Ten years later, no signs of stopping
Lou Anna K. Simon took over the reins as MSU's 20th and first female president in 2005. Simon, whose tenure has been marked with initiatives and an overhaul of many of the residence and dining halls, is still going strong
Students may know her as the woman who won’t grant them snow days and forces them to walk across campus in the polar vortex. Or as the person who presides over a university with never-ending tuition raises and parking tickets.
Lou Anna K. Simon through the years
1969 - Simon receives her bachelor's degree in mathematics from Indiana State University
1970 - Simon receives her master of science in student personnel and counseling from Indiana State University
1974 - Simon receives her Ph.D in administration and higher education from MSU
1974-1978 - Simon acts as an assistant professor in the Office of Institutional Research
1977-1978 - Simon serves as the assistant director of the Office of Institutional Research
1981-1987 - Simon serves as the assistant provost for general academic administration
1987-1992 - Simon serves as the associate provost
1993-2004 - Simpon appointed as interim provost then officially appointed to provost position
2005-present - Simon takes over as the Michigan State University president
Aug. 2012 - Simon elected as the NCAA executive committee chair
Dec. 2014 - Simon accepted a raise and a bonus from the Board of Trustees that put her total compensation at $850,000
But there’s much more to her than that.
She’s a woman who’s been around MSU for 45 years now, with a role that’s changed and varied in importance throughout.
But she’s also a woman who will pump her fist in a locker room celebration full of football players, coaches and even a rap artist.
And she’s someone who isn’t afraid to hear and respond to the criticism her university is receiving.
She’s Dr. Lou Anna K. Simon, the 20th president of Michigan State University.
No stranger to East Lansing
2015 marks Simon’s 10th year as the university’s president. That’s likely the increment of time most people know her for. But in reality, she’s been around East Lansing for much longer than that.
She came to MSU as a graduate student in January 1970 after completing her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and master’s degree in counseling from Indiana State.
The opportunity to obtain a Ph.D from MSU sounded like something she couldn’t pass up. And while she had no intention of staying at the time, things didn’t go as planned.
“I was very fortunate with working with a lot of people because the people that make this institution ... they probably saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself — which is I think the great hallmark of the people at Michigan State,” Simon said.
Simon would go on to earn her doctorate in administration and higher education from MSU in 1974. From there, she’s held various roles in teaching, research and governance at MSU — from working on grassroots Title IX initiatives, to ensuring MSU was home to more female athletes, to her 11 years as provost from 1993-2004 and 10 years as president since then.
“I’m not a very good example of career planning,” Simon said. “I’m an example, I think, of trying to develop and be a lifelong learner.”
Initiatives and projects
Soon after Simon took over as president in 2005, there were a number of areas she felt could be improved upon at MSU, but of these, enhancing the student experience was at the top of Simon’s Boldness by Design campaign.
Simply take a walk around campus and one will notice right away one of MSU’s bigger projects, which has improved the overall student experience during Simon’s tenure. Every neighborhood on campus has been overhauled and renovated during the course of the last several years — each of them now has a state-of-the-art dining hall in place as well.
“I think the neighborhoods have the potential to have a profound impact on student experiences with the support we’re providing," Simon said.
In addition to this, the university has been able to maintain a student-to-faculty ratio of 17:1, which is actually the same as 10 years ago.
“We preserved the 17:1 student-to-faculty ratio through all the budget reductions,” Simon said. “Now we didn’t improve like I would have liked to do, but we also didn’t lose ground.”
Another element of Simon’s tenure is the work she’s done to enhance the value of an MSU degree. In a survey of alumni conducted by the university in 2009, of the 76 percent who responded, 81 percent of those had either found a job or were continuing their education. Four years later in 2013, of the 80 percent of alumni who responded in that year’s survey, that figure had leaped to 91 percent.
“We’ve been able to grow the number of employers that are coming to campus,” Simon said on students being able to find employment after graduation. “The numbers have continued to improve every year, even in the depths of recession. From a student’s perspective, those are positive things.”
A disconnect with students
It hasn’t always been the smoothest of sailing during Simon’s tenure. When she first took over in 2005, in-state tuition was $233 per credit hour. Today that number has soared to $440.
That being said, Simon has presided over some of the toughest economic times in the history of the state of Michigan.
She has also been criticized for making it harder for Michigan residents to be accepted to MSU, in light of the university’s growing international student population. She explained that the higher costs of out-of-state tuition make it possible to fund a number of things at MSU.
Funding from the state has also dipped dramatically during the last several years, and this is a factor some students certainly have taken note of.
“Yes, tuition has gone up,” ASMSU President James Conwell said. “But you have to realize it’s gone up everywhere.”
Conwell, a human biology senior, has been a part of MSU’s student government for four years. His roles held within the organization have allowed him to work alongside Simon at numerous academic governance meetings over the years.
If he had to pick one thing he would like to see improved upon at MSU, he said it would be how the Office of the President communicates with the rest of the MSU community.
And Simon agrees. When fronted with a question of her biggest challenges during her presidency, it was the first thing she brought up.
“(Students) live in a very cluttered information world,” Simon said. “And when we tell (them) things, it’s like we check a box and say ‘we told you that.’ ... But if you didn’t hear it, then it’s not good enough ... we’ve got lots of people to try and help us and we still can’t break that code.
“We’ve got to find a better way (to connect) in (a student’s) cluttered world ... because I think we’re still probably two steps behind where (students) all are,” Simon said.
A dedicated Spartan
Simon loves MSU. Nobody’s going to argue that fact.
“There’s a tremendous passion,” said Deborah Moriarty,professor of piano and chair of the piano area. Moriarty, like Simon, has been around MSU for years, but has grown especially close to Simon through working alongside her at the academic governance meetings the last several years. “I think it’s fair to say that she’s given her life for MSU.”
Simon is a woman who’s spent 45 years at an institution which now pays her a $750,000 yearly salary and $100,000 retention-bonus. Before this year, she turned down raise after raise from the MSU Board of Trustees in addition to donating many bonuses back to the university. It’s estimated that Simon and her husband have donated roughly $1 million back to MSU during her tenure.
“It’s a real privilege for me to be a part of this university for so long, to watch it grow and develop,” Simon said at her 2015 State of the University address. “And I have a list of things I know it can be better at. Because I’m never satisfied. ... If I’m satisfied, then we’re not going to be as great as we would be in the future.”
What’s next for Simon and MSU includes a whole new series of tasks — Neighborhood 2.0 and the Healthy Campus Initiative to name a few, but also keeping in mind that the learning environment for students is constantly changing.
“(Students) will receive content in different forms or packages but it’s how you use that content that will be so critical,” Simon said. “It’s the wisdom, knowledge and the learning that comes from being able to use that in different ways and to shift the way we’re structuring our curriculum in order to do that.”
It’s unknown how much longer Simon, at 68 years old, will come to work at the place she has been for the past 45 years. But from the sounds of it, Simon hasn’t even thought of the end of her time at MSU yet.
“It depends on my health,” Simon said. “There’s no end date. My contract has for them to give me a notice of 30 to 60 days and if they don’t like me anymore, I’ll leave ... but there’s no plan to leave.”