Chancellor Little discusses his time on campus, looks forward to what’s next
Little will step down as chancellor this June after 18 years of leadership at UM-Dearborn.
Chancellor Daniel Little will step down this summer as UM-Dearborn’s fifth and longest-serving chancellor. Under his leadership, the university stands at record enrollment with just over 9,300 students, undergraduate minority enrollment has increased to 26 percent, the campus has focused on building an inclusive environment, and the university has developed as a strong metropolitan university with a strong focus on metropolitan Detroit.
Little recently sat down with Vice Chancellor for External Relations Ken Kettenbeil to discuss his 18 years as chancellor, his priorities through June and what’s on the horizon.
Kettenbeil: You have seven months left as chancellor of UM-Dearborn. What are you thinking about? What’s on your mind? How do you feel?
Little: The primary thing on my mind is this is a very intense place, a very intense job, and I haven’t experienced even the slightest bit of letdown. I feel that we have so much important work to do, and I feel completely engaged.
My expectation is that this whole team is going to be working full-tilt right up through June 30, and then onto the leadership of the next great chancellor moving forward.
I feel like for me, personally, this time is a big deal. This is a job that I have absolutely loved doing. I know that I will miss this job, but I also know that I went into academic life to be a teacher and researcher—and I’m excited to go back to that life for the next three to four years.
Kettenbeil: What are your priorities between now and June 30? What do you hope to accomplish between now and that time?
Little: There’s a very concrete priority that I just mentioned. When there’s a leadership transition, there’s an organizational hazard that the team will get kind of relaxed. Because of the quality of this team of leaders, I never did expect that that would happen, but I think it’s worthwhile to partner with all of the members of the leadership team to ensure that we are all intensively working toward a successful university. So, maintaining strong effort, that’s priority number one.
Priority number two won’t surprise you. The Engineering Lab Building is a major need for the campus and a major remaining fundraising goal. It is absolutely on my mind to do every bit of effective work and cultivation to raise as much money as possible toward the $17 million still remaining to relieve the next chancellor of that worry. Realistically, there will still be money to raise, but I’d like to bring that down as much as possible.
A third priority has to do with diversity and inclusion. We are, regrettably, living through a period in our country where there are some really strong currents of hate, division, separation—which are not just happening on the fringe, but are happening in public discourse and happening through the statements of some of our top leaders. And that is very, very insidious—messages of hatred and division concerning Muslims, black people, gay people, Latino people, Mexican people. Our campus really prides itself on the inclusiveness and diversity of our student population. I take enormous pride in the institution that we have created the kind of community that is resilient, and it really does constitute itself as one community with many differences. I feel that we really need to focus in this current year on making sure the insidious effects of divisiveness, assaults on trust, assaults on any part of our community, that we are as well prepared as we can possibly be to buffer the challenges we face.
Finally, metropolitan impact has been a crucial part of the university’s efforts throughout my time as chancellor. And I believe that’s an entirely suitable vision and mission for the university. In a time of leadership transition, a lot of things are up for grabs, and I’m certainly interested in making sure that the metropolitan engagement, the metropolitan impact of the university is in the strongest possible place it can be so that when the next chancellor sits at this desk, she or he will be able to say, “Yes, that’s a great heritage for this campus. I’m eager to step in and deepen those relationships.”
Kettenbeil: You mention the new chancellor. Do you have any insider knowledge on how the search is going
Little: I have no knowledge whatsoever. The things that encourage me about the search, first of all, the committee is really first rate. About 80-90 percent of the committee is from the Dearborn campus. They’re all leaders who care about the campus, who understand the campus and its mission well, and who understand the challenges of being a good leader at our university.
Additionally, the fact that [U-M President] Mark Schlissel agreed to co-chair, to lead this process along with [UM-Dearborn Associate Dean, Undergraduate Education and Professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems] Ghassan Kridli is a hugely important sign—it signals this is really important to the whole University of Michigan. And I just really feel confident that very strong candidates will be brought to the process, and that we will wind up with an outstanding appointment.
Kettenbeil: At some point, a new chancellor is going to be named, and it’s fair to assume you’re going to spend some time with him or her. How are you going to start the conversation? What are you going to talk about?
Little: That’s a really excellent question. Many presidents have let me know the way in which you step away from your job is really crucial; that you really have to be sure that you’re following the lead of the incoming leader. And that is absolutely my goal.
What I want to do is be as available as possible, to be completely invisible and to be a resource, if needed, for the next chancellor—but also to leave that person with the ability to immediately pick up the leadership responsibilities and move off in the way she or he thinks best.
All of that said, it would be great if the incoming chancellor has some interest in having a conversation about the nature of Detroit metro; about some of the things that are really inspiring to me and to many of us; about being a key partner to many of the areas of progress in Detroit metro. Especially if you come from another part of the country, you might not have the idea of a metropolitan university, or of a university that has really strong connections to its city. And if I could help communicate why that feels like such an important and appropriate role for UM-Dearborn, in particular, I would be very happy to be able to do that. All of that said, it’s at the lead of the next chancellor.
Kettenbeil: Are you looking forward to anything in particular on July 1, 2018?
