Q&A: Marquette President Mike Lovell Talks About the Future of the University

He weighed in on the lessons learned from the devastating and disruptive pandemic and other topics during a recent interview with Milwaukee Magazine.

MARQUETTE UNIVERSITY, like other educational institutions, had to immediately and drastically alter the way it educated students when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. The most dramatic move involved a shift from in-person classes to fully online educational programming. When students returned to campus in late summer for the current academic year, 18 months after the start of the pandemic, it marked a long-awaited, full-fledged return to the classroom. 

MilMag: What’s changed about how you are educating students at Marquette as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Mike Lovell: A lot has changed. During the pandemic, we were forced to go from all in person to all online in nine days. I’m very proud that the campus was able to do it and do our best to still provide a transformational education for our students. Now, in the fall of 2021, we are back to 98% in-person classes. What we learned is that being in community is much better. Our students are much happier now. I don’t think anyone will ever take being in person for granted again. It’s an important part of what we do.

Does virtual learning have a role at Marquette going forward?

We did learn a lot about what we can do virtually and maybe we can supplement that with what we do in person. We learned we can teach some of our courses online. There are situations, particularly for our graduate professional degrees, where we were able to expand what we do in those spaces. We’ve learned to teach online. We’re much better at it now than when we flipped the switch. We learned what works and what doesn’t. When we think about the future, our online portfolio will grow. We are still going to mainly focus on that transformational in-person education. But there are cases, especially for non-traditional students, where we’ve learned how to provide an online education.

How has the faculty reacted to being back in the classroom?

For those of us who got into academia to teach, it’s very energizing to be among the students. You don’t get that same energy or that same type of relationship when you are online. I will be teaching again in the spring. I taught last year online, and it wasn’t the same experience for me. It was very hard for me to teach online because the course I teach is a very hands-on, practical course. It was a struggle, and I don’t think the students enjoyed the course as much as if we had been in person. I’m really looking forward to getting back in the classroom.

What else did you learn due to the pandemic?

Mental health became a real challenge. Prior to the pandemic, one in three students were being seen for mental health issues. Depression, anxiety or other ailments. Once the pandemic hit, because people were isolated, it became one in two. One of the things we really worked on is to reach our population and serve them around things like mental health. We needed to use technology to that. We partnered with a group called SilverCloud Health, which devised an app that allows students to assess where they are in terms of their mental health while providing them with tools and show them where they can get resources on campus. We also had to train our faculty and staff and we actually have counselors come into classrooms to help our students realize what they may be facing and decrease the stigma.

 

 

Collaborations have become an important strategy for Marquette. Speak about Marquette’s collaboration with Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. and other types of education-business arrangements you are considering?

When I think of what the future of higher education looks like one of the things that is very important to us is to have a much closer tie to the corporate community, non-profits and health care systems to assess what skills are going to be required of our students when they graduate so they can be successful and hit the ground running. To do that, you have to have very close relationships and constant dialogue with outside organizations. Three years ago, we launched an Office of Corporate Engagement specifically to provide that direct interaction and think about how we can help them with their challenges, like technology. When you think about the Data Science Institute with Northwestern Mutual, on which we partner with the (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), the genesis around that was how do we produce a workforce in Milwaukee that is going to fill some of the technical gaps we have. We have heard that there is a deficit of 60,000 people in technology fields in Milwaukee. So, how do we build a pipeline of students? Another point of focus with the Data Science Institute is for people outside of Milwaukee to see there is a major effort going on here and that we have the infrastructure to draw others, particularly from the coasts. Now, we are talking about expanding the partnership to include other institutions of higher learning and other corporations to really become a Milwaukee initiative that can become a national model. One of the unique things about the Data Science Institute is that there are plenty of institutes across the country between industry and academia, but this was the first one we could find that was actually housed at the industry and not the university.

How are demographic changes affecting Marquette?

Over the next four of five years, the number of students graduating from high schools in the Midwest is going to decrease 15% to 20%. That’s going to last for another decade. We know, quite frankly, as an institution we are going to be smaller as far as our traditional undergraduate education is concerned. During the pandemic, about that same percentage of students decided not to go into higher education. It’s almost like the decrease began last year. At Marquette, our traditional (freshmen) class has been around 2,000 students. We believe going forward that it’s going to around 1,800. We’re going to be smaller. We had an effort last year to restructure ourselves for being a smaller institution. I think we’re in a great position. Where I think our growth opportunity lies is in the non-traditional student population. How do we provide online education, new academic programs, or even certificate or non-degree programs, whether hybrid or online? As for the so-called lost generation of males who are opting not to go to college, I believe our freshmen class is about 57% female. We were, not that long ago, close to 50/50. Something we need to focus on is how do we reach those male populations and draw more of them to Marquette.”

How is the makeup of Marquette’s student population changing?

This freshmen class is the most diverse class we’ve ever had, and that trend is going to continue. We are very proud of that. When I got here, the incoming freshmen class was 9% Hispanic and 3% African-American. Here, in my eighth year, we are now up to 18% Hispanic and 6% African-American. We’ve doubled both of those populations. We also have the most diverse staff we’ve ever had, with over 20% being people of color. Those are trends that are very important. We’re going to become even more diverse. As part of that, we need to make sure that we are providing an experience and supporting those students who are probably looking for something a little different than our traditional majority students in terms of the way they experience the campus.

What do you see as the role of Marquette in serving the community in which it exists?

When we think about our student body, we do 500,000 hours of community service per year. It’s our role when we see disparities and injustices to go out and be agents of change. We have so many challenges in Milwaukee that need to be addressed and we want to ensure that our faculty, staff and students are part of addressing those issues and that we are using our God-given talents and skills to make changes. The Near West Side Partners Initiative, as an example, is now in its seventh year. We started by focusing on safety. Then we focused on bringing in new businesses. Over the years, we’ve brought in 41 new businesses. We’ve done that through a number of mechanisms. Marquette partners with Harley-Davidson for a Shark Tank-style competition where we have businesses come in and pitch their ideas. When they win, they not only get funding, but they also get a storefront on the west side for free.

In an age of specialization, why does Marquette continue to stress the importance of a liberal arts education?

As an engineer, the most important course I took in college was a philosophy of religion course. In engineering, there is always a right and wrong answer. Black and white. That course showed me that the world is gray. I actually struggled with that course. It opened my eyes to the fact that there isn’t always a right or wrong answer. You have to be able to synthesize Information to solve dilemmas that aren’t always one way or the other. Even though we talk about specialization, why I think Marquette is such a significant institution not only locally but throughout the country is because we still focus on the strong liberal arts education no matter what major you have. A liberal arts education means that our students are going to learn to be problem solvers, critical thinkers, how to work in teams and how to communicate. With those skills, no matter what happens in the evolving landscape with technology, jobs and workforce, you are going to be able to add value to any organization. You are going to be able to learn and evolve. And you are also going to get the ethics and learn about doing things not because we can but because we should.

What are your impressions of Shaka Smart, who is now guiding the Marquette men’s basketball program?

Shaka’s great. I’ve gotten to know Shaka very well already. First of all, of any coach I’ve ever met in my life, and I played sports growing up and have met a lot of coaches in higher ed, he’s a really deep thinker. He reads more than any other coach I’ve ever met. What I’ve learned from Shaka, because he thinks at those levels, is that he’s not just going to be a basketball coach for players, he’s going to be a life coach. He’s not only going to help our players be the best basketball version of themselves, he is going to help them be the best version of themselves as people. He’s genuine. He’s authentic.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.