Leadership Q&A with U-M Provost Laurie McCauley

Dr. Laurie McCauley is provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan. Provost McCauley oversees the academic and budgetary affairs of the university, as well as the deans of the university’s 19 schools and colleges. Her other areas of oversight include the work of nine vice provosts’ portfolios, including initiatives related to academic innovation; faculty affairs; biosciences; diversity, equity and inclusion; engaged learning; and enrollment management.

Prior to her appointment as provost, she served as the dean of the School of Dentistry. Dr. McCauley is the William K. and Mary Anne Najjar Professor of Periodontics in the School of Dentistry and professor of pathology in the Medical School. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the National Academy of Medicine, where she recently served as a Section Chair. She has held visiting appointments at various institutions, including the Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School, and the École Normale Supérieure.

Having been appointed for a full term as Provost by the U-M Board of Regents in February, what are you most looking forward to in the coming year?

It is incredibly energizing to have been appointed for a full term as President Ono is officially installed. Knowing that we are both here for the foreseeable future allows us to build real strategic momentum. We can develop transformative plans with the university community, and persist to see them through. Both of our offices are also filled with dedicated, strategically savvy colleagues, many of whom have been here for a long time. They are equally invested in creating a long-term vision for the university that is adaptable enough to succeed in a rapidly changing educational landscape.

Our strategic visioning process will be central to that goal. President Ono has charged Geoffrey Chatas, executive vice president and chief financial officer, Marschall Runge, executive vice president for medical affairs, and me with facilitating the process to develop a collective vision for the university as we look ahead to the next 10 years. In its essence, this project will challenge us as a community to stretch our imaginations and think boldly about what impact the university can have on our campuses, our communities, and our world by 2034. We are fortunate to have experts in many fields on this campus to ensure we realize what we imagine in thoughtful, sustainable ways.

What are some items that you are focused on right now to help students, faculty, and the U-M community?

Over the last year in particular, the Office of the Provost, like so many others, has been asking how we can lower anxiety, prevent burnout, and increase an overall sense of well-being in students, faculty, and staff. The pandemic delivered a serious blow to our collective mental health, and I’m convinced bouncing back from that is an all-hands-on-deck mission.

We know there is no panacea for well-being. It is a matter of improving a thousand different aspects of our day to day campus life and society. For instance, we recently decided to delay the beginning of winter term 2024 by a week, after input from our community made it clear that they could benefit from more time between semesters to travel, rest, connect with family, and prepare for the next term.

We are lucky to have an extraordinary coalition of people dedicated to the well-being mission on this campus. We adopted the Okanagan Charter, which pledges us to embedding health into all aspects of campus culture. We are making headway on that mission due, in part, to the Well-being Collective. The Collective will focus on policy, systems, and structures that can address the root causes of our current challenges and create tools for proactive policy, system and structure development for our entire campus community. The Well-being Collective is coordinating the initial work teams from the Student Mental Health Task Force and will continue to sponsor work teams as we transition into our newly established Collective Impact framework. The current work teams are focused on the intersections of well-being with identity, technology, academic policies, and more. As a partnership between people from Student Life, the Office of the Provost, schools and colleges, and the Student Well-being Network, which is a core component, the Collective benefits from a substantial diversity of input. It is just getting started, but I’m optimistic that we can collectively elevate the health of our campus in myriad dimensions.

What initiatives or efforts of the university community are you inspired by or excited about at this moment?

In addition to the strategic visioning process, we are engaged in a number of milestone projects and initiatives. With the caveat that it’s impossible to even narrow the list of excellent efforts in our community to a top 10, there are a few that benefit from high visibility and recent momentum.
Our recent $20 million investment in the Arts Initiative will integrate creativity and imagination in a host of new ways and enliven the arts scene in the region. I’m excited to see arts more deeply penetrating our academic mission.

I’m also thrilled that we are expanding our relationship with Detroit. Detroit is one of my favorite cities, and I am so happy that people are invested in the city’s story and future. Detroit’s legacy of determination and innovation is inspiring. The U-M Center for Innovation in Detroit, which is slated to break ground this year, will combine graduate education, talent-based community and workforce development and community engagement.

I am also eagerly anticipating the launch of DEI 2.0, the next phase of our plan to make U-M a campus a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive place. There is a buzz about what we can do in a focused manner built on the foundation of DEI 1.0, and launching in October of this year.

I also want to highlight efforts around carbon neutrality and climate change in general. We have a robust emissions reduction and elimination plan. We also have a highly invested cohort of students on this campus who see a chance to change what could be a dire future. This is a generation who has grown up in the shadow of a climate emergency, but they are anything but pessimistic about it. The students I talk to are action-oriented – much more in line with the perspective of someone like Mary Robinson, an iconic climate change leader and the former president of Ireland, who is our guest for this year’s Wege lecture. The Rackham auditorium was energized by that event – it’s inspiring to see students with that level of enthusiasm around sustainability and climate action.

What makes you proud to be a part of U-M leadership?

Integrity, optimism, and talent, more or less in that order. Talent is necessary for excellence, but without integrity and a strong positive vision, its dividends are limited. In our president, in my fellow executive officers, and in our academic leaders, I see people who take ethics seriously. I see people who are dedicated to doing the right thing, even in situations where systemic complexity means arriving at answers takes time. We appropriately reflect on the past and strive to do what we can better in the future for our campus.

Despite the many challenges facing higher education at this moment, my colleagues are optimistic about the promise of U-M to provide world-class education, research, and patient care. They are optimistic about the transformative power of the work we do here. Of course, all of that is catalyzed by the talent on display. Every leader here is a repository of institutional wisdom and strategic acumen.

As we head into spring and summer, what advice do you have to students in all areas of their academic journey?

I encourage students to get out and experience the breadth and depth that this great University has to offer. Obviously, we take academic rigor very seriously at U-M. But campus life can also become rote. I am a researcher, professor, and administrator, but I benefit from insights outside the lab and office – attending an athletic event like the women’s Big Ten swimming and diving championship, the UMS sponsored performance of Swan Lake ballet in Detroit, and wandering around UMMA. I suggest students go for a stroll in Nichols Arboretum or the Matthaei Botanical Gardens (without headphones). Listen to passing chatter, birdsong, and the wind. Attend one of the many performances that SMTD presents (most free) or one of the many museums on campus. Give yourself some distance from the pace of our frantic, digital world and reflect on your own thoughts for a few minutes. All of us, at any age, can feel like we are experiencing information overload. Sometimes we forget how powerful it is to simply unplug or change our view for a few minutes.