UniverCity year program to partner with four counties and villages

The Nelson Institute is a proud partner of the University of Wisconsin-Madison program UniverCity Year, which will be expanding its impact across the state by partnering with four communities at the same time: Marathon County, Milwaukee County, Racine County, and the Village of Waunakee. Launched in 2016 with the Wisconsin Idea in mind, this three-year program facilitates engagement between the UW–Madison learning community and localities, ultimately bringing faculty, students, and community members together to address some of the greatest challenges facing Wisconsin’s local governments.

Now in its sixth year, UniverCity Year has engaged with thousands of students and faculty members on hundreds of projects in fourteen counties and villages across the state, including Adams County who recently shared their positive experience with Madison area media. In each partnership, the community is at the heart of the UniverCity Year program ultimately selecting which challenges should be addressed and what projects would be most impactful. Each of the four municipalities have identified challenges or projects to address during this partnership that range from evidence-based decision-making and economic improvements to flooding mitigation and racial equality.

“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, Managing Director of the UniverCity Alliance which oversees the UniverCity Year program. “Our four communities represent urban and rural communities and they are tackling 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!”

In an effort to help each community reach its goals, UniverCity Year staff match each project to interested faculty members who then incorporate it into their coursework or research. UCY staff also facilitate interactions between the community and students, and allocate funds for classes to work with communities and conduct research.

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.”

While additional partnerships and collaborations are still in the works, the four partnering communities are excited to begin working on towards their goals in 2021. Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave is particularly excited to connect with faculty, staff, and students working with the UniverCity Year as the county considers new diversity and inclusion efforts.

“Racine County is committed to addressing racial disparities in our community, and we are so grateful for the support of the University of Wisconsin’s UniverCity program to help us do that,” said Delagrave. “The work ahead of us is full of challenges, but also tremendous opportunities. With the resources, expertise, tools and research of the UniverCity program, I am confident this partnership will help build a stronger, more resilient Racine County.”

Likewise, the Village of Waunakee will be partnering with UniverCity Year to reevaluate policies and procedures and better understand how those impact diversity and equity.

“All of our seven projects have, in some aspect, a related focus to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Todd Schmidt, the Village Administrator and Economic Development Director for the Village of Waunakee.  “Just thinking about some of the projects, we are looking forward to recognizing the Native Nations components of our history and heritage. We are also looking forward to doing a deep-dive into the city’s policies so as to better show concern for and give attention to populations that have been historically underserved or underrepresented.”

Marathon County Administrator Lance Leonhard echoed that sentiment, noting his enthusiasm for delving deeper into projects and gaining new perspectives on challenges.

“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.”

To ensure that communities reach their goals and feel fully supported, students and faculty present their recommendations to the county or village for consideration. UniverCity Year staff will then continue to aid the local government in evaluating the feasibility of student research, implementing projects, and reporting on outcomes.

“Univercity Year has developed a pretty positive reputation and we’ve been watching and have seen success and how pleased the communities are,” said Schmidt. “I would certainly encourage other communities to give it a strong look.”

The program is also currently recruiting faculty to be a part of its community projects.