Dreams fulfilled? Madelung contemplates life after Herzing U

"There's more juice left in the tank," said Don Madelung, president of Herzing University in Madison, who recently announced his decision to leave his post at the end of the year. The decision shows a degree of restlessness Madelung wears with pride.

"I have a vivid imagination," he said. "I can always imagine what could be." And though question marks remain as to where he will land, the flight has been long, and worthwhile. "You either see the acorn, or the saw mill," he mused.

In 1985, Madelung, 61, moved to Madison from a stint in Arizona to assume the reins of what was then the Wisconsin School of Electronics (WSOE). Located in the vacated Sherman Middle School on the city's northeast side, WSOE, with about 200 students, shared the building with Shabazz City High School and a daycare. WSOE students attending at the time basically had two options — an Associates degree in either electronics, or CAD drafting.

But the Sherman Avenue youth population was growing, and soon the Madison School Board decided to re-open and use the building for its original intent. Suddenly Madelung, in his first year, was given 18 months to find a new location for the college. Fortunately, a grocery store at the corner of Aberg and Sherman Avenues had recently gone vacant, and WSOE relocated there.

A Matter of Degrees
Despite its small size, WSOE, which began in 1948, was one of the oldest electronic schools in the country, gaining a solid reputation over the years. In 1971, Henry Herzing acquired the school, which has since gone through several name changes as its accreditation has grown. In 2000, the school moved to its current location at the American Center, and subsequent expansions have allowed for the addition of allied health, nursing, and medical coding programs to its program mix.

When Microsoft and its certification programs blasted onto the technology stage, the school became just the fourth proprietary school in the country to be certified as a Microsoft Academy. By the early 1990s, Madelung saw a need to expand the curriculum to include Baccalaureate degrees, and by 1995, Bachelor's degrees were offered in business technology, including IT and other computer-related curricula.

It hasn't always been easy. As a proprietary institution, there is a lot of oversight from both state and federal regulations, particularly where profits are concerned, Madelung said. "It forces you to become politically active, but I don't mind that." Other ongoing challenges, he said, include high default rates, and keeping the program mix relevant.

Currently, Herzing's accredited online undergraduate and master's degree program (the impetus for the name change from Herzing College to Herzing University) has grown to the point where it relocated several years ago to the site of the Herzing University System's home office in Milwaukee. "It's our largest entity," Madelung said, "with several thousand students enrolled." The brick-and-mortar University, meanwhile, now offers 42 distinct degree programs, so it's no accident that this Fall, Herzing University's classroom-based enrollment will top 1,000 — a milestone, according to its president. It is growth that has been slow, steady, and well-planned.

"It took imagination," Madelung said, "and keeping a constant eye on the marketplace. We literally had to reinvent the institution three times, from electronics, to computers and business, and then to health care." The changes reflect the iterations of the job market, he explained, and where the economy has shifted. And that's a good problem to have, in his mind. "Because we are a private institution, we can move and change directions in a relatively short period of time."

As Microsoft changed the technology-world several years ago, Madelung said Herzing will respond when the next wave hits. "Right now, health care is the big issue," he said, "because of the huge shortage in nursing and medical expertise. But our business growth has also been phenomenal. [Our graduates] help create cottage industries, and that's a huge plus. We embed entrepreneurialism into our programs."

So what is the next wave? "We may want to become a green institution," he said, "offering solar and wind energy to emulate what we want to teach. The institution is like a big lab, and we can experiment — not recklessly, but with programs and combined programs to see if they come out the other end with new careers for individuals."

Madelung has led the institution now for more than 20 years, and it clearly runs through his blood, making one wonder how the two will ever separate. But although the split may be difficult on an emotional level, Madelung said it's just time to go. "My vivid imagination is running wild again," he said. "I want to explore what I want to do for the next 10 years. I want to have fun, enjoy, and have an impact. Some young people here deserve the opportunity to move up and be a part of the leadership."

Climb a New Mountain
Madelung isn't kidding about being politically active. It's actually a vocation he said he might pursue some day. He's already dabbled somewhat, and was voted in as the Town Supervisor in the town of Windsor. In his mind, "you can have things happen to you, or you can making things happen. I can't stand to see taxes go up, so I wanted a front seat, a voice, but I don't know if it will take me beyond local politics." That said, he seriously considered a run against Tammy Baldwin this past year, and might one day explore an opportunity to run for state assembly or state senate. Why?

"I see what goes on at the state and federal levels. I can vote, but it burns me. You can either be part of the problem or part of the solution," he said.

Madelung will be leaving Herzing University intensely proud of the award-winning staff and faculty he assembled over the years, and grateful for his family's support throughout the years. Then there's that other milestone: the hole-in-one he achieved at University Ridge's third hole last year — on Father's Day, with his son and two friends as witnesses. It's all about dreams fulfilled.

His legacy will be the story of a once small-time electronics college with 200 students growing into a University with an enrollment of over five times that, and of thousands of Herzing graduates now making their mark in society. Despite recent suggestions in the national media questioning the validity of college degrees in this economy, Madelung believes there is no better time to pursue a degree and new career.

In a sense, he's doing it.

"I want to transition into a new career right off the bat in January," he said. "I'm a workhorse. The college atmosphere has kept me young and creative. I have good genes that belie my real age," he laughed.

"And my Nintendo Wii Fit says I'm only 42!"

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