Northern Michigan University's newly appointed President Brock Tessman said that his selection from among four finalists to lead the institution is exciting, but made even more meaningful because it followed a rigorous and transparent search process. The Michigan native addressed several topics during a virtual press conference after NMU trustees unanimously voted for him to become the 17th president, effective Feb. 1. He said serving as deputy commissioner of higher education for the Montana University System since 2018 will be an asset as he narrows his focus to a single entity.
“We have 16 campuses across our system. We're highly centralized, so a lot of things run through my office,” Tessman said. “It has provided me with a chance to see 16 different processes, leadership styles, challenges and opportunities all at the same time—and across two-year colleges as well as four-year regional comprehensive and research/doctoral institutions. I've also been involved in statewide economic development, working with the legislature, governor's office, and business and industry.
“The experience I bring to Northern should reflect the lessons learned across all those campuses. I've enjoyed that role, but a primary motivator for me to make this switch is the opportunity to be closer to the energy and outcomes of campus life and to enhance the university's connection to the community. There is nothing better than walking across the academic mall and having conversations with students, faculty and staff. I look forward to that.”
Prior to his role with the Montana University System, Tessman served as a professor of political science and dean of the Davidson Honors College at the University of Montana in Missoula. He began his academic career at the University of Georgia. He graduated with honors from Brown University with a bachelor's in international relations and earned both a master's and doctorate in political science from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Below are some other topics addressed during the press conference and Tessman's responses:
Enrollment: “Enrollment needs to be stabilized; the proper trend is a positive trend. But picking a number or rate of turnaround or even the kind of new enrollments we would seek is probably the wrong approach. Instead, you've got to focus on the means toward that end—strategies we can use to drive new student recruitment and new populations, whether adult learners or transfers. It's most importantly about retention and completion. Don't get me wrong, I think Northern is a leader in terms of their efforts around retention. Our efforts moving forward will be even more squarely focused on supporting students we do have so they stick around and then achieve the degree or credential that will enable them to enter the Marquette, U.P. or Michigan workforce. That should happen as soon as possible with the least amount of debt possible, and they should be equipped to make a difference right away.
“Advisers who have the time and ability to serve as comprehensive support for individuals who are having financial or personal challenges or don't feel like they belong can make a huge difference by instilling a level of trust in students and connecting them to campus resources. I've done work in Montana related to that and achieved what I consider to be staggering results related to retention and completion. What works there may not necessarily work at NMU, but those are some lessons I'll carry along with me to provide an initial point of conversation as I land on campus.”
Leadership Approach: “I believe a president is more of an architect as anything else. Really, it's about building an architecture for the existing excellence to be more fully realized and enhanced in certain ways. I do believe I have ideas to be a catalyst. I have my own interests and background, particularly in area of student success. But it's about tapping into the potential at NMU and building some real positive momentum and trust in terms of the campus culture. That's going to be an early priority. The interview process was instructive in itself. I will do a lot more listening and learning when I arrive in Marquette. I want to further engage students on the issues of mental health, sustainability and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.”
Community Partnerships: “There is good work already in place, no doubt. A rural-based institution that I consider to be the centerpiece of Marquette and the U.P. must play an indispensable role in supporting economic development by working with small and medium-sized businesses and being a point of attraction for outside, maybe large-scale investments. I noticed tons of entrepreneurial activity already present in the community. I think you can look for NMU to be proactive player and a leader in that realm, to convene and not just attend. It's a real area of excitement for me. I want to meet with leaders in those areas to drive that conversation forward. One area of involvement has to be around business economic workforce development.
“The opportunity to be back on the ground fully integrated and visible within a community is one of my motivating factors in pursuing this position. That's part of the DNA of a successful presidency. On a personal note, Marquette was a huge draw because of the natural setting and the trail network and public lands. To be part of that mindset is thrilling. If you think about talent development and bringing people into the community, it's maybe not unique, but Marquette is outstanding by any standard in the country based on what it has to offer, not just in natural beauty but access to that beauty. It's a tough combination to achieve. Marquette has got it, and I'd love to be part of developing that even further as we look to recruit more folks to the area.”
Mental Health: “Students are at the heart of mental health and wellness challenges we have, but I never want to leave out faculty and staff. My approach is really about moving from mental health and wellness as a private or individual challenge toward treating it as public health challenge. That includes looking for early risk factors, building greater awareness of resources available for all students and employees, and thinking of multi-faceted treatment. You can add all of the counseling resources you want, and that's an important step, but that alone is not sufficient for solving such a complex challenge or even tackling it head-on. It's about broadening the approach.”
Indigenous Communities: “Serving the Indigenous student population is not only a privilege, but a responsibility. In Montana, our student population that identifies as Native American in our university system matches the statewide demographics. That's an enrollment achievement, but we are prouder of the success they've had once joining our campuses. Retention and completion rates are at an all-time high.
"It is not about a silo. We want to support Native American students, faculty and staff as a slice of the university. I use a threaded approach. The wisdom and knowledge we can garner from our Native communities needs to span curricula and university and community life, and we should respect the heritage and tradition that defines a huge part of the Upper Peninsula—from traditions on the lands to opportunities for economic development and individual mobility. At this point, it is hard to have detailed plans until I feel well-equipped to act on them.”
Athletics: “I think that the ‘front porch [of the university that brings people to the door]' phrase is a decent descriptor. I was a college athlete in track and field. That didn't bring a lot of people into the stands, but like other sports, it supports student success, that sense of belonging and the affiliation with the university community. There's a direct connection between a student's athletic experience and their ability to succeed in classroom, to stay on campus and ultimately complete [a degree].
"It's not just about the student population participating in sports, but the campus community's ability to rally around a common cause. That has to do with getting more students to attend events, engaging community members to get them on campus as much as possible, and letting athletics serve as an anchor point for alumni and potential donors. I love big-ticket sports but also niche sports. They're maybe not the most important aspect, but they are good for student recruitment and elevating the university's brand. I have a lot to learn and a lot to bring to the table on this topic.”
Tessman thanked NMU's Presidential Search Advisory Committee for its extensive work and current President Kerri Schuiling for providing a strong foundation and positive momentum to build upon.
There is a tentative plan to bring Tessman and his family—wife, Kristin and daughters Frances and Leona—to campus in late October to meet NMU and Marquette-area community members. Details will be announced when they are finalized.
“I'm excited to bring my family back to Marquette and show them around their new home. I can't say enough about how honored I am to be part of the next chapter at NMU. It's going to be the greatest chapter, hopefully filled with additional energy and engagement, as well as even greater attention to student success. Many bright things are going to unfold. I can't wait to get on the ground, work with the fine team in place and get rolling. There's no other way to end than to say, ‘Go Cats!'”
Read the initial announcement of Tessman's appointment here.