Here is the Dalai Lama, his body swathed in red cloth and his head closely shaved, leaning forward eagerly to clasp hands with University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson. The photo of this moment hangs on the professor’s office wall – just another sign of his fame. Davidson’s work studying the brains of Tibetan monks […]

Here is the Dalai Lama, his body swathed in red cloth and his head closely
shaved, leaning forward eagerly to clasp hands with University of
Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson. The photo of this moment
hangs on the professor’s office wall – just another sign of his fame.

Davidson’s work studying the brains of Tibetan monks – specifically, the
effects of meditation – first sparked a major wave of media attention about four
years ago. He has found that the brain can be trained to reduce stress and is
investigating a similar approach to help treat the symptoms of depression,
anxiety, asthma, even autism.

It’s sexy research, combining hard data that satisfies scientific skeptics
with the softer appeal of Eastern-influenced meditation as a way to soothe the
angst of the workaholic American. “I think there is a hunger for tapping into
more positive human qualities,” he says. The Dalai Lama visited his $10 million
research lab in 2001.

This year, Davidson was catapulted to a new level of stardom. Named one of
TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2006, he is part of a who’s
who that includes Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney and Ralph Lauren. Davidson
attended the black-tie party in the spring, where he mingled with Star
icon George Lucas and Sen. John McCain.

Brain power like Davidson’s is nothing new at UW-Madison. As Wisconsin’s
flagship university, it’s a big-league player in cutting-edge research. The best
known college ranking system, by U.S. News & World Report, grades
Madison as the 34th best university overall and eighth best public university.
At least 15 graduate departments rank in the top 20 in the country.

While Madison dominates in such rankings, it would be a mistake to overlook
the 30 or so other colleges and universities in the state. Wisconsin has a
tremendous infrastructure of institutions, with many educational gems – from
Beloit College’s study-abroad programs and Lawrence University’s conservatory to
Alverno College’s weekend adult degree programs and UW-Stevens Point’s College
of Natural Resources.

In the increasingly sophisticated global economy, the issue of where to
achieve collegiate excellence is of interest to more than the traditional
undergrad with an iPod in his ear, a Death Cab for Cutie poster on his wall and
a backpack full of homework. Today, 73 percent of undergraduates are
“nontraditional” students, working and juggling family responsibilities while
studying. Others are first-generation college students, students of color or
those from low-income backgrounds. All are searching for programs that best meet
their needs.

The outcomes can be surprising. Nationally, small liberal arts colleges with
high levels of faculty-student interaction have proved better at turning out the
scientists of tomorrow than the large research institutions, according to the
Council of Independent Colleges.

As colleges fight for enrollment, innovative programs are springing up, such
as the computer science program at St. Norbert College and a host of new
career-specific programs at Carroll College. Many regional colleges have gotten
into the adult education business, offering courses online or at satellite

The spin-off from UW-Madison on the high-tech economy has been noted often.
Similarly, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee impacts the community through
its architecture faculty, dance graduates and respected nursing program, while a
research center like the Medical College of Wisconsin is on the cutting edge of
hot new fields like medical informatics.

Nationally, we are on a search for excellence, with everyone from college
administrators to the federal government pushing for new ways of measuring the
quality of student learning at colleges.

The quality question goes beyond popular rankings and guidebooks to include
innovative programs and hidden gems. We set out to uncover some of these
treasures by talking to students, faculty, administrators and community members.
The result: an exclusive look at the very best of higher education in Wisconsin.

Alverno College

(Milwaukee, Roman Catholic, 2,400 students,

Cathy Smith is a
talkative, personable student who is double-majoring in religious studies and
psychology. After getting her degree, the curly-haired blond South Side native
plans to go to graduate school.

She’s also a 41-year-old mother of four.

Living in Greendale with her husband and kids, Smith works during the day at
the information desk of Alverno’s professional support services office. In many
ways, she typifies the Alverno student: Fifty-eight percent of the college’s
undergrads come from Milwaukee, and 60 percent are non-traditional students who
didn’t come to Alverno straight from high school.

