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Nurturing a Total Life: A Conversation with Ferris' Provost

Fritz EricksonFritz Erickson has been Ferris’ provost and vice president for Academic Affairs since July 1, 2009, having spent the previous six years as dean of the College of Professional and Graduate Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Erickson has also served as dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Eastern Washington University, chair and professor of Education and Psychology at Michigan Technological University and senior educational consultant for the Colorado Department of Education. He is founding president of the National Alternative Education Association and chairs the Joint National Conference on Alternatives to Suspension, Expulsion and Dropping Out of School. Ferris Magazine talked with Erickson about nurturing academic innovation, student success and why wearing a Ferris hat can slow down fast food.

Ferris Magazine: For the past several months the university has been conducting a review of its academic structure. What prompted that, and what do you hope the review will accomplish?

Fritz Erickson: The opportunity to review our academic structure came about because we have so many interim deans. This is a pretty rare event at any university. When I arrived we had an interim dean in the library, which we still have. Then three senior deans retired all at once, which almost never happens, and we had the tragedy of [Allied Health Sciences Dean] Ellen Haneline’s passing. That brings us to five. We could have simply filled those positions and maintained our current structure with little discussion. However, if we did that we would have walked away from the opportunity to at least ask, “Is the academic structure we have today the structure we need for tomorrow?” The answer may very well be “yes,” but at least we have asked the question and collectively thought about it.

When you sit down and analyze our structure there’s an interesting paradox. We have 10 deanships — nine academic colleges and the library. For an institution our size, the typical number is between five and seven. However, we also have three rather unique colleges — our College of Optometry, which is the only one in the state, and our College of Pharmacy, which is the only one in west Michigan. Then we have the College of Engineering Technology, which not a lot of universities have. So if you take those out of the mix, we’re really not all that uncommon.

FM: What is the university’s time-frame for completing the review?

FE: We spent much of the fall semester talking about the process because the process needs to reflect our history, our values and our aspirations. We wanted a process that fully engaged our academic community that was open, honest and transparent, with no preconceived outcome in mind. The president and I jointly went to every college to solicit ideas for the process and got terrific suggestions. I also took time to see how other institutions undertook similar reviews. With a process in place, the goal is to complete the review by the end of the year. However, it’s more important that we get it right than we get it fast, so if we need more time we will take more time.

FM: In addition to the changes we’ve seen in leadership at the various colleges, we have seen a real evolution in course offerings at Ferris. How does the University decide which programs to add?

FE: This is not an overstatement — I have never seen an institution that is as academically flexible and nimble as Ferris State University. We have a tradition that allows our faculty to think of new, innovative programming and a process that fully vets the idea within the university, which enables us to launch new programs and enroll students very quickly. We witnessed this year the creation of the Sports Communication minor. Faculty sat down and came up with a terrific idea last spring, and we’re enrolling students this spring. It’s that fast. That nimbleness is the envy of a lot of my colleagues across the country, and it generates the unique kind of programs we have at Ferris, including new programs in Sustainable Architecture, Community College Leadership and many others.

FM: There has been discussion at the university of establishing an “academic incubator.” What would that entail and how would it fit in with our existing academic structure?

FE: We have faculty members who come up with new and innovative ideas. That led to the idea of creating an academic incubator — a place for academic innovation. You can’t support an academic incubator in a climate that doesn’t support academic innovation, but you can at an institution that has a history of that support. Frankly, I don’t think a lot of universities could do what we are considering, but we have the history in which this could be the next logical step.
Also, we have seen a growing interest in cross-college collaboration for new program development. For example, we have had great discussions between the College of Business and the College of Engineering Technology for creating a new bachelor’s degree in Concrete Industry Management in partnership with our friends at Alpena Community College. Alpena is a world leader in concrete masonry, and this program would advance the Alpena region and the state as a whole. We visited Alpena to see what they were doing, and came away thinking this is going to be one of those truly signature programs.

FM: This past year the university held several discussions about student success and what that means. That seems like the ultimate yardstick by which a university is measured.

FE: Yes, and there are a lot of different definitions of success. When we ask our students their own definitions of success, sometimes they differ from ours. For them, right now, it might be, “I hope I pass this math class.” Or, “I want to get through this weekend’s assignments.” Beyond that, they want to come out of the institution not only with a great job and a great career, but a great life. We supply that foundation. I talk to so many people who are graduates of Ferris who speak glowingly about their academic experience, and just beam when they talk about their student life and social experience. Recently, I asked an alumnus about his fondest memory of Ferris, and he turned to his wife and said, “I met her.” That’s not unique to Ferris, but it is part of the total life we try to nurture.

FM: Every few months there’s a news story about some violent incident on a college campus. Is that a concern at Ferris?

FE: We have an obligation to assure that our students are safe – not only here in Big Rapids, but in the 16 other sites we partner with around the state. We take very seriously the kinds of things we can do to promote safe and healthy learning environments. My wife and I have lived in a lot of different places. She thinks the students at Ferris are among the most engaged and happy students we’ve seen anywhere. That does not happen by accident. That happens because we have a faculty that deeply care not only about academics, but the social well-being of students. As a community we have the obligation to look out for one another. I get the sense that happens at Ferris better than at other places. I talk to our international students about why they come to Ferris and the answer I get, time and time again, is that this is a safe and welcoming place.

FM: The majority of Ferris Magazine readers are alumni. Anything you want to say to them?

FE: I deeply appreciate the support our alumni provide and the identification they have with Ferris. People look at their time and experience here as transformative. I often wear my Ferris baseball cap when I’m traveling. I was in a Subway in Manistique not too long ago and I had hoped to run in, grab a sandwich and get back on the road. I couldn’t get out quickly because there were customers who saw my Ferris hat and just had to share their experiences at Ferris and what it meant to them. We talked for 20 minutes, and as with so many other alumni, they told me how their experiences at Ferris impacted not only them, but their families and now their children. We are a place of opportunity, and we hear these stories time and time again, which is why Ferris is such a very special place.