Teresa Woodruff began her transition from provost to interim president physically.
She stepped into the president’s office, bringing memoirs from previous university presidents and balancing framed black-and-white photos from MSU archives on the window sill.
“I think it’s important to know where people have been because we’re kind of in this fulcrum (which) moves us towards our future together,” Woodruff said.
One of the frames was a painting of a baby cow that Woodruff bought in the Upper Peninsula – it reminded her of the MSU dairy farm. In 2021, the dairy farm’s feed barn caught on fire, but no people or livestock were hurt.
When Woodruff arrived on the scene, she said the cows were just grazing while the fire blazed around them. Any time she needs a moment of zen, she takes a drive by the farm.
“When I was provost, I would say I have 50,000 students, 5,700 faculty and academic staff and then I’ve got about 20,000 souls,” Woodruff said. “I count every cow, every sheep, every goat, every insect in entomology, I count every soul as part of us.”
One of Woodruff’s goals as interim president is to bring a variety of perspectives into her decision-making. She’s met with everyone in senior leadership, engaged with the Board of Trustees to develop communication strategies and worked with every report that comes to her office.
The Board of Trustees unanimously approved her appointment as interim president following president emeritus Samuel L. Stanley Jr.’s resignation. Stanley had a rocky relationship with the board because of disagreement over the board’s power.
Now, Woodruff is taking over. She said she’s still getting to know the trustees and trying to understand their individual views and motivations.
“My hope is that we have those essential conversations,” Woodruff said. “When we do that in an environment where everyone can hear each other – again, we may not all come to the same point – but my hope is that a majority can come to a collective decision that has all the inputs necessary to have an outcome that has true wisdom as a part of it.”
She values student success the most. As former provost, Woodruff said she’s proud of MSU’s effort to “knit together” strategies across colleges to help students thrive. Students may come to the university not knowing what they want to major in, but Woodruff wanted to help students explore other options.
“We wanted to break down, literally, the metaphorical silos between colleges so that students could work effortlessly across colleges,” Woodruff said. “And that also, I think, enabled the ... teaching, learning, research success that we’ve seen over the metrics of the last two years.”
Various student groups and leaders at MSU have overwhelmingly supported Woodruff’s appointment as interim president. This current positive relationship with students differs from her experience as dean of the graduate school at Northwestern University.
Woodruff faced backlash at a 2020 Board of Trustees meeting for her tenure history at Northwestern. Now, current leaders from some of the same groups that protested are unified in their support for her.
Woodruff said financial changes at Northwestern led to some students being upset, and although she worked with the president and provost to meet with them, the students were passionate and didn’t quite get the answer they wanted. She said MSU is different because it tailors the experience to individual students’ needs.
“That’s why, at Michigan State, we have so much more success than any place I’ve ever been,” Woodruff said. “I appreciate that about what we’ve done to engineer the system, to engineer an institution, that is really geared toward student success and that’s a system I like to work in.”
Woodruff said that in her interactions with people from the MSU community, she works to have a back-and-forth conversation. She said she states things like a scientist: starting with a hypothesis and asking people to build or refute the argument.
She didn’t specify whether she wants to be considered for president, but hopes to succeed in her current position. She hopes to collaborate with people to “bring wisdom” to whatever decisions she makes as interim president.
“(I hope to) make those decisions on the interest of the people whose interests we serve, which are the students, faculty and staff, and the few of the cows and the other souls that live in this environment,” Woodruff said.
During her transition time, Woodruff said she’s sleeping a little less and has Stanley on speed dial for support.
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In her time as interim president, she said she’s determined to stabilize the university. At its core, she said MSU’s metrics are “excellent” aside from a few oscillations due to leadership and past decisions.
“During this interim time, whatever period that is, (my hope is) to bring us back to a point of stability, to a feeling of confidence in who we are as Spartans, and to be able to use that to launch ourselves into a new epoch, which is going to take us into a new dimension of excellence for our students, faculty and staff,” Woodruff said.
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