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UW-Madison launches Wisconsin Idea Scholars Program

February 3, 2012

A group of 31 community leaders from all over the state will convene at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as part of the Wisconsin Idea Scholars Program.

The group includes CEOs, nonprofit leaders, farmers, small business owners and others to discuss what matters to them, their communities and how the Wisconsin Idea can continue to grow.

Photo: Vince Sweeney


Photo: Jeff Miller

The opening session was held Friday, Feb. 3, with eight more to follow throughout the state. One of the goals is to apply UW–Madison resources to the most important issues facing Wisconsin by deploying faculty and staff at the sessions to hear the input and address topics identified by the scholars.

“The Wisconsin Idea Scholars program is a unique partnership that brings together people from all across Wisconsin and from a wide range of backgrounds to listen, to learn and to share their knowledge and ideas with us and each other. They will bring to the program a variety of perspectives and experiences, but what they have in common is their optimism that UW–Madison can be a positive partner for change throughout the entire state,” Vice Chancellor for University Relations Vince Sweeney says.

The program was created as part of UW–Madison’s observance in 2011-12 of the Year of the Wisconsin Idea — the university’s long-standing commitment to the state beyond the boundaries of campus. It is funded by private donations that support faculty and staff outreach and public service activities.

After an orientation today on the UW campus, the focus will quickly shift outside of Madison, with learning days scheduled in other locations chosen based on the scholars’ collective input about specific local needs. Each learning day will have three components: a behind-the-scenes experience in places as diverse as a dairy farm, a medical clinic or a factory assembly line; a free public event to engage the community on each issue; and a probing, in-depth discussion of how UW–Madison can address the issue.

Scholars were chosen from many walks of life and parts of the state to share their passion for the future of their communities, organizations and industries, says University Relations Chief of Staff Ben Miller.

“In the Year of the Wisconsin Idea, we want to do more than simply recognize the work UW–Madison is already doing to benefit the state. We want to take that service to a new level and align it with what the people of Wisconsin are telling us are the most pressing problems that need to be addressed,” Miller says.

Phil Burkart, 54, president of Burkart-Heisdorf Insurance Agency in Green Lake, Wis., says he is humbled at being chosen as one of the scholars.

“This is an excellent tool, one of many, that can bring the Wisconsin Idea to life and kick off the next 100 years.”

Phil Burkart

“I view my participation as somewhat of a conduit for the community,” Burkart said. “This is an excellent tool, one of many, that can bring the Wisconsin Idea to life and kick off the next 100 years.”

Burkart moved to Green Lake from Sheboygan six years ago. He’s served in the U.S. Navy and graduated from Marquette University with a degree in business administration. Burkart received his MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and completed the Strategic Marketing Management Program at Harvard University Graduate School of Business.

Issues concerning Burkart are education and business in rural communities like Green Lake, which has a population of 1,100.

“I think people who are in cities don’t necessarily realize some of the struggles of these rural communities,” Burkart says. “I don’t know the answers, but at least if we put this group of people together, there might be a few viable ideas worth exploring and working towards.”

Tracy L. Nielsen, 30, vice president of marketing and resource development for United Way of Racine County, is coming to listen as well as share her own ideas.

“I’m really excited to have the opportunity to meet other people in this program,” Nielsen said. “I hope to learn what’s going on in different communities across the state. It will challenge me to think more broadly about issues.”

Nielsen received her bachelor’s degree from St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn., and her MBA from Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wis. Topics on her list include education, job training and sustainability.

“This is about problem solving,” Nielsen says. “We can talk about issues all day, but creating solutions by learning from different people’s perspective will be invaluable.”

– By Bill Graf and Käri Knutson

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