After graduating from high school, Smith worked a series of jobs – nursing
assistant, Pick n’ Save cashier, a position at a property management company –
but never with much pay or recognition. So she enrolled at the University of
Phoenix, a nationwide for-profit college with a local campus in Brookfield.
Lasting only 10 weeks there – “I didn’t feel like I was learning anything,” she
recalls – she decided to try Alverno. Now she can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“People here were like, ‘Stop selling yourself short.’”

Alverno is a pioneer in adult education; its weekend college program, begun
in 1977, was the first of its kind in the Milwaukee area. Today, programs like
it are booming nationally, as colleges offer weekend/evening courses,
accelerated schedules and satellite locations to meet the needs of older

Yet what really sets Alverno apart is its alternative approach to assessment,
created in 1973. Ditching traditional letter grades, Alverno’s faculty gives
students feedback on multiple dimensions, including communication skills,
problem-solving ability and social interaction.

In 2006, U.S. News lauded Alverno in six out of eight categories in its
“Programs to Look For” section, more than any other Wisconsin college or
university. George Kuh, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement,
says Alverno is so widely respected in higher-education assessment circles that
“the joke is that people are sick and tired of hearing about Alverno.”

With 37 percent undergraduate students of color and 71 percent
first-generation college students, the school is known locally for its nursing
and education programs. A new weekend MBA, launched this fall, will use the same
interdisciplinary approach adopted by Yale’s School of Management.

And though the assessment system is more flexible than letter grades, it does
not lack rigor. “Some people wish they had grades because it’s easier,” says
Mary Meehan, college president.

Beloit College

(private, 1,300 students,

One campus visit tells
you that the unconventional is acceptable here. Pink hair, dreadlocks and long,
flowing skirts are just as common as jeans and T-shirts. Hardly a breeding
ground for future corporate executives, Beloit College, near the Illinois
border, attracts students who go into academia, teaching and other service

Wisconsin’s second-highest-ranked liberal arts college in national rankings,
Beloit draws students from all over the world seeking its rigorous liberal arts
education (93 percent of its students live on campus). The average ACT of
entering freshmen is 27, just shy of the average at both Lawrence University
and UW-Madison, which are tied for highest in the state at 27.5.

Beloit students are articulate and worldly. At the spring Student Symposium –
a day of more than 100 research presentations by mostly juniors and seniors –
the student presenters could have been mistaken for graduate students. Topics
ranged from the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, to complex chemistry formulas. One
theater arts major gave a fashion presentation on the sociological history of
the “little black dress,” while models walked in and out of the auditorium
wearing vintage pieces from the college’s costume shop.

Almost 50 percent of Beloit students study abroad – everything from geology
in Tanzania to international relations in Turkey. They can study eight
different languages in the intensive immersion courses of Beloit’s Center for
Language Studies. The school’s internationalism (7 percent of students are from
outside the country and represent nearly 50 cultures) is impressive.

Beloit has many strong departments, including anthropology, biochemistry and
biology, as well as the museum studies program. Roy Chapman Andrews, said to be
the original Indiana Jones, graduated from Beloit in 1906. The small campus is
home to the Logan Museum of Anthropology. Beloit produces more students who go
on to earn anthropology Ph.D.s than any other four-year liberal arts college in
the nation.

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Carroll College

(Waukesha, Presbyterian, 3,100 students,

With its 1880s limestone
buildings gracing carefully manicured lawns, Carroll seems a placid campus. But
recent years have seen turmoil: protests by students and teachers wanting to
oust then-President Frank Falcone (who left this year) and a faculty push to
unionize with the United Auto Workers in October 2005, making this the state’s
first private college with unionized faculty, though the college is challenging
that in federal court.

Falcone was brought in to restore the near-bankrupt college’s finances in
1993. Responding to market demand, he started the physical therapy program and a
cluster of other health sciences programs. It worked: Since 1993, full-time
undergrad enrollment has increased from 1,300 to 2,300.

More and more students want career-driven fields, says Jim Wiseman, vice
president of enrollment. Even the humanities at Carroll have had to market
themselves in new ways, such as a new major in writing and minor in Hispanic
health and human service. The latter started in 1999 as a companion program to
majors such as nursing, to respond to the City of Waukesha’s Latino population.

A new program in small-business management with a focus on creating
entrepreneurs has attracted first-generation college students from
small-business-owning families. Other programs, like marine biology (with two
years at Carroll and two at Hawaii Pacific University) and forensic science,
have been growing by leaps and bounds.

