Sunday, July 20, 2003

Likely new UC chief a 'force'

Milwaukee educator called tireless, savvy

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, laughs as then-new basketball coach Bo Ryan asks how he looks in his new hat during a press conference in 1999 at Greene Hall on the school's campus in Milwaukee.
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo)
| ZOOM |
Nancy L. Zimpher, expected to become the University of Cincinnati's next president, earned a reputation as the most powerful woman in Milwaukee.

Retiring UC President Joseph Steger said Zimpher could step into the position within the next month or two after the UC Board of Trustees votes on her appointment Tuesday.

During five years as the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the 56-year-old educator served on every civic board and community group she could, while giving the university a bigger voice in city affairs.

Friends and associates, who jokingly wonder if she gets any sleep, say they don't want to lose her tough and insightful leadership.

But they say Cincinnati better get ready, because she's a dynamo who will work tirelessly to jumpstart collaboration between the university and the city.

"She's kind of a shoot, ready, aim person," said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

"She's not afraid to throw an idea out there and then figure out how to put the structure underneath it."

Zimpher has declined to comment about the job of running Ohio's second-largest university, with 33,000 students and 14,274 employees.

She is the only finalist for the position to replace Steger, who announced his retirement in November after 19 years at the university's helm. He's returning to the UC College of Business to set up a center for nonprofit organizations.

Zimpher grew up in the tiny river town of Gallipolis in southeastern Ohio. She started her teaching career in a one-room schoolhouse.

"That's why she's had such a compassion for teachers," said Jeri Kozobarich, director of development at Ohio State University.

Zimpher spent a quarter-century at Ohio State University, where she earned her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. She was dean of the College of Education for five years before moving to Milwaukee and its 25,000-student campus in 1998.

"She was very well thought of at Ohio State, and I checked with people in Milwaukee, and they essentially told me the same thing," said Steger. "She's got tons of energy. She's very personable. I think she's very excited. She's seen what's happened around here. We're on a roll."

People say it's obvious when Zimpher enters a room - and not just because of her array of patterned nylon stockings or her black and gold suits that represent her university's school colors.

"She's high-energy. She's brilliant," said Robin Mayrl, vice president for program development at the Helen Bader Foundation.

The Milwaukee-based foundation supports a wide range of philanthropic activities in Wisconsin and Israel.

"She reads the environment in a moment," Mayrl said. "It did not take her long at all when she arrived in Milwaukee to know who is who - who the major players were and who she could work with."

Zimpher's spirit of collaboration came through in a city initiative called the Milwaukee Idea, an effort to enlarge the role that the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee plays in the community.

The concept brought together hundreds of residents and university leaders to work on improving education, the environment, health and economic development.

Zimpher is credited with helping transform the university into a powerhouse.

"She really put a face to the university that it never had before," said Jack Kosakowski, president of Junior Achievement of Wisconsin. "Her first major move was to highlight the university and one of her strategies was to become a key player in the community."

People are taking more pride in the university since Zimpher became chancellor, Kosakowski said. It's becoming common to see residents wearing sweatshirts with the school colors.

"She gets a lot of credit because she's a female leader, but she's just a leader. She's a galvanizing force in the community. There are few things that Nancy doesn't have her fingerprints on in Milwaukee."

Known for her bright red outfits while in the Buckeye State and an OSU office personalized with plenty of scarlet and gray, her alma mater's colors, Zimpher embraced Milwaukee while she was there.

John Wiley, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he never saw a trace of OSU in her Milwaukee office. She once gave him a hat with UWM's panther logo.

Donald Melkus, who retired two weeks ago as UWM's vice chancellor for the Department of Academic Affairs, credits Zimpher for spearheading initiatives that benefited the entire state.

Zimpher was part of the UWM team that initiated College Connections, a 4-year-old program in which UW instructors visit satellite campuses so students can get four-year degrees without having to transfer after their second year.

"She inspires people through her own example," Melkus said. "Nancy works seven days a week, 16 hours a day. She's just everywhere. She just breeds that type of excitement. Her work ethic is second to none."

"We really hate to lose her," Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce said. "She's really raised the profile of UWM. She's gotten extremely involved in economic development and urban education. She's been a great partner to have."

Sheehy said Zimpher was involved in creating a partnership between several area higher-education institutions and the business association to promote spin-off businesses from university research.

Cincinnati officials say they are excited at the possibility of Zimpher's arrival.

"She has big shoes to fill because Joe Steger was a great partner of the city, not only with his work with the university but the surrounding neighborhoods," Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken said.

Milwaukee residents say their loss would be Cincinnati's gain.

"If you get her, you will be so fortunate," Mayrl of the Bader Foundation said.

"But I hope you don't."

Jeremy W. Steele, Susan Vela and Kristina Goetz contributed.


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