Chancellor Grasso discusses his first month on the job


"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 are going and how best to get there."

As Chancellor Domenico Grasso prepared for his first academic year at UM-Dearborn — his tenure as the university’s sixth chancellor began Aug. 1 — he sat down with Vice Chancellor for External Relations Ken Kettenbeil to discuss his first month on campus and his plans to get to know the UM-Dearborn community.

Kettenbeil: What brought you to UM-Dearborn? What really intrigued you about UM-Dearborn and this job?

Grasso: What excited me about this job is that this is part of the University of Michigan, one of the world’s greatest universities. And yet it’s accessible to a group of students who otherwise would not have the ability to attend such a great and transformational institution.

President Angell — who was president of the University of Michigan after having been president of the University of Vermont (where I also worked) — said something that I think is absolutely true and inspirational for this campus in particular: The University of Michigan provides an uncommon education for the common man (sic). I think that is what excites me about this institution. You have the power and the greatness of the University of Michigan, and it’s accessible to first-generation students or Pell eligible students or commuting students that might otherwise not have that experience.

Kettenbeil: And you can relate because you’re a first-generation college student?

Grasso:  Yes, and I know the power of a transformative education.

Kettenbeil: You started on August 1, so you have been here a little over a month. What have you been doing?

Grasso: 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 are going and how best to get there. I have been talking to people on campus, in Ann Arbor and off campus entirely and thinking deeply about how best to guide the university forward.

Kettenbeil: Regarding “where we are going to go in the future,” do you expect to develop a strategic plan to guide the university?

Grasso: I do. There are actually two plans that I envision, the first is a strategic enrollment management (SEM) plan and the second is a strategic plan for the direction of the university. Both plans have to be worked on together. I will need a lot of input from the campus community on both plans. My hope is to roll out these campus-wide planning initiatives after the first of the year.

Kettenbeil: Any surprises during your first 30 days?

Grasso: Surprises? There is significantly more traffic here than I remember. Detroiters would have no problems driving in Boston or New York.

On campus, I have been encouraged — but not surprised — by the friendliness of the people and many of the pockets of expertise on campus. Everybody is excited about the potential that is yet to be realized.

Related: Follow the chancellor’s first 100 days on campus.

Kettenbeil: I’ve heard that you like to walk around campus during your breaks. Where do you go and what have you noticed during these walks?

Grasso: I like to find my way around, talk to people and start to be a part of the community. I will go up to people and introduce myself and find out about them and why they are here and how they like being here.

I’m still exploring campus; there are pockets that I have yet to discover. I like to see the UM-Dearborn traditions, like painting the rock by the University Center. I hope to build on those and build more traditions as we go forward. It’s a beautiful campus that is going to continue to grow and flourish.

Kettenbeil: What can faculty and staff expect from you this fall and winter semester?

Grasso: They can expect continued enthusiasm for the campus, engaging them on thinking about the future, getting their ideas, sharing my ideas, getting feedback and thinking about what the future holds for the University of Michigan-Dearborn — as part of southeast Michigan and beyond.

Kettenbeil: You spoke during New Student Convocation last week. Talk about what went into your student message.

Grasso: It was fun! My message to them was simple. I wanted them to know that we were going to make UM-Dearborn their home, I reminded them (I am not sure they needed a reminder!) that they are now part of one of the greatest universities in the world, to appreciate their opportunity to receive a college education, and to be individuals of character, and finally I asked them to dare and live. Universities are magical places that allow you to explore, take chances, meet and debate people that don’t share similar experiences or beliefs. I asked students to take it all in and push their limits while they are here at UM-Dearborn.

I also used the power and enjoyment of music to help tie my messages together. I asked that Home by Phillip Phillips, U-M’s Victors and I Lived, by One Republic be played at convocation. Each of these songs have deep meaning and it was a way to connect to young people in a different way.

Related: Read Chancellor Grasso’s convocation remarks.

Kettenbeil: Expanding on your student message about engaging with others that are different than you, UM-Dearborn has a strong commitment and history of an inclusive campus rich in diversity. How does inclusion and diversity fit with this message?

I’d like us to engage in these vexing issues that challenge us personally and collectively. I want us to do it as passionately as we can — but I’d like us to consider ourselves as part of a family. There are big issues that we need to talk about on this campus and there will be heated debates, but we still treat each other with respect, much like we would in our family living rooms discussing sensitive topics with relatives and close friends. Because of the culture of respect and the diversity on campus and the inclusive and welcoming environment, we are well positioned to provide a safe environment for students, faculty and staff for these exchanges of ideas. All discussions must be rooted in respect, however.

Kettenbeil: Do you see this as a way to build on the legacy on this campus that has centered around inclusion and diversity?

Grasso: Absolutely. I think that one of the exciting things on this campus is that it is so diverse. We are diverse along so many different dimensions — the socioeconomic dimension, the ethnic and regional dimensions, to name a few. I think that this is a place where we can engage with multiple perspectives on very important issues. Engaging is what being on a university campus is all about: Staying up late and arguing important points and trying to convince each other on a position with an informed, articulate and well-reasoned perspective. This is where you practice to go out into society and do the same thing.  

Kettenbeil: Would you say that this is part of the magic of a major university campus?

Chancellor Grasso: It is absolutely a part of the university magic; and it is a part that you will cherish for the rest of your life. Anybody who has gone to college will look back fondly on those days, sitting in the University Center or in a classroom, and remember heated conversations with friends and classmates about important topics.

Kettenbeil: What can students expect from you during the fall semester?

Grasso: They can expect accessibility. They can expect a sincere amount of care in their future, a commitment to their future. I want to help each and every student to the best of my ability, whether I do it personally or through my colleagues, or through our policies or through our programs. But I see in each and every one of them a former version of myself. I want them to have at least the opportunities I had. How they deal with those is going to be up to them, but I want to provide those opportunities.

Kettenbeil: Have you met with any students?

Chancellor Grasso: I’ve met with students at the W.O.W. orientation program and that was very exciting. I’ve met students on campus, several students have come up and introduced themselves. I’ve met the president and vice president of the Student Activities Board and Student Government. I’m looking forward to meeting with many, many more.

Kettenbeil: Has your inauguration ceremony date been set yet?

Grasso: It has, Friday, April 12. Spring will be a great time of year because there is a renewed sense of life both for the environment and for the campus. Save the date notifications will be sent in the fall.

Kettenbeil: You recently joined Twitter, @ChanceGrasso, to communicate and share news about UM-Dearborn. Why are you engaging in this communication channel?

Grasso: I would like to be as engaged as possible with the UM-Dearborn community. I think Twitter will be a good avenue to let people know what’s happening and to share my thoughts and perspectives on various issues.

Kettenbeil: Any final thoughts as we start the fall semester?

Grasso: I am really excited that we can engage with a campus that's going to be populated now. The campus has been a little vacant this last past month, but I’m delighted to see the students returning and see the vibrancy of the campus in full bloom. I encourage our students to get involved, learn Hail to the Victors and be excited to be a part of the University of Michigan.

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