Podcast: Placemaking and belonging on campus

Michigan State University Interim President Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D., elaborates on some of the topics she covers in her May 2023 Spartan Community Letter, which you can read by clicking on the communications tab at president.msu.edu.

Could you start by reflecting a bit on commencement? And it was cool to see you with the tiny mic going around Breslin Center talking to some of our grads.

“Oh, it was so exciting, and I’d never known that tiny mic was a thing. I got to talk to a lot of students, and the really neat thing was to just see their spirit and their enthusiasm. They were excited for that beautiful graduation day. One of the things I did, Russ, is to ask them about their favorite places on campus, and they ranged from the front of Cowles House to the frog pond south of the tracks. I had a couple of people who told me about the frog pond, which I quite love as well, to places for meditation and places that they had been for their classes. It was a wonderful representation of the students love for this campus and this place.”

Placemaking is the theme in this month’s community letter. How do you define placemaking?

“I’m reading William Beal’s book on the founding of MSU, and it really is about place and about that place where people could come and learn. This is a place that remains a natural wonder, and we really want to protect the learning, living environment that is the campus. People gain wholeness and in fact in this last semester, of course, healing out of this campus and our campus places. So, the key for us is to really think about those spaces and places and how the new buildings are situated within that larger ethos of a place that is restorative but continues to evolve, and that’s what our campus is doing right now. It has the ability to accommodate the new evolution of the way in which we’re thinking and learning and doing while really holding fast and true to that beauty and that living, learning environment where we gather when we walk between those places and spaces.”

Talk about the freestanding multicultural center that we touched on last month, and what are some of the other facilities on the horizon?

“The groundbreaking for that multicultural center was so exciting with standing room only and a lot of folks pitching in to throw that first scoop full of sand to get that process going. And boy, they’re going fast over there. In addition, we have the dairy and greenhouses. Those are really teaching and learning facilities that we must have to enable the very best teaching within agriculture, which is our founding and necessary for the state of Michigan. We also are working on our digital innovation center, or EDIC, and this is a place where we’ll rebuild what it means to do engineering and digital innovation, scholarship and learning, and bring six colleges together. It’s inverting the model of having individual colleges. We’re bringing colleges together in this new model.

“Our new greenhouses are housing National Academy of Science members working on the scientific discoveries that could really sustain us and sustain this population into the future. We have the Student Recreation and Wellness Center that’s going to replace the IM West facility, and folks are really excited about that on this campus.”

MSU’s annual research and development expenditures grew to almost $760 million in fiscal year 2022. How are some of those funds going towards placemaking?

“These new buildings and facilities are going to house new faculty and students, and it’s in those facilities that we’ll be able to continue our upward trend and upward reach to the heights of research expenditure across not only the Big Ten, but literally in the nation.”

Our placemaking extends beyond the East Lansing campus to places like Flint, where you recently visited.

“I had the greatest time in Flint, and I really enjoyed that Norm Beauchamp and Aron Sousa were with me when I visited our Charles Stewart Mott Foundation work that’s happening there with Mona Hanna-Attisha. We are building a new community partners and research facility there that’s really exciting. I met some of the kids who are in that Flint downtown area and they are really excited about Michigan State University. I think I admitted a couple of six-year-olds or maybe even one that’s about four years old. So, just full disclosure, Russ, we’ve got some Flint kids that are coming to MSU in 2042, and I’m already excited to welcome them.”

We have the very first philanthropically named department in MSU’s history with the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation Department of Public Health.

“Public health is so critical as we saw through the COVID context and will continue to have an important way of enlivening the research we do. And particularly in Flint, we’re really thoughtful about public health not just being about what MSU researchers think we ought to do and then go do. This is a completely different model where during my visit we had all our community partners who are active participants in the work, folks who then say, ‘Well, this is what we need to know.’ In many ways, what we’re doing in Flint in health is what we’ve done in Extension in agriculture. We’ve really asked for and then developed the partnership that enables the best kind of thinking and therefore the best kind of work, and it’s that positive productive cycle that is so exciting in Flint and across all of Michigan.”

You also recently had some opportunities to recognize and celebrate the achievements of our amazing staff and faculty.

“The key for me is that Michigan State has been celebrating its employees for nearly half a century. This is not a new one off. This is a place that really values every single individual who is part of this whole ecosystem, and I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks they themselves are above and beyond each other. Whatever part we play within this orchestra that is Michigan State University, we play our parts as well as we can. And in the end, it’s a beautiful symphony.”

Ensuring the safety of university community members is another vital element of MSU’s placemaking for wellbeing. You were recently pleased to welcome a new vice president for civil rights and Title IX education and compliance, Laura Rugless. Tell us about Laura and her important role.

“Laura comes from Cornell. She’s a veteran and brings an incredible sense of the ways in which we need to focus on prevention and the ways we respond to actual discrimination and sexual violence and misconduct. The folks that I talked with think of her as an ethical people-driven leader. I shared with her this morning that on my computer is a little yellow sticky that says, ‘Today is my favorite day.’ I offered to her that every day at MSU is my favorite day, no matter what comes. And I offered that hopefulness and that positivity to her. She embraces MSU, and I’m excited for what her leadership will bring to campus.”

You have a bit of a travel advisory for Spartans and others visiting camping this summer.

“We’ve got some traffic detours. As you traverse the campus, you’ll have to make some detours, but it’s really wonderful. I really like the terrestrial cranes. There are a lot of cranes that are building some of our new buildings, but you’ll also see cranes going overhead as we did over graduation; they were headed north. Cranes in the air and cranes on the land really represent the natural and physical beauty of this campus. I invite people to come in this summer. Come to Summer Circle Theatre. Come to just walk in the Beal Garden. Come to see the frogs in the frog pond on the south side of the tracks. There are just so many great places to be and to be present within this great and storied institution.”

Results of research you and your husband Tom O’Halloran worked on were recently reported in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. The research looked at the role of zinc in follicle development and how scientists use X-ray beams to determine the role of zinc in development of ovarian follicles.

“It represents some profound biology. Before Tom and I collaborated – he was an inorganic chemist, and I’m a reproductive scientist – we collaborated on an area no one had ever thought to look at. We found that the egg, just before fertilization, takes up 20 billion zinc atoms. If it doesn’t take up that amount of zinc atoms over a 12-hour period of time, it can’t progress to fertilization and then onto an embryo. At the time of fertilization, the zinc is exported from the egg in this big explosion we call the zinc spark.

“That zinc spark means that the subordinate sperm cannot actually then come in and have what’s called polyspermy. Nobody knew any of this before that work. Tom and I with my last graduate student, Alison Tange, did some work to look at the very earliest stages of follicle development. We used one of the most sophisticated microscopes in the world at Argonne National Labs that Tom actually helped build in order to really look at the zinc and all the other metals in these early follicles. It really was the perfect bridging of new technology and this biology. Again, nobody would’ve looked for these signatures of life except for that interaction, and it really is just some of the most exciting discoveries that basically happens to all of us at the first moment of conception. I’m just really excited that it has been published.”

What are your final thoughts as we really dive into the summer.

“I’m excited for everyone to come back to this great campus. The Red Cedar is beautiful, and the trees are in full bloom. During graduation, I think every tree on campus was in peak. MSU is a wonderful place to live and work. I think back on our history of 168 years and know that we are preserving our storied historical campus, but continuing to evolve with what we need to ensure the next generation of students has that great experience that so many have had in the past.”

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