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Reflecting on an impactful career

Posted 8 a.m. Friday, May 27, 2022

Mark Sandheinrich, dean of the College of Science & Health, is retiring after 34 years with UWL. "I will miss the wonderful colleagues and students who have made my time at UWL so fun and rewarding," he says.

Mark Sandheinrich retiring after 34 years at UWL

Mark Sandheinrich has made quite a mark on the College of Science & Health.

Since arriving as a biology professor and researcher in 1988, Sandheinrich has played a key role in helping the college and its students meet the challenges of the 21st century.

He beacme dean in 2018, after serving on an interim basis for two years, and has led the college through a time of transformation. His tenure included the opening of the state-of-the-art Prairie Springs Science Center, the expansion of academic and research opportunities, and the college’s response to a world-altering pandemic.

Through the years, Sandheinrich remained a prolific researcher, publishing dozens of papers on aquatic ecology and the effects of contaminants on aquatic ecosystems.

UWL Provost Betsy Morgan says Sandheinrich has been a model educator — one who never failed to put students first.

“Mark Sandheinrich was wonderful to collaborate with as a dean because he places students at the center of his thinking and cares deeply about high-quality teaching, students’ experiential learning and faculty development,” Morgan explains. “His own career reflects intellectual inquiry throughout his teaching, scholarship and service.”

As Sandheinrich prepares to retire in June, he took a moment to reflect on his career.

Q: What first drew you to UWL, and why did you decide to spend your career here?

A: I wanted to be at a mid-size comprehensive university that offered both undergraduate and graduate programs in biology and had opportunities for teaching and research in aquatic science. I remained at UWL because I had great mentors and colleagues, like Ron Rada, Tom Claflin and Jim Wiener, who supported my professional development.  Because of them, I had opportunities to collaborate on unique projects in the lab and field and work with excellent students. La Crosse is also a great place to raise a family and have a very good quality of life.

Q: How has campus, and the CSH in particular, changed?

A: The most dramatic change over the past 30 years has been the number and quality of new buildings and the improvement in the overall appearance of the campus. The number of students in science and health has also increased markedly. For example, when I started in 1988, we had a combined Department of Biology and Microbiology with 28 faculty and staff, and about 350 undergraduate students. Today, Biology and Microbiology are separate departments with 56 faculty and staff, and over 1,300 undergraduate students.

Q: When you came to UWL, did you ever think you would be dean of the college?

A: No, I never really thought about that as a possibility nor initially had leading a college as a career goal. I was focused on developing my teaching and program of scholarship. I doubt if anyone gets a Ph.D. with the goal of becoming an academic dean. We get a graduate degree because of our love of learning and enthusiasm for our respective discipline. It was only when the opportunity became available six years ago that I really thought seriously about being a dean. I was ready at that point in my career for some new challenges.

Sandheinrich speaks during the grounbreaking for phase one of the Prairie Springs Science Center in 2016.

Q: How was the transition from a faculty role to an administrative role? Have you missed teaching and having a more direct connection with students?

A: Because of my previous experience as chair of a large academic department and many years on campus, I had a basic understanding of budgetary, administrative and academic policies. That made the transition to administration not too difficult. There is also a great team of folks in the college office that work well both independently and collaboratively; they made the transition possible as well. Even though serving as dean is rewarding, I do really miss teaching (but not the grading) and the students, as well as working with colleagues on research projects during the summer.

Q: What are you most proud of during your time as dean? What are you most proud of during your career?

A: Those are easy questions. As dean, I am most proud of our faculty and staff. They are, quite simply, fantastic. The faculty are excellent scholars who share every day their passion for their field with students through innovative teaching and experiential learning in the classroom and laboratory. The staff are dedicated to student success, and that remains their main focus in all of their activities. This was particularly true during the COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty and staff supported students and the educational mission of the university, pivoted to totally online teaching, and simultaneously took care of their families under incredibly challenging circumstances. During my career, I am most proud of my students. A colleague once stated: “We never take credit for our students’ accomplishments, but we do take great pride in them.”  That is certainly true for me. Because of the excellent education they receive, our students leave UWL and go on to fantastic careers and exciting opportunities.

Q: What are some issues, initiatives, etc. that will be key to the college’s future?

A: Many of the future challenges are not unique to CSH, but are shared by all institutions of higher education. Changing demographics will likely mean fewer students entering college; we need to continue to evolve to remain a desirable institution from which to earn a degree. Part of that evolution includes working more closely with employers to provide degrees that meet the knowledge requirements for technical careers and changing workforce needs.

Q: Why is PSSC II so critical to the future of not just the college, but the region and state?

A: Science education at colleges and universities has changed markedly since Cowley Hall was built in the 1960s. As an undergraduate, I learned about science. I learned how to “do science” when I was a graduate student. In contrast, today’s undergraduates need to “do science.” That means we need a modern science building with active-learning classrooms and laboratories for experiential learning and collaborative engagement among faculty and students if we are to meet the expectations of employers for technically skilled students. Cowley Hall was built when the total number of students at UWL was approximately equivalent to what we have in CSH today. Completion of Phase I was a good start to meeting our present and future needs, but it’s time to complete the project.

Q: What excites you about retirement? What will you miss about UWL?

A: I plan to do a lot of backpacking, kayaking, as well as camping and traveling with my wife, Mary Jo. I also plan to fail at as many new hobbies and activities as possible. I’ve always loved learning new things, and now I’ll have time for all of this. I will miss the wonderful colleagues and students who have made my time at UWL so fun and rewarding.


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