Lawrence University

(Appleton, private, 1,450 students,

“We think students
should follow their passions and become a whole person,” says Beth De Stasio,
Lawrence biology professor. Even pre-med students are encouraged to major in
philosophy if that’s what interests them, so they can become compassionate
doctors and not just technicians.

The top-rated liberal arts college in Wisconsin, with a nationally renowned
music conservatory, Lawrence attracts talented musicians from around the world
while also providing a strong liberal arts education. The conservatory enriches
the whole school; the theater department is one of the only undergraduate
programs in the region that annually puts on full-scale operas.

Rather than preparing students for particular careers that may disappear in a
decade, says De Stasio, “we prepare students to be flexible, life-long

Part of the curriculum since 1945, Freshman Studies is a critical thinking
and writing course taught by faculty across disciplines. Last fall, one of the
texts was Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority, about psychology
experiments in the 1960s in which people obeyed questionable authority figures
even when asked to deliver what they thought was an excruciatingly painful
electric shock to another subject. Class discussions helped students explore
questions like “How did the Holocaust happen?”

Other strong departments include physics, with a “Laser Palace” facility in
which students uncover new truths about the properties of atoms by performing
experiments with beams of light. With signature programs in laser, computational
and surface physics, the department is thriving, and more than half of student
majors go on to graduate programs in physics and related fields. Physics
magazine singled out Lawrence’s program as “an undergraduate physics
success story.”

Marquette University

(Milwaukee, Roman Catholic, 11,600

Neuroscientist William Cullinan peers into a dorm-size refrigerator and
yells to his colleague: “Hey Dana, are there any intact brains that we have yet
to cut?” No, this is not the opening scene of a B horror movie. It’s a Marquette
University professor looking for a rat brain, which turns out to look
surprisingly like a garbanzo bean inside the clear liquid in a glass vial.

By studying infinitesimally small slivers of tissue from brains like these,
Cullinan and other neuroscientists in the biomedical sciences department are
finding answers to human problems like addiction, stroke and the effects of
stress on mental illness. In the gross anatomy lab, some 25 cadavers are
enclosed in blue plastic bags on metal tables.

This is the undergraduate major that received attention from The New
York Times
earlier this year. One of the first of its kind and one of only
about a half-dozen similar U.S. programs, biomedical sciences is Marquette’s
largest declared major, with almost 500 students. Started in 1996 with just
three students, the department now fields calls from places like Ohio State
University and the University of Colorado, which want to emulate the program.

Students (most of them pre-med or pre-dental) study human anatomy, followed
by gross human anatomy, where they work on cadavers. These, along with courses
like human histology, pharmacology and molecular pathology, are courses rarely
found at the undergrad level.

Locals know that Marquette is home to the only dental school in the state.
But the Jesuit school is known nationally for its programs connecting academics
and volunteer service. Sarah Cotton, a double-major in political science and
international affairs, participated in the school’s new program in Capetown,
South Africa in 2005. The 21-year-old Brookfield native worked to help prevent
youth violence and taught dance classes and English reading to Xhosa-speaking
kids ages 7 to 13. “It’s completely changed me,” she says of the experience.

Other MU claims to fame: a nationally ranked law school (though it recently
slipped into the third tier in U.S. News rankings), a highly ranked
part-time MBA program and strong graduate programs in physical therapy and

Medical College of Wisconsin

(Milwaukee, private, 1,365

MCW is important
for the region not just for research but for preparing doctors and other
professionals. Nationally, the medical school (with 811 students) ranks in the
top 50 medical schools for primary care by U.S. News. Yet fewer people
know about the graduate school of biomedical sciences (with 554 students), which
offers Ph.D. and master’s degrees. A master’s in medical informatics (the
science that underlies computerizing medical records, which is revolutionizing
patient care) was created in 1997 as a joint degree program with the Milwaukee
School of Engineering and was the first applied program of its kind in the
country. Another program that is rare in the nation is the masters in
bioinformatics, a joint degree program with Marquette. This is the science that
underlies the management of multidimensional databases like genetics and
biomedical imaging, helping medical researchers make sense of vast amounts of
complex data.

