Meet Northern Michigan University's New 'Horizon-Minded' President
By Kristi Evans
As a self-described “forward-looking person who always has an eye on the horizon,” Northern’s incoming President Brock Tessman began preparing for his February 1 start date in October. During a week-long visit to Marquette, he received operational updates from multiple campus leaders and met with city government and economic development representatives. The trip was intended as more than a fact-finding mission to inform the early stages of his presidency. It also served as an introduction to Tessman’s family—wife Kristin and daughters Frances, 7, and Leona, 5—who traveled with him to explore the area and begin the search for their new home (Northern is selling the presidential residence, Kaye House). All interacted with NMU students over pizza in The Lodge, mingled with community members at a public reception and attended a Wildcat hockey game. He may invest little time in looking back, but the Plymouth, Mich., native said he can reflect positively on the previous successes that positioned him to lead an institution. He began his academic career as a faculty member and prominent researcher in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. “Through teaching, I got involved in the honors program and there were small administrative duties that started popping up related to that,” said Tessman, during an interview in Jamrich Hall. “I found I was able to stay connected to students, but also have a larger-scale impact by developing new systems and ways of doing things. I started to love that.” Tessman ventured further down the administrative path in his next position as dean of the Davidson Honors College at the University of Montana. Most recently, he served as deputy commissioner of higher education for the 16 campuses comprising the Montana University System. “Ultimately, I felt a bit too far-detached from students, faculty and staff , along with the energy and outcomes you’re directly a part of at a single university,” he said. “I wanted to move back to a campus atmosphere after spending almost five years at the system level. “I understand the anticipation around the arrival of a new president. Sometimes it’s unrealistic when people say, ‘I can’t wait until the new president comes because then things will be different.’ Some things will indeed be different, but others will remain the same. We need to be careful in our excitement not to just stumble forward without intentionality. I want us to move quickly and with some urgency, but also be strategic and thoughtful and make the most out of this opportunity together.”
With the combination of academic excellence, the community and the natural beauty, we have a real opportunity to find some pockets of students out of region who could be convinced to see themselves at Northern.
Following are other highlights of the conversation:
What are your initial impressions of Northern in terms of its challenges and opportunities?
There’s room for us to build on some early momentum around campus culture and a feeling of having a clean start and fantastic new energy, but also recognizing that there’s so much happening right now that is in terrific shape. It’s tempting for a president to come in and say, “This is the first day of…” No way. I think I have ideas, but there’s so much in place that’s headed in the right direction. I’m really joining an institution that has established a tremendous foundation of excellence. I don’t like to fixate on any one thing, but I do think everyone’s interested in enrollment; it’s kind of the bottom line these days for higher education. I have insisted there is no magic number, nor is there one magic strategy, but we’re going to turn it in a positive direction and figure out what the right landing spot is for the institution. I think there are three ways to do that. One is to make sure we are doing everything we can to attract traditional students in markets we’re currently serving. But we also need to think about new markets. I’m struck by the natural beauty of this place, even though I’m coming from Montana, which is also incredibly scenic. With the combination of academic excellence, the community and the natural beauty, we have a real opportunity to find some pockets of students out of region who could be convinced to see themselves at Northern. And we can also tap new nontraditional markets through NMU Global Campus, adult learning programs and industry partnerships. The number one thing we can do, though, is to more effectively serve students already here to get an uptick in our retention and completion rates. Any of those things on their own can make a difference; if we tackle all three things together, we’re going to first see stabilization and then a turnaround.
During the press conference following the NMU Board of Trustees’ unanimous vote in favor of your appointment as NMU’s 17th president, you said you wanted to further engage students on a few issues, including sustainability. What are your thoughts on that topic?
The sustainability theme should perhaps be the distinguishing factor of a Northern education, across multiple disciplines and perhaps through new programs we can develop. I don’t mean environmental studies, although that could be a huge part of it. I mean thinking about the technology and sustainability interface. That could be the technology behind renewable energies. For example, the physics department is doing wonderful research around solar cell technology and how we can make that more efficient. I also think about new academic areas. Northern had a ton of success drawing students into medicinal plant chemistry. There are fresh ideas around technology and outdoor gear. Nothing’s worse than having someone outside trying to promote environmental consciousness while wearing a fleece that’s eventually going to sit in a landfill. As an administrator, walking the walk on how we operate campus is really important to me. You can’t do this overnight. We’re sitting in Jamrich Hall. I know there’s a LEED certification for this building and I think being intentional about how we pursue new construction and our facilities here is important. So is looking at university transportation and what we can do to minimize the carbon impact. There have already been vigorous discussions around how the university and the NMU Foundation invest the resources that we do have. The signals we want to send by the investments we make is important. Students talk a lot about divestment. I think that’s an honest debate and discussion we should be pursuing.
Another topic you want to explore further is mental health and wellness. There’s been increased emphasis on that at Northern. What are your views on a university’s role or responsibility in that regard?
