SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. (AP) — Sometimes it’s a crooked path that takes us to different places.
For one man, that path led through several areas before ending up at his current location.
Thomas Pleger, the new president at Lake Superior State University, did not realize he would end up in the Sault, even though he only lived about four hours away, The (Sault Ste. Marie) Evening News (http://bit.ly/1vze99G ) reported.
“I grew up in Marinette,” he said of his Wisconsin home that borders on the Upper Peninsula city of Menominee. “My mother ran a little tour company. When I was in junior high, I always came with her to the Sault, so I knew a little bit about this corner of the Great Lakes.”
Even though he would make those trips with the various tour groups, he did not realize there was a school in the area.
“I didn’t know the U.P. had three public universities here when I was in high school,” the university president said. “I learned about Lake State when I was in grad school. When I really learned about this place was when I was in Baraboo (at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County).”
Little did Pleger know that his introductions would lead to a position at the smallest university in the Upper Peninsula.
“My research is the upper Great Lakes. While at grad school in Wisconsin, I got to know a lot of the archaeologists from the area, so I had a little bit of connection to the area,” he said. “Baraboo was a mecca for geology. Periodically, I would get calls to do lectures. In 2008 or 2009, I got a call from a prof at Lake State to come do a lecture.”
From there, as they say, the rest was becoming history.
“I wasn’t really looking for a job when the position came open,” Pleger said. “I had 20 years in the Wisconsin University system. The search firm had a conversation with me early on.”
The new president said it was not a good time “to go off and do something different.” He said they talked again and asked him to submit his materials.
He said the university he came from was small so there are similar challenges facing LSSU that faced Baraboo when he arrived.
“Enrollment needed to grow, campus was short on faculty, there were needed facility updates and the campus need to grow its reach,” Pleger said. “Part of the reason responding to this opportunity was that it got to a point that it (Baraboo) was running so well internally that I could focus a lot of my efforts externally. I was very comfortable and looking for new things to do.”
He said with the similarities he already has dealt with, there are other challenges, but he had to get the job first.
“I had the initial first round of interviews in Detroit,” Pleger said. “I told my wife it couldn’t hurt to go over and talk. I thought it went OK and I made some interesting connections there.”
Even though Pleger thought things went well, he told his wife Teresa he thought a job offer would be made to someone else.
“Pat (Egan) called me and told me they were interested in me,” he said. “That is when we started to have a serious conversation. What impressed us was the search team invited both of us to come to campus. We were impressed with how welcoming the people were.”
If that wasn’t enough to seal the deal, then Trustee Rod Nelson and his wife traveled to Baraboo to talk to Pleger and his wife.
“What interested me was it seemed like a small public university with a lot of hands-on experience and an unusual array of programs for its size,” Pleger said. “It is similar to my hometown.”
Since he has been on campus for just over seven weeks, the new president said the campus really needs to grow its enrollment.
“This reminds me of a small private institution. This could be a very easy sell,” he said. “There is an amazing setting, three Great Lakes and an international border. We should be pulling students in from further away. This is still kind of a hidden story outside of the immediate region. The fact that I grew up in Marinette and didn’t know about Lake State is kind of a testament to that.”
Pleger said the university should possibly switch its strategy and instead of recruiting in the south, go west and north to areas like northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada.
“Four percent of the campus population is non-traditional. That is incredibly low. I am coming from an area that had 30 percent,” he said. “We need to see when classes are offered and what support structures are in place. We need to provide extra support and create a pathway that is friendly and allows those students to succeed.”
One of his first goals is to improve communications.
“Bringing the campus together and moving together as a team is an important part of my tenure. Everyone on campus is responsible for recruitment and retention. Marketing that you have a university in town is a big plus. How can the university and community work together in marketing?” he asked. “We need to crystallize and focus the messaging; target to specific programs; come up with creative ways to reach for the students. I am really quite surprised for a campus this small that people feel that communication is somewhat constrained. That has to be addressed right away so you can build consensus. I like feedback. I want the campus to feel like I work for them.”
The new president said he is excited and impressed with the university.
“What I have seen is a lot of dedicated people. I am impressed with the kinds of scholarship going on. I am impressed with the grounds. It is a very attractive campus,” Pleger said. “I get excited with the new students coming in. The excitement about being at a university is that you are in college forever and you get paid to do it. The start of school brings the campus comes back to life. This is the first time we get to live on a campus as an employee instead of a student.”
Information from: The Evening News, http://www.sooeveningnews.com