MCW is also home to a score of top-notch research centers. The college was one
of the leaders in developing hardware for the functional MRI in the 1990s. The
Center for Medical Countermeasures Against Radiological Terrorism is one of only
seven centers nationwide. The Cardiovascular Center is one of the nations’s top
heart centers.

Together, MCW and UW-Madison receive 90 percent of National Institutes of
Health research money going to Wisconsin, with 67.3 percent going to Madison and
22.3 percent to MCW. Over the last 10 years, MCW ranked as the
seventh-fastest-growing recipient of NIH funds among research-oriented medical

Milwaukee School of Engineering

(private, 2,300 students,

A typical visit to the
1940s-era former Blatz bottling plant that serves as MSOE’s student union
reveals guys in jeans and sweatshirts hunched over laptops or toting heavy
backpacks. Men outnumber women 5 to 1.

There’s no time for soul-searching here – students jump right into
specialized fields like computer science, business, healthcare, architectural
engineering, construction management and other applied engineering fields. Last
year, architectural engineering students created a model and proposed plan for
the Ozaukee Humane Society as their senior design project. They split up the
tasks: structural engineering, budget, fire protection, plumbing and electrical
systems. “This is from soup to nuts,” says architectural engineering professor
Bob Lemke. “Students go from interviewing clients to doing a presentation to
designing the engineering of a project.”

This fall, the school is launching Wisconsin’s only part-time evening
bachelor’s degree program in engineering.

U.S. News peer surveys rank MSOE as one of the top colleges for
undergraduate engineering programs, specifically computer engineering and
industrial/manufacturing. Meanwhile, MSOE’s nursing program is a hidden gem; its
state-of-the-art technology, including patient-simulating mannequins,
distinguish the program from others in the area.

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Ripon College

(private, 1,000 students;

Located in a tiny town of
7,600 people, Ripon College has experienced a surge among students getting
involved in service learning and civic engagement. The school’s Leadership
Studies Program was one of the first of its kind when it started in 1979. The
Ethical Leadership Program includes an annual competition in which students
strive to solve an ethical dilemma, like what to do if a friend cheated on an

Ripon’s strength is its close-knit community and personal attention from
faculty. Alumnus Julie Carlson, now development relations director at the
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, recalls being the only student to sign up for
a linguistics class. Her professor taught the course anyway, and the two would
meet in the union pub, library or language lab. “To me, that’s very typical of
Ripon,” says Carlson.

St. Norbert College

(DePere, Roman Catholic, 2,050 students,

Despite the boom in the
online world, computer science department enrollments have dropped steadily
since 2000, with female majors falling to levels unseen since the early 1970s.
Fear of outsourcing and a leeriness about the dot-com bust are two reasons, but
St. Norbert College computer science professor Bonnie McVey says these worries
are unfounded. Industries from medical instrumentation to insurance companies
still need smart computer scientists to do high-level information processing.

St. Norbert came up with an innovative way to handle this challenge, allowing
liberal arts students to combine a major like art or business with computer
science. St. Norbert is one of only a few liberal arts colleges offering this
combination, but others like St. Olaf College in Minnesota are trying to emulate
this model.

University of Wisconsin-Madison

(41,500 students,

Enter Chadbourne
Residential College on a typical Friday afternoon and you’ll find it bustling
with activity: guys in sweatshirts gathering to play touch football, a couple
kissing near the elevator and a barefoot student lugging a laundry bag down the

This high-rise 1959 building may be showing its age in places, but ask any of
the 840 UW-Madison students it houses and you’ll hear that living here has
changed their lives.

Some traveled to Alabama last spring to meet 1960s civil rights leaders in
conjunction with a seminar on social justice. Others take regular excursions to
local arts and cultural events and volunteer in the community. Students have met
nationally renowned visiting scholars, writers, artists and community leaders,
including Chilean author Isabel Allende, New Yorker staff writer George
Packer, classical violinist Midori, sex-advice columnist Dan Savage and
quadriplegic rugby player and Murderball star Mark Zupan. Once a month,
the students dine with faculty members, including countless world-class
scholars. And this is just the exposure gained at one dorm.

