsibilities include “building bridges” within UWRF and the UW System, to the ever-growing St. Croix Valley, as well as the Twin Cities, an economic center 25 miles to the west.
“By all accounts, including my own, UW-River Falls is an excellent university with a bright future,” Van Galen said. “I am working collaboratively with the UW-River Falls community and the highly acclaimed UW System to advance higher education in the St. Croix Valley and beyond.
Van Galen met his wife, Mary, who is a Fort Atkinson, Wis. native, when they both were students at UW-Whitewater. She later earned a master’s degree in nursing with an emphasis on high-risk obstetric pediatrics, nursing education and international health.
Mary was an assistant professor of nursing at Truman State University. They have a daughter, Ashley, who is a university freshman majoring in neuroscience.
Despite leaving sunny Florida for the Northland, the Van Galens are enjoying the Wisconsin seasons. He says he’s grateful that he lives in a great community, commutes to work at his dream job in four minutes, can park downtown for a nickel or see a local movie for $3 and doesn’t need to take a vacation week to make his annual pilgrimage to the State Fair or Lambeau Field.
“This has very much been a homecoming for us,” Van Galen said.