Sentry gives largest gift in UWSP history for new major
Two major local organizations have institutional records broken after a multi-million dollar donation Tuesday, March 8, when Sentry Insurance presented the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) with the largest donation in the university’s 122-year history.
The $4 million gift is also the largest single donation Sentry has ever made to any organization and will finance two new faculty positions and create a new major in data analytics.
“This is more than an incredibly generous gift,” said UWSP Chancellor Bernie Patterson. “It is an investment in the future of the university and our community, and a vote of confidence in how UW-Stevens Point is preparing students for changing needs in the business world.”
A new undergraduate major in data analytics will be offered, beginning in fall 2016, pending UW Board of Regents approval. The program will feature an interdisciplinary curriculum that integrates the fields of business, computer science, economics, geographic information systems, mathematics and statistics.
“The availability of data as well as the technology to imaginatively use the data has been growing exponentially in recent years,” said Pete McPartland, chairman of the board, president and CEO of Sentry Insurance. “Employers have not been able to train data analytics professionals fast enough to keep pace with the growing demand. Sentry’s commitment to helping fund the creation of a data analytics program at UW-Stevens Point will help employers benefit from the rapidly changing world of data availability and usage.
“The term ‘big data’ means is that the availability of data has been growing exponentially in virtually all aspects of life, definitely in business and certainly in the insurance business,” said McPartland. “The technology available to be able to use that data has also been evolving rapidly. Companies such as Sentry, for example, have their own data warehouses that enables us to slice and dice data imaginatively.
“We and others also purchased large volumes of data from a host of outside sources that are now available to enhance the quality of decisions we make,” he said. “This is certainly true of a whole array of financial service industries and virtually any other industry certainly beyond ‘industry’ in general. I think it can be said that the winners of tomorrow will be companies that put that data to use most imaginatively.
“The challenge, however, has been that employers have really struggled to hire and train people who can pull that data, organize that data for useful purposes, analyze the data, find interesting correlations in that data and ultimately use the data,” McPartland said. “So the data availability is definitely ahead of industries and employers in general.”
To help prepare UWSP students for such a task, as well as develop a workforce able to properly use the massive quantities of data, Sentry donated the $4 million to launch a new major at the university.
The Sentry gift endows two faculty positions. The Sentry Insurance Endowed Chair in Computational Analytics will be part of the Computing and New Media Technologies Department. The Sentry Insurance Endowed Chair in Business Analytics will be part of the School of Business and Economics. Sentry needs employees with both of these business and computational analytics skills.
“Being able to analyze data and make decisions based on data is a competitive advantage in the short-term. Soon, businesses will have to do it to thrive,” said Tim Krause, associate professor and department chair of Computing and New Media Technologies.
Interviews with local employers from retail, manufacturing, health care, agriculture, insurance and software development industries in 2015 revealed a growing data analytics talent gap in the region. Employers indicated they need significantly more employees with the ability to analyze datasets, interpret observations, develop hypotheses, communicate findings and facilitate organizational action, said Lyna Matesi, assistant professor of management.
Data analytics involves acquiring and storing data, validating it, mining and analyzing data, visualizing data and disseminating it. Business analytics includes econometrics, computational finance, decision sciences and marketing analytics.
Sentry and UWSP have a long history in this community, Patterson noted, with both founded more than 100 years ago. Sentry also has a long history of supporting the university. The $4 million gift more than doubles Sentry Insurance’s support to UWSP since 1985.
McPartland said Sentry likes to hire UWSP graduates for a number of reasons, beneficial to both the company and the employees they hire.
“We find them to be very special … they come well trained, well educated – to say the least – they’re great communicators, they have exceptional collaborative working skills and the world we’re in requires collaboration, it’s not as much about individual talent as much as it’s about working to get the most out of others and work in a collaborative way,” he said. “They roll up their sleeves and work in a way to get the job done and get their hands dirty and love doing so. They also often want to spend their lives in central Wisconsin and be near their families.”
Endowment proceeds will support activities such as collaborative research, outreach and related student-faculty activities of the chair. National searches for analytics experts will begin immediately.
Sentry’s commitment is a cornerstone gift of the quiet phase of UWSP capital campaign, which is scheduled for a public announcement this spring.
While the city didn’t have anything to do with the partnering of UWSP and Sentry, Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza said he was particularly excited about it because it creates yet another selling point for students and young professionals to move and stay in Stevens Point.
“It’s something that is going to benefit the community as a whole simply because they’re going to be able to offer this, there are very few places that offer this type of very specific education in data analytics,” Wiza said. “Information technology has bounded endlessly in the past couple of decades – for a while there I think it was doubling every few weeks in advancements – so we’re really just starting to catch up with the education portion of it.
“To be one of the few systems that offer that type of education will be a very big draw to central Wisconsin. And ideally, we’ll have companies here that will use those trained people now, to create and fill those positions,” he said.