Milner, retiring in July, became indispensable in career that went from lab to leadership
As a sophomore at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Jocelyn Milner attended the screening of a documentary that would change the course of her life and indirectly lead to a 34-year career at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
The documentary featured the pioneering microbiological work of Tom Brock, a professor of bacteriology at UW–Madison whose research at Yellowstone National Park revealed life thriving in extreme environments. Brock’s work so impressed Milner that she switched her major from food science to a focus on microbiology. The film also put UW–Madison on her radar.
Later, after earning a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Guelph, Milner accepted a postdoctoral research position at UW–Madison. And now, more than three decades later, Milner is retiring following a career that shifted from the laboratory to campus leadership.
“Jocelyn has been indispensable to this campus in so many ways during her distinguished career here,” says Karl Scholz, interim chancellor. “A number of key initiatives in academic affairs can be linked to work that Jocelyn either helped lead or was closely associated with.”
Milner, vice provost for academic affairs and director of Academic Planning and Institutional Research (APIR), announced in November that she would be stepping away from daily responsibilities and focusing on a defined set of projects until her retirement in summer 2022. Her last day is July 14.
Milner, who grew up in suburban Toronto, was the first in her family to earn a college degree. She excelled in science and, after earning a bachelor’s degree, was awarded a prestigious scholarship from the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada to pursue an advanced degree. Additional funding from the agency allowed her to pursue a postdoc position at a university of her choice. That’s how she arrived at UW–Madison in 1988, joining the lab of Professor M. Thomas Record and subsequently the lab of Professor Jo Handelsman.
Milner didn’t expect to stay more than two years but put down roots after meeting her future husband, Mark Ediger, a chemistry professor. Over time, her interests shifted from original research to management and administration.
“The management piece came naturally to me,” Milner says. “So I thought that I should find a position where that was my focus — helping others be successful.”
She joined APIR as an academic planner in 1999. The unit is known for providing data and analytics for decision support, for serving as the official data resource for internal and external audiences, for academic policy development and review, and for insights and innovations that provide critical oversight and advancements related to the campus’s academic infrastructure.
Milner remembers interviewing for the position with John Wiley, provost at the time.
“He said, ‘We just put all this effort into training you as a woman in science. Why would we hire you into administration?’ I told him that the training wasn’t lost, that the same skill set — that same mindset of discovery — goes well anywhere and I would use the same analytical and critical-thinking skills in a role as an academic planner.”
Rising as a leader
Milner succeeded Martha Casey as director of APIR in 2003 and became vice provost of academic affairs in 2016. In these roles, she was a leader in the areas of accreditation, compliance, academic policies and institutional research — not the most high-profile topics, but crucial to ensuring a university’s quality and integrity.
“The breadth of her knowledge cannot be overstated,” says Jeffrey S. Russell, vice provost for lifelong learning and dean of the Division of Continuing Studies.
Milner’s support, he says, was invaluable in growing Summer Term, expanding professional degrees and certificates, creating the online undergraduate degree completion program, reducing time to degree for undergraduate students, and supporting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
“She did this by having an excellent command of data and baselining our current situation and helping create strategies to move forward in priority areas,” Russell says. “Her competencies, coupled with her service-oriented disposition, made her highly effective and fun to work with.”
Linda D. Scott, dean of the School of Nursing, says she appreciated Milner’s ability to “seemingly open a file drawer in her head.”
“She knows policies, procedures, people, stakeholders, and so much more that benefits all of the projects she manages and the people she works with,” Scott says. “In addition, she has a graceful balance of strategic thinking and planning, coupled with a collaborative spirit that she uses to assist with others to operationalize and implement programming recommendations. All of this is complemented by her wonderful sense of humor and her approachability.”
Leaving a legacy
Scott Owczarek, the university’s registrar, worked closely with Milner to implement Lumen, the university’s academic and curricular management platform. Her leadership on that issue will have a lasting impact on the university and is a true sign of her legacy, he says.
“Jocelyn’s high-level approach, eye for detail, passion for accurate data representation, and commitment to creating a holistic view of the breadth and depth of academic programs was essential in the development of this entity for the benefit of students and our university,” he says.
Milner says she is most proud of the work she did in helping to improve graduation rates and to reduce the average time to degree for undergraduates — metrics that have never been better at UW–Madison. Other career highlights, she says, include being at the forefront of a national effort to track the economic progress of college graduates and strengthening and expanding the role of APIR.
“There’s great satisfaction in leaving APIR’s activities in a strong position and having assembled a highly capable team that will serve the institution well,” she says.
In retirement, Milner will continue serving as a peer reviewer for the Higher Learning Commission, a position that helps evaluate institutions for adherence to accreditation requirements.
As for Brock, Milner never got to meet her hero. (He retired in 1990 and died in 2021.) However, several years ago, Brock called APIR with a data question and Milner was able to tell him about the impact he had on her career.
“It was a full-circle moment,” she says. “It’s one example of what’s been a daily joy in my career at UW–Madison. I’ve had the opportunity to connect with all these amazing and talented people — colleagues and scholars and students — who are driven by curiosity and intent on excellence. It’s been a privilege to contribute to the university’s success and the wider higher education enterprise over the years.”