New NMU president set to tackle challenges


Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE — Northern Michigan University’s new president, Brock Tessman, didn’t expect his arrival on campus to be a soft landing.

However, he’s OK with that.

He also pointed out that NMU is at a pivotal point.

“That’s exciting to me,” Tessman said in an interview with The Mining Journal. “That challenge is surmountable, and Northern is going to conquer its most serious challenges, but actually, it’s a lot of work.”

Things like creativity and teamwork will be needed, he said, but he’s “hungry” for it, and doesn’t expect to be a “steward of the status quo.”

His first day in his new role was Feb. 1.

The NMU Board of Trustees in September unanimously approved Tessman as president, succeeding Kerri Schuiling, who served as interim president following the termination of President Fritz Erickson in 2021.

Tessman, who grew up in downstate Plymouth, previously served as deputy commissioner of higher education for the Montana University System, and had prior experience as a faculty member and campus leader.

In his role with the MUS, Tessman was responsible for driving success across Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and Research and Economic Development. He oversaw the design and launch of the Montana 10 Student Success Initiative, which employs targeted financial aid, student incentives, comprehensive advising, mental health and academic momentum strategies.

What drew Tessman to NMU, especially when he and his family — wife Kristin and daughters Frances and Leona — were happy in Montana?

“We love the outdoors,” Tessman said. “We like space. We like a kind of rugged beauty.”

The Marquette area fit the bill, plus, having been born downstate, he kept his affinity for not only the Detroit Lions but Michigan.

“Northern, in particular, has this really neat combination of being big enough to have active research for undergraduate students and close faculty-student interaction across the board, but also a really intimate campus life,” Tessman said. “You get to know people on the Northern campus.”

Still, he will face challenges, the main ones being, in his opinion, recruiting and retaining enrollment, mental health and wellness, business and industry partnerships, and the campus climate.

Regarding enrollment, he channeled a fictional “handbook” for a new president of a regional public college or university.

“If that university is in a rural setting, go to page 8,” Tessman said. “You switch to page 8. It said, ‘Do not set enrollment targets as your primary metric for success.’ Because it’s really hard to achieve growth in this setting. Northern is not alone in the enrollment decline.”

NMU’s primary challenge, he said, is to stabilize enrollment, although he doesn’t have a “magic number.”

When Tessman accepted the job in September, he pointed out that the total traditional headcount was down 3.4% to 6,970 this academic year.

Recruitment, retention and taking care of current students regarding mental health and wellness will play a part, Tessman said, in stabilizing enrollment.

That stabilization, he stressed, is key.

“Until you do that, your bigger dreams aren’t possible,” Tessman said.

Population changes also need to be looked at, he said, acknowledging that although NMU can’t solve that problem, it can ensure more students graduate with degrees with appropriate skill sets the region needs.

Supporting students, Tessman noted, involves having students meeting with advisers early in their college career, and before their senior year, already talking with Career Services and developing a sense of their professional lives after NMU.

Partnerships between NMU and business and industry are another goal, Tessman said, as well as diversity and inclusivity among students and employees.

For students and employees, he wants to maintain a positive atmosphere where everyone has an equal opportunity for success and to feel a sense of belonging.

Post-COVID, employees have had to make major adjustments such as shifting of workload, Tessman said.

“In order for Northern to realize its dreams, it has to do things like stabilize enrollment,” he said. “We also have to make sure we’re retaining our very good people. We have them plugged in and sort of motivated to be there right along with us.”

Infrastructure goals

Tessman said the heart of campus will be addressed, particularly Harden Hall.

The Elizabeth and Edgar Harden Hall is located off the academic mall, with the second and third floors containing the Lydia Olson Library. According to the NMU website, it hosts events like Weekly Writing Refuge for faculty to focus on writing goals in a room disconnected from the internet.

“It’s this really important opportunity to enhance the library,” Tessman said. “It’s a place that certainly is an access point for books and journals for students, but also technology, learning, gathering. It’s kind of collaborative learning.

“We’re looking at whether we want to move some academic programs there to get them from the periphery of campus to the center of campus, and I think there’s an opportunity to look at some specific ways to create more of a student center, a kind of ‘student union-ish’ space there.”

Tessman said NMU also plans to make changes with the Berry Events Center, which currently houses basketball and hockey.

“If you’ve attended a basketball game, it’s gigantic, and sometimes you kind of realize it’s basically a hockey arena with basketball fit inside,” he said.

Basketball games will be relocated to Vandament Arena, which Tessman said will create a “more concentrated energy there.”

“There will actually be less seating, but that’s OK,” he said. “We’re going to bring fans closer to the action. It’s going to be a top-notch facility. We’re looking at a good video screen there.”

Additionally, changing the ice rink to a basketball floor, he pointed out, is expensive, plus NMU loses out on ice rental time.

“Doing this, depending on the calculation, actually generates a return on investment that’s positive in about a decade or so,” Tessman said.

However, in a move toward sustainability, NMU is looking at shrinking its infrastructure square footage when appropriate, he said.

“Every square foot — it costs dollars,” Tessman said. “It’s also energy-intensive. So, when we make changes, we’re not just kind of packing on needless space. In many cases, we’re taking down buildings and moving into new spaces that are more energy-efficient. They’re smaller, but they’re nicer.”

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.


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