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Last updated: Saturday, 14-Mar-2009 19:11:04 Central Daylight Time

May 5, 2000


Thibodeau Readies for Retirement After 15 Years

Fifteen years as the chief executive officer has afforded retiring Chancellor Gary A. Thibodeau with an extensive legacy to contribute to the 125-year history of UW-River Falls.

On Wednesday, May 10, the campus took time to celebrate Thibodeau's leadership as part of the institution's 125th anniversary celebration.

Those who know Thibodeau best tell of a chief executive officer who excelled in his position during those years. They cite his vision, intelligence, integrity, keen wit, guiding hand as a mentor and friend, and his downright stubbornness when advocating for the campus in Madison.

A quick inventory makes it clear that the chancellor's contributions were substantial: 17 construction projects totaling nearly $80 million, including major victories in rescuing funding in jeopardy for the Chalmer Davee Library and South Hall; a dozen new academic majors after a six-year logjam burst in the University of Wisconsin System that severely restricted new academic programs; initiatives in diversity, gender equity and the internationalization of the campus and curriculum; two successful reaccreditations by the North Central Association that earned accolades for the University community by the site visit team; a painful but successful strategic planning effort that reallocated $2 million into supporting classroom activities, and which has since become a national model for collaborative governance; finding internal and external funding to pervasively wire the campus and introduce technology as a ubiquitous teaching aid in classrooms and laboratories across the campus; substantial external grant funding that has supported diversity and outreach; and, most importantly, more than 13,400 bachelor's and master's degree conferred.

For the past two years, Thibodeau has been the senior chancellor among the 15 campuses of the University of Wisconsin System. He routinely quips that each day he stays on the job he adds considerably to the national average of longevity by university chief executives, which averages just over five years.

During those years, Thibodeau's job has often been one of being a salesman, he said.

"A challenge in public higher education is that we have to build a case for our resources. There are a lot of good places to spend money. The chancellor has to sell higher education, and higher education specifically delivered from this campus.

"The faculty are concerned with academic quality, but they have to rely on the chancellor to sell it for them. That's a heavy responsibility. The chancellor has to spend a lot of time with legislators and other decision-makers explaining how students grow, and the return to the state. Legislators are not just spending money; they are looking for a return on the investment."

When he steps down on Aug. 1, he will turn over the campus to Dr. Ann Lydecker, who is serving as provost and chief academic officer at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. Lydecker was selected as a result of an extensive national search, and brings a regional perspective through her previous teaching and administrative experience at Mankato State University and Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.

Thibodeau takes enormous pride in having helped to create an atmosphere in which faculty and students thrive and flourish and presenting that to Lydecker.

"There is not a single area of this University where she won't feel good about coming here," Thibodeau said. "This campus is ready to go to the next step. And we don't have a lot of inherent problems that have to be addressed first."

That's a result of Thibodeau's ensuring the campus was well-managed financially so its resources could be focussed on its most critical area of academics by putting resources into classroom support and faculty development.

The University has also remained true to its historic mission of keeping its doors open, Thibodeau noted. Some 60 percent of UW-RF's students are the first in their family to attend college, a figure which is half again as high as the national average. While throughout Thibodeau's tenure admission standards have increased dramatically, the institution has not lost sight of its role of providing access.

"We have tried to maintain a balance as an avenue of opportunity for our students. So those who are late bloomers in high school can come here. But at the same time, we have continually raised the bar higher in terms of expectations from our students. So the competencies that we have set for our students at graduation are second to none in the University of Wisconsin System."

When they leave here as graduates, those students are receiving a degree that is respected regionally and nationally because of faculty strength, excellent facilities, and an appropriate curriculum, Thibodeau said.

"If you look at our faculty, we are a comprehensive university that often is described as regional. My response is that that's true, but that we have a national reputation in a number of selected areas. And the numbers of those areas where we will have a national reputation will continue to grow in the future. It will grow because of the credentialling and the entrepreneurial spirit of our faculty.

"If you look at a comprehensive university of 5,000 students, you would be hard-pressed to find such an institution like UW-River Falls that has faculty with the number of terminal degrees as we have, with their array of academic preparation, and with the willingness of the faculty to participate in interdisciplinary instruction and other entrepreneurial efforts in pedagogy.

"We are really on track--in facilities, in faculty, in curriculum--to acquire that expanded national reputation."

He predicts that providing access to students at an affordable price will remain a high priority. But the institution will have to explore new areas, including a strong commitment to offering programs and continuing education at times and through methods that are convenient to students of all ages. That means, he says, an increasing reliance on Internet-based delivery of courses, as well as expanded evening programs.

The academy is responding to that, he said. "Faculty are enterprising in their significant use of high tech. They are providing opportunities across a whole array from the use of technology as a pedagogy (teaching technique.)"

Into the distant future, efforts to expand external funding will be critical, as the University continues to see a shift in state funding from state-supported to state-assisted public higher education, Thibodeau said.

The ability of the campus to generate additional funds through alumni donations, corporate underwriting, and external grants will be crucial to maintaining the quality of the classroom experience, he said.

Before his arrival at UW-RF in 1985, Thibodeau served as vice president of administration at South Dakota State University from 1980-85 after serving there as the assistant to the vice president for academic affairs.

A Fellow of the National Heart Institute, Thibodeau holds a doctorate in animal science physiology from SDSU, as well as a master's degrees in zoology and pharmacology. His bachelor's degree is in biology and chemistry from Creighton University.

One of Thibodeau's most enduring extracurricular accomplishments as chancellor is his effort as a highly successful textbook author on human anatomy and physiology. While many of Thibodeau's colleagues write texts, his choice of subject matter is unusual. Many administrators write about management, leadership or financial techniques. Few are published in their area of academic expertise.

First published in 1987, Anatomy & Physiology, has been a best-seller, with numerous printings, including translations into Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Chinese. It is considered the national standard in introductory courses for undergraduate students of human anatomy and physiology. In 1994 it was selected by the Text and Academic Author's Association for its William Holmes McGuffey Award for Textbook Excellence & Longevity in the highly competitive college textbook marketplace.

He is married to Emogene McCarville Thibodeau and together they have a son, Douglas, and a daughter, Beth.


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