This is such a challenge because it’s become a crisis. The trends we were seeing among all populations pre-dated Covid, though the pandemic certainly exacerbated the situation. Students can’t learn well, pursue career goals or serve their community—and they’re less likely to leave here with a degree—if they’re not operating off a solid emotional mental wellness foundation. The way universities engage students on mental health is maybe the most fundamental shift we’ve seen over the last three to five years. I’m impressed by the efforts underway at Northern. I know there have been investments made and awareness campaigns so students can understand the resources available and more easily access those resources. We need be careful that we’re not putting an undue burden on faculty, staff or residence hall assistants or directors. They have a role to play in the wellness ecosystem, but they’re not mental health professionals and it’s unfair to apply those expectations to individuals when it’s not their role. However, giving them the time to get to know and work with students and to recognize some of the early risk indicators, for example, might allow them to connect those students to resources earlier in a developing crisis situation. My last point is that we should move away from viewing mental health and wellness as a privately held or individual challenge and instead see it as a public health challenge. This is something that permeates all of us, not just because we may experience challenges ourselves, but because most of us know friends or family who are.
How do you personally decompress from work and practice self-care?
I work my tail off, and I think I’m one of those people who can just lose themselves in something because they care about it so much. Sometimes that’s a great benefit and will help me do a good job as president, but it can also be a danger. I want to do my best to model the kind of behavior and balance that we hope our faculty, staff and students pursue in their lives. It will not always be easy. It’s probably not in my goal set to go outside for a run every day, but I do like to go for a jog as my primary mode of decompression. One thing that drew us here was the connection to the trail system and the outdoor environment in Marquette. I am an awful but budding cross-country skier. Kristin’s been a bit into skate skiing. My family is a major source of comfort, stress relief and love, of course. Physical health, my own mental health and our family health is always going to be number one. It could be difficult sometimes, but I want to be visible about that because if I’m disingenuous and saying people should focus on self-care and take time for themselves, yet email them when they’re out, that’s not a healthy rhythm to set. It will be tough, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.
What have you gleaned from your conversations with community leaders about ways NMU can position itself to meet workforce needs and contribute to economic development?
That’s been a huge part of my role in the Montana University System. There’s not anything that’s directly transportable from one place to another, so I want to take my time and understand what the needs are here, but I think we should be creative in this sphere. I come from a faculty background, so I believe in the traditional core mission of higher education. That’s always the starting point, but boy, we’ve got to think a little more creatively about timeline to degree; maybe accelerated paths. We need to have neat ways of stacking academic credits so students can pick up relevant credentials on their way to associate or bachelor’s degrees. And I think we need to consider more noncredit types of training we can do for business and industry partners. Even if later on those students come back, they might be able to map that previous noncredit training at Northern toward a degree. There are neat things we can do to build on those business and industry partnerships.
In what ways does the athletics element contribute to the university experience?
I was a college athlete in track and field. That didn’t attract a lot of fans, but like any big-ticket or niche sport, it supports student success and the sense of belonging. It’s not just about the students participating in sports, but getting the university community to rally around a common cause. That has to do with getting more students and community members to attend, and letting athletics serve as an anchor point for alumni and potential donors. Athletics is not the most important aspect, but it can be good for student recruitment and elevating the university’s brand.
How would you describe your leadership style?
That’s one of my least favorite questions because it boxes you into these well-known labels. I pursued this opportunity and I wanted this job because I’m okay being held accountable. I actually enjoy that responsibility and I take it very seriously and I’m confident. What that means is that the vast majority of decisions will ultimately be my decisions, but that’s at a strategic level.
When it comes to academic programming and curriculum, the fine faculty here will own key parts of the experience. Vice presidents, directors or staff will own a lot of decision-making in their areas. Honest, genuine consultation, listening and learning followed by some hard decisions—that’s part of what you take on as a university president.
I don’t want to forget the notion of chemistry, which takes a bit of time. I think teams function well when the pieces come together and complement each other in a special way.
Tessman said that he and wife Kristin also make a great team because their styles are highly complementary and she is “tremendously accomplished.” Kristin was born and raised in the southeast and earned her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Georgia. She has served as deputy director at Montana Free Press, an independent, nonprofit journalism entity. Prior to that, she was executive director of American Jobs for America’s Youth, a nonprofit working with communities to build life and work skills in youth through creative collaborations. Kristin arrived with their daughters near the end of the interview and shared her perspective.
Kristin, How do you envision your role on campus and in the community?
My work in Montana has been statewide and I just really want to be part of the community, whether that be on a volunteer basis or through some kind of professional appointment. My goal is to add value to the community and to campus in a way that makes sense for me. Being new, I don’t know what that is yet. One thing I will definitely do is maintain connections between our family and the campus and community. Brock is definitely a family man and very committed to his children. Trying to make it easy for us to bring our kids along, when it’s appropriate, so we can be an entire family unit on campus is important to us.
What are your early impressions of the U.P.?
The area is absolutely gorgeous. Knowing we’ll have access to trails and all the wild spaces nearby is exciting. When you combine the outdoors with the amazing people we’ve met and the arts and culture available here, I don’t think we could ask for a better place to live. I am extremely grateful for the welcome we have received. Everyone has been incredibly kind and seem to share our excitement about this new chapter. Brock is a deeply caring, incredibly intelligent and I think a very relatable person. He has many skills and talents, but his ability to be kind, fair and strategic all in one package is pretty amazing. I’m not sure that it’s unique, per se, but it’s certainly a combination of a great set of qualities. I’m excited to see what he’ll be able do at NMU.
Brock Tessman thanked NMU's Presidential Search Advisory Committee for its extensive work and rigorous, transparent process, and current President Kerri Schuiling for providing a strong foundation and positive momentum to build upon.
To view his full biography and vita, visit nmu.edu/president.