From “first big interview” to felony charges: A journalist reflects on his former chancellor

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, Alex Crowe, the news and social media director for WMDC in Mayville, Wisconsin, reflects on his student media experience interviewing former UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells as a “first big interview” subject. Last week, Crowe covered the latest development in an ongoing financial scandal in which Wells and former Vice Chancellor¬†Tom Sonnleitner were each charged with five felony counts. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.
My interviews with then Chancellor Richard Wells were always good, but I never got more than a few words in before he started talking. Wells loved to talk to anyone who would listen, especially about things that were being done around the UWO campus. And, as I told myself at the time, why wouldn’t he? The projects being done at UWO were all massive, and all of them seemed to start at the same time.
My interviews with him were a informal sit-downs during the Chancellor’s Breakfast, an event that comes around at the end of every semester. Students can take a break from studying to get a free breakfast at Blackhawk Commons, served by some of the higher-ups at UW Oshkosh. I usually met with and interviewed Athletic Director Darryl Sims, Wells and maybe one or two other people. The interviews were very informal, me in a radio polo and my guests usually in aprons and hats fresh out of the kitchen.
I remember distinctly asking Wells about the projects at UWO. There were so many going on that it was hard to keep track. My freshman year (2011-12) was the final year of construction for the new Horizon dorm and it seems like the floodgates opened after that. New lecture halls and classrooms in Clow, renovations at Halsey, new dorm rooms and renovations in Fletcher Hall, the brand-new Alumni Welcome and Conference Center and so on. As soon as I would bring up the construction projects on campus, Wells would begin beaming with pride, then start talking.
Wells would tell me of the great public-private partnerships that the University had formed under his leadership, such as renovating the downtown Best Western hotel with the intentions to implement a hospitality major at the University. He would also talk a lot about the newly constructed bio-digesters in the area, and how public-private partnerships helped him to secure the funding to make it all possible.
I suppose a more seasoned journalist would have asked those tough questions, probing him in exactly where the money suddenly came from to begin all of these projects at once. As a college student and head of the campus radio station, I was mainly concerned with studying for finals and getting everything set up and on-air.
Now that Wells and his former Vice Chancellor have been charged with five felonies each, it’s easier for me to look back on the situation and see things differently. More information is sure to come out in the criminal complaint and during courtroom proceedings, but right now I’m left with a lot more questions than answers. If Wells did what he’s accused of doing, there would be a lengthy paper trail leading right to him. Why, then, would he go on media tours (albeit small, campus media outlets) to tout the projects themselves? Was there just an assumption everyone would be as naive and wide-eyed as me?
A lot more information will come out about this, and everyone will have the opportunity to form their own opinions about what happened. As a student, I feel glad that a certain level of attention was given to improving campus resources, especially with cuts to education funding throughout my time in the UW System.
As a taxpayer (I held many jobs throughout college for which I paid state and local taxes, as I do now) I feel proud that the state is doing all it can to follow the money and see exactly who paid for what, and if the law was broken. And as a journalist, well, I learned to prepare for everything and always ask the tough questions, even if your guest is coming straight from cooking pancakes for the entire student body.

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