Familiar Faces: ‘Chancellor Jim’

Chancellor Jim Schmidt has spent time working for Congress and enjoys golfing in his free time

More stories from Rachyl Houterman


Photo by Kendall Ruchti

Before becoming Chancellor, Schmidt spent time working in Congress and in leadership positions at institutions in Minnesota.

Running a university can be time-consuming. Daily meetings with top university officials, checking in on Student Senate and handling university-related matters can make the job of the university chancellor seem like it’s all business. But Chancellor James C. Schmidt’s passion for student advocacy also reveals his personable side.

Though becoming a chancellor wasn’t something he imagined himself doing, Schmidt, best known by students as “Chancellor Jim,” said he loves his job. The best part of every day, he said, is interacting with the students.

“When I’m walking across campus, and I get a chance to bump into students and ask about their day, about their classes, find out what’s going on in their lives,” Schmidt said. “That’s exciting for me.”

Schmidt grew up in Houston, Minnesota, a farming town with a population of about 1,000 people. As a young boy, Schmidt recalls packing a lunch early in the morning and heading into the hills with his friends to build forts made of sticks and twine, not returning home until late evening.

Before becoming chancellor of UW-Eau Claire, Schmidt obtained numerous leadership positions in colleges and universities. He pursued an undergraduate degree in political science at Winona State University, where he was heavily involved in student government, holding the vice president of the student body chair among other college-level leadership positions.

However, Schmidt said political science wasn’t the first path he pursued. At the beginning of his college career, he attempted computer science as a major but eventually parted ways with it after realizing he did not enjoy it.

Crediting his “Midwestern work ethic,” Schmidt’s explanation for why he stayed with computer science for so long was due to a period of time when he believed education was supposed to be painful.

“It took me a while to realize it’s okay to study something you really enjoy,” Schmidt said with a smile.

This is a reminder he tries to give students whenever he gets the chance.

“Yeah, you should exert effort, and things can be hard, but the core of the work should not be painful,” Schmidt said. “It should be something that inspires you, makes you want to seek greater understanding and knowledge of that area.”

Immediately following college, Schmidt said he spent one year in Washington, D.C. working for the former Minnesota Rep. Timothy Penny. Schmidt worked alongside politicians such as former Sen. Ted Kennedy and former Vice President of the United States Dan Quayle when he was a senator.

Upon returning to his home state of Minnesota, Schmidt obtained a position as a financial aid director at the age of 22 and worked his way up the chain of command for the following years. He was a vice president for nearly 20 years before taking the UW-Eau Claire chancellor position.

“I was fortunate in an essence to be given this opportunity,” Schmidt said.

Colton Ashley, vice president of the Eau Claire student body, said he has gotten to see firsthand how friendly Schmidt is through their regular meetings to discuss Student Senate matters.

“A lot of people view him as this professional, no-nonsense figure. I think a lot of people do, but you know, the real chancellor, he’s fun-loving,” Ashley said. “And he’s always willing to have a good time, and he’s always got a positive outlook on anything.”

Being a student advocate has long been a passion of Schmidt’s, and being on a university campus, he said, is incomparable to anything else.

“For the right person, there’s no substitute for being on a university campus,” Schmidt said. “Students of 18 to 23-year-olds are discovering new things about themselves, about the world, about people who are different than them. It’s a very energetic atmosphere to be a part of, so that is the best part of my day.”

Schmidt said he loves being invited to classes and attending sporting events as a way to interact with students. Schmidt also uses Twitter to connect with students, utilizing the handle @ChancellorJim, something he said combines both a formal and informal name for students to feel comfortable with.

Schmidt also makes a point of getting to know the students on campus, something Ashley said he has been a part of during his meetings with him.

“When we talk about our favorite music, he is always going to tell you that his favorite singer of all time is the queen of rock ‘n’ roll, Stevie Nicks,” Ashley said. Nicks is one of the lead singers of the band Fleetwood Mac.

Being able to connect and interact with students daily, Ashley said, is something Schmidt values highly.

“You can see it when he makes conversations with students how vested he is with the university institution and how much he wants to obtain as much information as possible, and he loves doing it,” Ashley said. “Otherwise, if he didn’t, why would he be here?”

When he’s not connecting with students or attending his daily meetings, Schmidt said he is a family man. He is the father to three boys and makes time to attend their many extracurricular activities such as music performances and sports events.

“Being a Chancellor takes a lot of time,” Schmidt said. “so I really try to make sure that I’m carving out and making family life a priority for what I do.”

And if he can find time in his schedule, Schmidt said he enjoys golfing.

“I’m not a very good golfer,” Schmidt said with a laugh. “but I enjoy it a great deal. I like being in the fresh air and I like the challenge of the sport.”

Schmidt’s passion for student advocacy goes beyond embracing the campus culture. As a final piece of advice for students, Schmidt encourages them to push beyond what they know.

“Get outside your comfort zone,” Schmidt said. “There’s no safer place to explore, to challenge ideas, to push your limits than at a university campus. This is a great place to make mistakes. This is a place you should be daring. I mean this in an intellectual way and an interpersonal way. You get a fresh chance to redefine yourself, to explore who you are, and I would encourage people to get outside your comfort zone.”