Andrew Martin and Jeff Sorensen

Recorded October 26, 2017 Archived October 26, 2017 32:28 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: ddf000210


Jeff (28) interviews Dean Andrew (45) about his vision as a leader at University of Michigan and his innovative apporach to higher education.

Subject Log / Time Code

AM talks about the most important person in his life which is his wife.
AM on how every student should take responsibility for their education and their success and take initiative in changing the world.
AM on providing 17,000 undergrad students an optimal education at University of Michigan.
AM on the importance of collaborative environments.
AM on where he sees himself in 10 years.


  • Andrew Martin
  • Jeff Sorensen

Recording Location

University of Michigan

Venue / Recording Kit

Partnership Type

Fee for Service


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00:01 Hello, I'm Jeff Sorensen. I'm co-founder of optimize and director for social Innovation here at the College of LSA at the University of Michigan. I am 28 years old as of last week. And today's date is October 26th. 2017. I'm here in Ann Arbor, Michigan with Andrew Martin the dean of the College of LSA. And we've been working together for three years three years since Dean Martin came in and started his tenure at LSA and really decided that social Innovation is important priority for the direction of the college and that's the work that we are doing. So we've been working together on those initiative since then thanks sweet reduction Jeff. My name is Andrew Martin. I am 45 years old. It's the same day as what you have said October 26th. 2017. And I too am in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I've known Jeff since I began as dean of the College of literature science and the Arts at just over three years ago.

01:01 Jeff is involved in our optimized program and really important member of our undergraduate Education team.

01:08 All right, so I guess I'll just start asking two questions. So what's up? I'm going to start with some of my own questions when I might kind of dig into some of these that they have a suggestions on butt.

01:22 Actually, I'll start with one of these and then I'll get into my own cuz I think it was kind of interesting who's been the most important person in your life.

01:32 Do the most important person in my life is my wife Stephanie. I'm at Stephanie when I was a graduate student over over 20 years ago and we decided to go off on an adventure together. We move from Seattle to Seattle area where she had lived her entire life to a long island where I taught at Stony Brook University for a couple of years and then we moved to st. Louis where I was for 14 years on the faculty at Washington University until we moved to Michigan in 2014. And you know, she's my partner and you know, she allows me to do the crazy things that I have to do as dean of this fabulous College, you know, she's someone who will make sure that my head doesn't grow too big keep me in place and you know, she also works really hard to ensure that the my life outside of other colleges as full and rich as possible.

02:30 Beautiful I think cuz I might have just gotten into it not just I've been in a relationship now for about 2 years and then finding something what kind of things of how you know, the work life is one thing in the way that I connect with people. There is one thing but there's kind of having kind of a stable place to go to afterward as there's a really nice thing. Do you find it but she can't actually helps you balance the way they were thinking about things with your work also or is it? Oh absolutely. She's a great sounding board. And then if I should be a great higher ed consultant because she knows alot going on in in in higher education, you know, because of all the things that we've done all of the things that we've done together and it just last week I had an opportunity to go in and meet with students in one of our applied liberal arts courses one of our internship courses and you know, they asked me what the hardest part of my job was the hardest part of my job is balancing.

03:30 Possibilities at the University with having some semblance of a life at home, right and and that's not Stephanie's responsibility. And that's my responsibility to figure that out. But we work together in order to keep to make sure that when I'm away. I'm at least somewhat away. Yeah, that's interesting talents. I know it is for me even kind of with all the Strategic things that are going out of my head directions that I'm trying to go with optimized and myself and all the relationships that I have to manage and take that number and multiply it for you cuz she loves even more relationships to manage. How do you personally do that? When you're we know you kind of have this other domain you're at your home life in your personal life. How do you

04:15 I'm sure you don't have it figured out all the way nobody does but you know, John Wooden UCLA basketball coach said that he kind of developed over the course of his career away of not taking the worries that he had about the team in Homer in his personal life and I'm not figured out exactly how to do that yet. But I'm kind of curious like how do you do that? Well, I do it very poorly. It is very difficult. It's it's very difficult to totally disconnect and of course in in certain types of situations, it is a 24 by 7 job, right? And I never know when I'm going to get a phone call. I never know when I'm going to need when I get an email. Ron is going to drop everything right and and and attend to something and that's going to be true leader of any organization of the size of the College of literature science and the Arts. You know, what I try to do is that when I'm when I'm at home and I have to do some work stuff. I try to get away sneak off to my home off.

