People relate to you through your weaknesses rather than through your strengths. The more vulnerabilities you exhibit, the more likely people will associate with you and follow you. In my early days in leadership, I thought I should keep private the challenges of my personal life. I’ve learned just the opposite is true.
Dr. Michael R. Lovell is Marquette University’s 24th president, serving since 2014. Under his guidance, Marquette focuses on innovation, entrepreneurship, and community renewal and development — all consistent with the university’s Catholic, Jesuit mission. President Lovell and his leadership team are transforming the student experience by implementing Marquette’s strategic plan, Beyond Boundaries.
Working with business and community leaders in Marquette’s neighborhood, President Lovell helped create the Near West Side Partners, a nonprofit focused on strengthening economic development, housing, neighborhood identity, and safety. He and his wife, Amy, have formed Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee (SWIM), a community-wide effort addressing impacts of generational trauma.
Prior to Marquette, he served the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee as chancellor and, earlier, dean of its engineering college. He previously held academic and research leadership positions at the University of Pittsburgh and University of Kentucky. President Lovell holds three mechanical engineering degrees including a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh. He has received awards from the National Science Foundation, SME (Society of Manufacturing Engineers) and numerous other organizations; is a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and National Academy of Inventors; and holds U.S. and world patents.
The Lovells and their four children are members of Holy Family Parish in Whitefish Bay, Wis.
Thank you so much for joining us Dr. Lovell. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Early in my academic career, I had a lot of ideas about ways the university where I taught could improve and be more innovative. I quickly realized, however, that as an individual faculty member, it was very difficult for my ideas to get serious consideration and potential implementation. Because I was passionate about making my university better and I believed that my ideas could make a positive impact, I started down the path of administrative leadership. I further learned that the ideas of those at higher levels of leadership — such as academic deans or vice presidents — had the highest potential of being implemented. After a decade of rising through academic ranks and serving as an associate dean for four years, I decided to take on the role of dean of an engineering college at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). I never expected or aspired to become a university chancellor or president and was genuinely surprised when I was asked to serve as interim chancellor at UWM after only two years as dean. It had become clear by then that even more creative possibilities — not only for myself but also for everyone around me — exist at the university’s highest position.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Universities thrive because of their students. At any role on campus, you learn about and come to personally know many of these incredible, inspirational individuals. One who always comes to mind during my time at Marquette is Ian Kloehn. A few years ago, I met this very bright young man who was studying biomedical sciences when he joined our President’s Running Club. Like many of our students, Ian was involved in significant service during his time at Marquette. In addition to participating in medical service projects in Nicaragua, Ian organized and ran sports camps for physically disabled youth. Ian excelled in the classroom. He was an honor student and an accomplished undergraduate researcher. Along with several of his classmates, Ian also developed a passion for running long distances with our running group. To a casual observer, Ian’s experiences and accomplishments might seem similar to many of our recent graduates. What makes Ian truly amazing, however, is that he is legally blind. He couldn’t even read the words on the whiteboard while sitting in class.
Despite his limitations, Ian never let his lack of vision deter him from achieving his goals and partaking in all that Marquette had to offer. Ian even capped his Marquette experience by completing his first Boston Marathon during the last semester of his senior year. Ian just didn’t complete the marathon, he ran a time of 2:48 and finished first in the Men’s Visually Impaired Division.
Yes, Ian won the Boston Marathon! It should be of no surprise to anyone that as an alumna, Ian hasn’t stopped doing extraordinary things.
He’s now enrolled in medical school in Kansas City and is studying to be a neonatologist — a pediatrician called on to handle the most complex and high-risk situations. Ian once told me that he wants to provide health care to the sickest children within urban areas, the children who don’t have access to services. He wants to change the world one child at a time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One experience during my first semester at Marquette taught me never to make excuses to college students. During my inauguration week, I was attending a great Marquette tradition — Hot Cookie Night — at Cobeen Hall, Marquette’s all-women’s residence hall. While at Hot Cookie Night, several students asked me to come back two evenings later to attend another Cobeen tradition: The Wobble. The Wobble is a stress-relieving dance that the students perform down each floor of the building. Not being much of a dancer, I said I’d love to, but I had another event, a men’s soccer game, that I was scheduled to attend as part of my inauguration week activities. Instead of letting me off the hook, they replied that was fine and that they’d come to the game and teach me The Wobble on the field at halftime. They did and I learned a new dance! One good thing was the experience led to the Twitter hashtag #OurPresidentNeverRests
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Like many Jesuit institutions, Marquette is located within a heavily urban area and significant disparities exist within a few short blocks of our campus. In my first semester as Marquette president, I had a meeting with Harley-Davidson, Inc. CEO Keith Wandell. The H-D campus is located within our neighborhood and has been a partner with Marquette for more than 100 years. In the meeting, we discussed how we could improve our neighborhood without displacing its current residents. We decided to hold a symposium and invited all of the anchor institutions within our neighborhood to develop a plan to address the challenges and create opportunities. These anchors included dozens of organizations including five major institutions that had all been in our neighborhood for, at a minimum, many decades: Harley-Davidson, MillerCoors, Potawatomi Business Development Corporation, Aurora Health Care and Marquette. The symposium led to the formation of the Near West Side Partners, which focusses on neighborhood safety, housing, corridor development and branding. The group just celebrated its fifth anniversary, and in that time, we’ve seen dramatic results. There has been a decrease in crime to the benefit of all residents — robberies down 41%, thefts down 38% and auto thefts down 36%. Thirty-seven new businesses have moved into the neighborhood. The Near West Side Partners also were recently award a federal HUD grant to create a plan on housing improvement. The partners have won several local and national awards, and we’re being seen as leaders in urban revitalization and social change.
Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
To be honest, I hope everyone who comes in contact with Marquette University is at least a little bit positively influenced by its Catholic, Jesuit teachings. I’m not sure how much credit we get to take for any one person.
There was a woman with a strong heart and mind, Lauren Gilbert, who earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Marquette. Lauren’s mother passed away in 2012. Later that year, Lauren came to Marquette for a scholarship competition. She recalls sitting in her scholarship interview and stating that “My life’s goal was to make my mother in heaven proud and to uplift other students of color.” After receiving a scholarship, Lauren knew that Marquette would be her new home.
Upon arriving at Marquette, Lauren began painting as a way to grieve the death of her mother. The experience was so powerful that she wanted to help others use art to process their emotions. She began offering painting lessons for young people in the juvenile justice system, for girls to encourage self-esteem, and for several groups on campus including the Women’s Innovation Network. Lauren also mentored more than 100 students on campus. It is no wonder that she was honored by the College of Education with this year’s Living the Mission Award.
Through her Marquette experience, Lauren was able to turn her passions for painting and helping others into a career. She won first prize at the Self-Employment in the Arts Conference and used the proceeds and campus resources to start her own business. She teaches painting classes in collaboration with Black-owned businesses to uplift Milwaukee. Lauren even has her own store front in the Near West Side as part of a Milwaukee Business Initiative call Pop-Up MKE. We believe her Marquette experience helped her achieve her goal of making her mother proud in heaven.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The good news for what we’re addressing on Milwaukee’s Near West Side is that, from the beginning, we’ve successfully involved an incredible number of people. From the residents to the employees who come to work in the neighborhood every day, I don’t recall anyone saying no to our cause. We’ve had excellent response from local and state legislators from across the political spectrum, and from for-profit and not-for-profit organizations located throughout the neighborhood. What everyone can do now is continue talking and working together to address the challenges we face. If we keep working together, we’ll keep making progress.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership starts with the capacity and desire to serve and improve the lives others. Great leaders are willing to make sacrifices and work so that others can achieve their goals and dreams. When I think about the great leaders that I have encountered in my life, they have been visionaries who exhibit integrity, authenticity, and compassion in everything that they did.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. People relate to you through your weaknesses rather than through your strengths. The more vulnerabilities you exhibit, the more likely people will associate with you and follow you. In my early days in leadership, I thought I should keep private the challenges of my personal life. I’ve learned just the opposite is true.
2. Demonstrate your values — don’t just talk about them. Your actions speak louder than your words. You need to be true north for your institution and any actions that go against your values will send ripples through your institution. As a leader, people emulate your actions, and acting contrary to your values will give everyone permission to do the same.
3. Don’t ever stop building trust. As a new leader, I didn’t fully appreciate the constant work that trust-building requires. Trust is the foundational building block for any organization. If you don’t have trust with those you interact with, it is very difficult to accomplish anything. I came across the idea that trust is not built from a single action but a long history of small actions — like putting marbles in a jar. To emphasize that concept, my office staff acquired dozens of glass jars and bags of marbles that I then gave to all university leaders with the encouragement to give away one of their marbles to another leader every time they demonstrated their trust in you. It’s a good, continuing illustration about trust that you can see across campus.
4. Take the time to truly listen and care about your staff. People remember how you make them feel, not necessarily what you say to them. I like the quote, attributed to different people, “People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.” I’m surrounded by amazing leaders, but as any of us, they can have bad days. Sometimes their child is having a tough day at school, their mom or dad is ill and needs their care, or their home furnace just stopped working on the coldest day of the year and the repairman can only come at noon. I learned that at such times, not to worry about my exact words but to show compassion and appreciation because they will most certainly remember how I made them feel at that difficult time.
5. Remove chronic instigators from your team — even if they are talented. At earlier career stops, I thought that I should always try to work with everybody regardless of an individual’s desire to be part of the team. What I learned is just one contentious person can destroy a department’s collaborative atmosphere.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Research has shown that one of the root causes of the disparities and challenges facing Milwaukee is generational trauma. Over the past two years, my wife, Amy, and I have helped build the foundation for a movement called SWIM, Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee. Our vision is to create a connected, trauma-responsive community where all can thrive. Our mission is to inspire a dynamic collaboration that heals trauma and creates a resilient community. In our first two years, we’ve built a coalition of more than 800 individuals from 472 institutions actively working on impacts and root causes of generational trauma in Milwaukee. We’ve applied to the State of Wisconsin to become a non-profit entity and we’re searching for our first paid executive director. We’re always looking for more partners.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” I know that’s where my personal growth begins. In SWIM’s work with individuals experiencing trauma in our community, it has become clear that systemic racism is a powerful force that acts against select individuals. Until I began this work, I never realized how the color of my skin provides me privilege and how systems within our country do not give everyone the same opportunity for success. To better understand the history of Milwaukee and challenges facing our minority populations, I took a series of courses with our leadership team taught by the YWCA of Southeastern Wisconsin, called “Unlearning Racism.” The well-researched and -documented course made me very uncomfortable at times. But completing it and learning from it became incredibly useful for me to better understand how to work and address the disparities in Milwaukee, a minority-majority city.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
Pope Francis. He’s a Jesuit leading the Catholic church and I’m a layperson leading a Jesuit university. The learning opportunity for me would be enormous.
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