By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MILWAUKEE - Her flashy stockings don't match the staid suits of the academy. She has a keen eye for big ideas - and the smallest detail.
Those who have worked closely with Nancy Zimpher at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee say gender and style may be what make this 56-year-old chancellor a standout.
But it's her ability to deliver results that has changed the face of the institution she has led for the past five years and made an indelible mark on both the surrounding community and higher education across the state.
"It's visible because of who she is," says husband Ken Howey of UWM's increased prominence. "She's a woman, and you stand out a little bit more when most people in leadership positions aren't women. But what really made her visible is she got things done."
Last week, the University of Cincinnati's board of trustees approved her appointment as the school's 25th president. She will replace Joseph A. Steger, who retired after a 19-year tenure. She officially takes over Oct. 1.
Zimpher is the first woman president in the school's 184-year history in a field where 19 percent of university presidents are female, according to the American Council on Education.
At UWM, the road to Zimpher's success started with a collective vision. In her more than 10 years as a college administrator, she discovered that vision is the one thing that tells you where you're headed and whether you've arrived.
So, shortly after her arrival as chancellor in 1998, she sent out a call. She wanted 100 people to develop a mission for the institution in 100 days. The original 100 turned into hundreds more.
Soon, the message crystallized: Make UWM more visible and connect it to the community.
"(In 1998) the people of Milwaukee didn't think of UWM when they thought of a university," says Tom Luljak, vice chancellor for university relations. "They thought of Marquette (a neighboring Jesuit institution).
"She began to help people on campus better understand how good they were and then get the message out to the community."
Zimpher raised the low profile of UWM by being high-profile herself. She made sure business leaders and legislators alike knew her name and UWM's.
In tandem with campus improvement projects, Zimpher initiated what will now become her legacy.
She called it the Milwaukee Idea, a take-off on the Wisconsin Idea, a state philosophy dating to the 1800s that said the boundaries of the University of Wisconsin went beyond the campus to the boundaries of the state. It grew into what are now 16 major initiatives and dozens of partnerships that aim to improve education and economic development.
"The key is those ideas must turn into partnerships and action," Zimpher says. "The proof is in the action.''
Colleagues say Zimpher was the glue that cemented the idea and the partnership and made them a reality. Her leadership style brought people to the table. Her enthusiasm kept them coming back.
That style was one part personality and one part vision. Unrivaled determination to better a school that had been down on itself joined a true achiever's stamina. She was organized, set high standards and did it all with a sense of humor.
Through partnerships with the community, Zimpher helped define urban problems and develop solutions.
The Milwaukee Partnership Academy, for example, brings UWM together with Milwaukee Public Schools and officials from the city's teacher education association as well as a private industry council. The ultimate goal is to ensure all students in Milwaukee Public Schools are reading, writing and demonstrating math skills appropriate for their grade levels.
An initiative called TechStar is a joint effort of UWM and other area universities to help parlay the technology of academic researchers into new companies.
At UWM, Zimpher oversaw significant growth in both diversity and academic programs. A new Ph.D. program in history allows students to focus on the specialties of urban, global or modern studies rather than in a geographic or chronological era.
'My car doesn't go 25'
With the help of three staff members, Zimpher became a master at time management. In the office at 7:30 a.m., she packed her minimum 12-hour days: Breakfasts, lunches and dinners were reserved for cultivating relationships. Post-it Notes cluttered the steering wheel of her university car as reminders of scheduled appointments and phone calls.
She was an oft-seen spectator at everything from soccer games to men's choir concerts - all the while making time for morning walks with her husband by their lakefront home.
"My car doesn't go 25," Zimpher says of her hurried schedule, black heels clicking across the pavement. "We keep busy."
As one staffer put it: "Following the chancellor? You better have your track shoes."
In the state capitol, Zimpher endeared herself to legislators who weren't as interested in higher education issues as they were in K-12 by highlighting the university's partnerships with Milwaukee Public Schools, part of her Milwaukee Idea.
"Zimpher garnered respect from legislators after she established a profile of not acting like everyone else, says State Sen. Alberta Darling, whose four-county district includes UWM's campus.
"She was one of the key players that prevented the legislature from cutting even more money from higher education in the most recent budget," Darling says.
She always kept a fast pace, but outsiders might never know her schedule was tight.
"She'll know every name of every person before she goes into that room," Barb Puskarich, her scheduler, says. "She's well-prepared. Like, for example, we have sausage races here (people dressed as sausages compete during Milwaukee Brewers games). If you're not from Wisconsin, you might not know that. (But) it would be like her to figure out why the Bratwurst is important."
While Zimpher focuses on the big picture, she also recognizes that personal touches matter.
"At graduation, she's willing to have her picture taken with every single student and parent who graduates," Howey says. "And she'll write little thank-you notes. When her father was still alive and we would drive to Florida, she would spend a great majority of the trip writing Christmas cards, personally, to like 2,000 people."
Every piece fits into her overall strategy to get results, even the stockings.
"I haven't counted them, but I have enough that I have options," Zimpher says of her hosiery collection. "I can't remember when I started, but I found it was cheaper to buy stockings than a new outfit. It's a trade secret that I'm now telling."
Zimpher plans to bring the same leadership style back to her home state of Ohio. Here, she'll be closer to family and son Fletcher, 20, a junior at Ohio University.
Until then, she will hold the directional sign for UWM leaders, paving the way for an interim team.
Helen Peter Love, Zimpher's neighbor on Lake Drive, says she expects the chancellor to bring the same spark to Cincinnati as she took to Milwaukee.
"She has been one of the best things to happen to this city," Love says. "She's forward-going. She never bitches. She always has room for everybody. She's non-political and she never equivocates.
"But she has also come to a point where she set everything in motion, and it's time for her to leave before people start nipping at her heels."
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