MSU provost senses a mindset change from “sieve” toward student success

Feb 26, 2020

Teresa Sullivan is interim provost at Michigan State University. She joins Michigan State University president Samuel L. Stanley, Jr. M.D and Spartans athletic director Bill Beekman for a conversation.

“Provost is an old military term, and most people aren't too familiar with it outside of the college setting,” Sullivan says. “The provost is the chief academic officer, which means the provost is ultimately responsible for the faculty from hiring to retirement and for the students from admission to graduation.”


While Sullivan sees the physical changes to campus since her return to her alma mater, she’s also sensing a mindset change.

“The new buildings are quite exciting. That's different. But Michigan State was about this size when I was an undergraduate, and that all feels very familiar, including the fact that this campus never feels crowded despite the number of people who are on it every day. And I think that's partly because of the beautiful grounds, which have always been to me one of the distinguishing factors about Michigan State.

“One of the really important changes has been a mindset change from the university as the sieve that is essentially involved in a weeding out function for those who are not worthy to be here. That’s the old phrase about, ‘Look to your right, look to your left. Only one of you will be here.’ I think that's changed to the view that if you got admitted, we have a responsibility to make it possible for you to succeed. And I know President Stanley has an important student success agenda. I think that's a real difference, and it shows up in lots of things. It shows up in the ways we teach, greater attention paid to advising, and generally just making it easier for students to figure out what it is they need to do to graduate. That's different. I would say when I was here it was more a matter of, ‘Here's a maze. Let's see if you're bright enough to run it.’

Beekman, Sullivan, Stanley in the MSU Audio Studios.

“I'd say it also involves the mindset change all the way down to the individual student. Faculty members need to think about the problems students are having in learning and try to help them overcome those problems. That's often hard. If you're a faculty member, you're really gifted in a subject. You don't really see why it's not obvious to everybody else. So you have to try and put yourself in the students' shoes. And for the students, it means shifting from a mindset which says, ‘I'm having trouble at this so I'm not naturally good at it, so I should quit this field and go do something else.’ Instead, we'd like students to think, ‘This is hard, but I've done hard things. I can learn this and persevere in the kinds of difficult courses that often lead to more rewarding majors.’"

Sullivan says MSU’s land grant mission has “always been near and dear to my heart. It calls out a mission of service to our community through research-based outreach. How does that connect between the faculty member and the student? How does that provide for a richer experience for our students?

“Michigan State's one of the top schools in the country in terms of service learning, which means an integration of outreach into the community with your classroom work. Faculty members here have become very good at looking for ways to help their students apply their knowledge in a real setting. That's also good for the student. It helps them see immediately how their knowledge can be applied. And it also helps them think about, ‘Oh, is this a field in which I might want to pursue work after graduation?’ It works for everybody.”

The trio discusses the importance of study abroad to the student experience, too. And in summary, Sullivan adds:

“I think the land grant mission really permeates life here at MSU in a way it does not at many schools. I think there's a real sense of mission here that we do something different and that we give a chance to the students who might not otherwise have had a chance. I think there's also just the huge variety of subjects you can study at Michigan State, an exceptionally broad range really. And that offers students an opportunity. They don't have to major in a field to take a course in an area that might not even be available to them somewhere else. And then there's the great diversity of the student body. You rub shoulders with students from 100 foreign countries as well as 50 states in the union. It gives you a real opportunity to think and interact with people who may not think and interact the same way you do.”

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