Little: The fact that I’ll have a leave for an extended period of time before I begin teaching and then having the opportunity to teach again—those are both things I’m really looking forward to. My full-year sabbatical was first awarded to me in 1996, so 21 years ago. I’ve been waiting for this sabbatical, and I know how really powerful a year or an extended period of time can be.
For a scholar who’s passionate about a lot of things, you really need the time in order to read and think and write and convene with other people. I’m really looking forward to that period of intensive thought and research, but there’s another aspect to it. Philosophy and social science has been my passion, my research influence for many years. I published a book in that area in 2016. In some ways I feel like that’s not what I want to do in my next bit, and what that implies to me is that a big piece of the coming year will be discovery. What are the areas of philosophy and the social sciences where I can make a contribution—that isn’t just an extension of things that I’ve already done, but is something new, at least for me?
Kettenbeil: What are you most proud of, looking back on your tenure as chancellor at UM-Dearborn?
Little: That’s a pretty easy question. There are many things that make me proud of this institution, but the thing that seems the most important is the progress our campus has made in the area of inclusion and diversity.
I began my service about a year before September 11, 2001. And of course that month, that half year was a very tough time for Muslims in the United States. Our campus stepped up in a really positive way; it stepped up as a place where Muslims were welcome, where there was no separation, no kind of alienation of the community. I was really proud of that.
I believe we have built enormously in the years since then. I feel that we have a culture of inclusion, a culture of mutual respect, a culture of avid interest in our students and learning from each other. That’s what I refer to as inclusion and respect. And that is something so powerful and important, and many universities haven’t gotten there.
I think we’ve been very fortunate we’re of a size that allows student organizations to have personal connections with each other; they’re not so separated across campus. But whatever the reasons are, we have an achievement of real, embodied inclusiveness on the campus that I feel very proud of. I don’t put it forward as my own accomplishment—I say that it’s something our campus can be really proud of.
There are many other things. I feel that we’ve really grown our ability to partner with metro Detroit. I feel the quality of faculty that we hire year after year—they are just so great, so involved, and in many instances involved in metropolitan and urban topics, or in really esoteric areas of physics, mathematics or high finance. The quality of this campus is, at least partially, determined by the quality of faculty we can hire. We are doing an excellent job of hiring really high-quality faculty.
Kettenbeil: How would you like your tenure as chancellor to be remembered by those around you? Anything in addition to what you shared?
Little: I’m tempted to say, “He didn’t mess it up.” It’s kind of hard to say because really it’s up to other people to decide what the impact is.
Many, many things have developed in the last 18 years, and we’ve taken on many initiatives. I think most of them have worked out well, like the purchase of the Fairlane Center—even the separation of the Fair Lane Estate from the university. I think we’ve taken collectively good decisions and then have laid the groundwork for future developments at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
One thing that I hope will be maintained in the coming 15 or 20 years is the university’s excellent relationship with Ann Arbor administration. I think the level of respect for UM-Dearborn is the highest it’s ever been. Our ability to collaborate, our ability to be a full and equal partner in many important initiatives, I think that’s a really important thing.
Kettenbeil: What has been your biggest challenge during your tenure as chancellor?
Little: We have had to maintain the progress of our campus in a time when state support for higher education, for us in particular, fell dramatically, and where there was increasing pressure on tuition increases. So, in other words, we were operating in a financial environment where it was very difficult to take on costly initiatives. And yet, I would say that the campus is stronger, better, more excellent and more able to support student access and student success than it was 10 or 15 years ago. That huge challenge of managing this important work of academic excellence, student success, student access, in the context of the financial constraints that we’ve faced, I take a lot of happy pleasure in the fact that we have managed it. We’re in good, good shape.
Kettenbeil: Is there anything you learned about being chancellor that wasn’t necessarily shared with you in your interview back in 1999 about the campus or about the role?
Little: I came from an excellent private liberal arts university, and I think the public mission of UM-Dearborn—of engaged public universities more generally—was something I understood and appreciated in an abstract sense before I arrived here.
Being here made me really passionate about the impact that our campus can have on first-generation families, families from a range of socioeconomic, racial and religious backgrounds. I learned how much of a powerful, powerful ingredient of social progress a university like UM-Dearborn can be. And therefore, I learned how absolutely worthwhile it is to give everything you’ve got to making it better, and to building the relationships and partnerships the university has with its community.
Kettenbeil: What has kept you here so long?
Little: In the first year I was here, I did a forum for faculty—maybe just CASL faculty—and a faculty member said, “Look. We understand about senior administrators. They come, they build a few buildings and they leave.” And I said, “You may not want to hear this, but I’ve come here for the rest of my career.” And that was really true.
I really came with the idea that this could be a lifework, and it has been a lifework. I’m very grateful for the reappointments I’ve received both from [Former U-M President] Mary Sue Coleman and [U-M President] Mark Schlissel, and grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of the success story that the campus is. Nothing could have been more satisfying for me than to be here through the end of my administrative career.
Kettenbeil: Anything you’d like to add?
Little: UM-Dearborn will always be a very special place for me. Of course my faculty appointment will continue here, but it’s also really true that as soon as I walk out that door it’s going to be a different place. I say, with great gratitude, how important it is to me that I’ve been enabled to be the chancellor here.