Graduate program rankings show that UW-Madison is a world-class institution.
Sociology and the master’s of fine arts in printmaking are number one in the
country, according to U.S. News. The medical, business and law schools are
all in the top 35, and education ranks seventh in the nation. Other top-notch
departments include engineering; several health disciplines, including clinical
psychology; audiology; veterinary medicine; social work; pharmacy and nursing;
public affairs; library and information studies; undergraduate programs in
insurance and real estate; and Ph.D. programs in chemistry, computer science,
biological sciences, earth sciences, math, physics, economics, history, English,
political science and philosophy. The biomedical engineering department alone is
fueling a mini-economy, with faculty and many students getting patents for their

The campus can be overwhelming in its sheer size, and undergrads are in
danger of getting lost in the shuffle. But for a motivated student or
self-starter, the chance to rub shoulders with some of the best minds in the
world make up for that.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

(one of two doctoral-granting
schools in the UW System, 27,500 students,

UWM may not have the
glamorous national reputation or the top research dollars of its cousin in
Madison, but the school’s urban setting and high percentage of commuter students
closely connects the campus with its city. Consider the School of Architecture
and Urban Planning’s influence: Faculty member Jim Shields worked on the Mandel
Group’s Marine Terminal Lofts, and faculty members, including Harvey Rabinowitz,
were involved in projects along Commerce Street. Dean Robert Greenstreet holds a
joint appointment as the city planner for Milwaukee. “We’ve always been deeply
plugged in to the city,” he says.

Wisconsin’s only architecture school has produced many graduates now
successful at top firms. “As far as the Midwest goes, I haven’t seen another
school that really surpasses the quality coming out of UWM,” says David Seglin,
a partner in Bauhs Dring Seglin Main Architects and Planners in Chicago.

Another standout is the film department. The graduate program, one of the top
five departments in the country for non-commercial filmmaking, admits just 10
percent of its applicants. Eschewing the traditional commercial industry-based
model, UWM trains students to be independent producers skilled in all aspects of

Perhaps best known to wider audiences is American Movie, the wry 1999
documentary about UWM undergraduate film student Mark Borchardt’s quest to film a
horror movie called Coven. Made by graduate students Chris Smith and Sarah
Price, American Movie won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance
Film Festival and was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics.

Independent Film and Video Monthly named UWM’s film department
one of the top three “non-Hollywood” film schools, while Film Threat magazine named it one of the five best film schools nationwide. The
Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art and other world-class
museums have all featured the work of UWM faculty.

Another campus star is the dance department, with an MFA program that attracts
professional dancers from well-known national companies. Faculty include André
Tyson, a former principal with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre; Ferne Caulker
Bronson, founder and director of Ko-Thi Dance Company; and Janet Lilly, former
principal with the internationally renowned Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance

Locally, graduates have gone on to head or join all of the professional
modern dance companies in Milwaukee, including Danceworks Performance Company,
Wild Space Dance Company and Milwaukee Dance Theatre.

Other centers of excellence: Great Lakes WATER Institute scientists are doing
crucial work in preserving the health of the region’s waters – from repopulating
Wisconsin rivers with lake sturgeon to studying the effects of inadvertently
released hormones. UWM’s nursing program includes a Ph.D. track for mid-career
professionals, a doctoral program for young people who have just gotten their
baccalaureate and an innovative online Ph.D. program that allows practicing
nurses to stay in their communities while pursuing their degree.

Wisconsin Lutheran College

(Milwaukee, Evangelical Lutheran,
700 students,

The pride of
this small campus is its new science building. Before it was built in 2004,
classes were held in a set of trailers. Biology professor Bob Anderson
originally had his office in a former bathroom. Now he’s like a kid in a candy
shop, pointing out the greenhouse, state-of-the art chemistry labs and
attractive layout designed to maximize interaction between professors and
students. “This is a dream come true for me,” he says, showing off the
500-gallon reef tank filled with neon-colored invertebrates.

Upstairs, two junior biology majors prep for a final presentation of their
research project. To better understand fetal alcohol syndrome in humans, they
are studying the effects of retinoic acid on zebrafish.

About 70 percent of students and 100 percent of faculty are members of the
Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. From daily chapel to the Divine Servant
statue in the quad, the college takes its Christian mission very seriously. 

Julie Sensat Waldren, a Milwaukee Magazine contributing
writer and editor, graduated from Columbia University and UWM.