UM-Dearborn's first chancellor with a U-M degree is eager to embark on his leadership journey, one built on sharing ideas, developing plans and meeting goals as a team.
Chancellor Domenico Grasso put his fist in the air with fight song flair as he shared an important message with a new class of 17 faculty members who came from Australia, Europe and across the United States to teach UM-Dearborn students:
Learn the words to The Victors.
On his finger is a Michigan signet class ring. His suit is a sharp blue. His tie reflects the school colors.
Yes, if you didn’t already know, Grasso is a tried and true Michigan Man. In fact, he’s the first UM-Dearborn chancellor to earn a University of Michigan degree; he received a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from U-M.
But his appreciation for his alma mater is more than foam-finger fandom. It comes from understanding the impact higher education can have on a student’s life.
“I love the university and am a graduate and a believer in the power of a Michigan education,” said Grasso, who was a first-generation college student. “Dearborn’s campus is the combination of inclusive access, affordability and Michigan excellence. That’s what makes us transformational. Yes, those can be buzz-words. But in our case they are accurate, and we can be proud and authentic in using them.”
Lay of the Land
It’s not uncommon to see the university’s sixth chancellor taking a walk through campus. In his first few weeks on the job, Grasso has aimed to take daily walks. The routine not only serves as a welcomed break from his office, but as a time to explore the grounds and to introduce himself to new faces.
He spends time in the Environmental Interpretive Center’s natural areas. And he’s become familiar with Dearborn’s trails, which he also takes when commuting with his trusty Giant bike of nearly 30 years.
“It’s a way to get in some exercise and clear your head. It’s something I’ve done for years,” he said of his near-daily commute. “I bike comfortably in a T-shirt — I have panniers for my suit — so you may see my casual look at the beginning or end of the day. I’m hoping to ride year round and have studded bike tires for the snow; I have ridden through Vermont winters and expect Michigan winters to pose the same challenges.” On weekends, he likes to go on longer rides (20-30 miles, sometimes longer) on his road bike or mountain bike.
Inside his office, treasured gifts and mementos on display serve as subtle reminders of Grasso’s long and distinguished career, as an environmental engineer, faculty member and university administrator.
A framed Rosie the Riveter poster was a gift from Smith College colleagues, with whom he worked to establish the first engineering program at a women’s college in the United States. A bronze-like sculpture of a ram — which actually is made of repurposed computer equipment — was given to him by Taiwan's Minister of the Environment after he served as Taiwan’s distinguished environmental lecturer. And a nameplate with his affiliation as “United States” is a reminder of his time as an invited technical expert to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in Vienna, Austria.
Grasso, who is a U.S. Army veteran and previously served as provost and chief academic officer at the University of Delaware and vice president for research and dean of engineering and mathematical sciences at the University of Vermont, feels that his past experiences have prepared him well to become chancellor.
“I have a great deal of experience leading large complex organizations; but more importantly, being a first-generation college graduate, I understand personally the power that hard work, commitment and a strong education can have in improving the quality of lives. But I am also keenly aware of the challenges that first-generation college students may face in navigating unfamiliar terrain,” said Grasso, who will also serve as professor of public policy and administration and professor of sustainable engineering. “I was attracted to UM-Dearborn because it is a special place, a truly transformational institution opening doors and opportunities for so many.”
The weeks and months ahead will include a roll out of a strategic plan and other campus-wide planning initiatives. But before that can happen, Grasso’s schedule has been filled with introductory meetings — students, alumni, faculty, staff, regional leaders. He’s observing, gaining insight and planning before moving forward — leadership skills he said he developed while serving as an Army officer.
“I have been getting to know people, learning my way around and using the expertise, knowledge and wisdom of the people around me to think about where we want to go and how best to get there,” he said. “Strategy requires thoughtful planning before action. Good leaders don’t just give directives. Good leaders share ideas, listen carefully, develop plans, and work together toward goals and objectives.” One of his favorite aphorisms is: “No one of us is as smart as all of us.”
For now, Grasso is focused on getting everyone settled into a new academic year, himself included.
Speaking with incoming students and their families at New Student Convocation, he shared how your journey always brings you to the place where you were meant to be.
“Today’s ceremony marks the official beginning of your lives as Michigan students within the Michigan family. And it is particularly special for me because we are beginning this journey together,” he said. “Being a proud Michigan alum, I’m returning home and know that you could not have chosen a better place to call home.”
He later added, “The pride I feel as a Michigan alum, and now faculty member and administrator, is all encompassing. It’s something faculty, alumni and students — new and seasoned — understand. But that feeling of pride is not always easy to describe.”
And that’s why there’s a fight song. Hail! to the victors ...