05:15 To do what I've got to do and then and then leave the other thing that I'm able to do almost every day. I'm even in the winter time in Ann Arbor is that I walk to work and the ability to have a 15 or 20 minute walk from my front porch to my office at the beginning of every day right across central campus. Right? So I'll be able to often times see colleagues and students and friends and then do to have that reversed walk at the end of everyday sort of in a physical way gives me a little bit of distance, but I can tell you that the Hat my happiest walk walks home are the days and which not everything is under control because not everything is never under control but the days in which I'm ready for the next day. I don't think there's going to be anything pressing and that I can just go home and relax with my family doesn't happen very often but but it. But when it does it's a real blessing. So how would you describe your

06:15 Style as Dean I would describe my style and in a couple of ways, so I think the thing that's really at the top of the list for me and the reason why I wanted to do this job in the first place is collaboration, right? So I view my Approach is collaborative. I mean, I don't mean it is a hierarchical organization, but I don't I don't lead I think is a hierarchical leader. I mean like my job is to empower everybody in the college right our students or faculty in our staff to do the very best work that they can and to work with them to achieve whatever their goals are and you know that takes place in a lot of different ways. But I think I'm going to take collaborative is a word that I would put at the top of the list. I think I also lead with very high standards and I want to work with the very best people right who are entirely committed to what we're doing is a college and I don't have a lot of patience for folks who are you know, just willing to do the minimum, you know do what's in the job description.

07:15 And that's it. Right and I think that I think you know the success that that we've had in the college over. The last many years is the ability to to attract really talented passionate people that I get to work with every day that you get to work with every day. And I think that's another Another Part another part of my leadership style. The third thing I'd say is transparency. It's really important regardless of the size of the organization to it to be as transparent as one can witch on certain things. Of course, you can't be entirely transparent about when you going to make a decision right to be able to explain the decision give reasons. Everyone's not going to agree but at least the but at least lay it out there now so so so so so those affected can understand where you're coming from music by the three words that I use I think I am coming from the perspective of working with you. I agree with that and I think that's part of the reason why

08:13 Dork that we're trying to do has been flourishing with you is Dean and I think you know, I'm not just saying that I really tell other people about that too because I think that the kind of collaborative work. We're trying to do with optimized trying to change existing situations in some cases which can sometimes be challenging and difficult. But ultimately like you said being transparent about the fact that it's difficult but it is necessary. Sometimes when I tell friends who are working in other large bureaucratic institutions that what we're doing in the kind of support that we're getting people to like your getting like high-level support for there's no way one of the things in one of the things that I love about optimize and I'm sure that you will dig into this later on in this discussion, but when I first learned about optimize, I mean to you and your co-founder like you guys had a huge idea

09:09 Right and you worked your tails off that to make it work and every time we have a conversation that your ideas are getting bigger and bigger and bigger and of course, sometimes we have to dial this back a little bit right for practicality reasons, but I really like the fact right that you have such a that you have that you have a really expansive view of what optimize can be right and they're bringing that not only on two students on this campus, but actually beginning to bring it to students on campus all across the country and I think that's really exciting. What is it? That's so exciting to you, you know, but besides kind of expensive nature of optimized and I realize that anyone listen to this doesn't really know what optimized is described it off to my sis. Sure. It's your baby. Yeah. So optimizes an organization that my co-founders and I started when we were undergraduate students here at Michigan.

10:04 Kind of out of frustration that we thought that students could really be doing a lot more with our time as us undergraduate students. We are in this place where amazing people come together have access to resources that are really rare to be able to have them all in one place like this and time to do really interesting things pair that with all the massive challenges out in the world and it was we thought it was really a shame that we were spending. What we had was still too much time just reading papers and taking tests and answering questions that people already knew the answers to doing things that people were asking us to do rather than really asking students. What would you like to change if you could maybe it's a an issue that so difficult that there's no clear answer but could we start working to create our own projects that start to advance toward a better answer and start to illuminate possibilities for how the future could be. So we've

11:00 We started as a student organization helping students mobilize their own projects everything from Urban farming nonprofits to Virtual Reality startup companies and now have worked up about 2,000 students. And the reason that we've been able to reach that scale at Michigan is because after about a year when we started talking, you know, you and your team and Angela Dillard and the associate Dean here said, you know, this shouldn't just be on the fringes as a student organization now that you guys have graduated. Let's hire you and create this department for social Innovation, which it never existed before and that's really allowed us to add this full-time staff component to what we're doing and get more students than ever involved. We had 210 projects emissions this year, which is the, you know, incredible to see that that kind of energy and so that's what we're doing. But I'm curious from your perspective. You know, what what's so exciting about it for you, I guess both of you first heard about it, but also now having worked with us for three years. Yeah. There's

12:00 Is there a couple of different levels which I think make the project? I really exciting. So just start with the undergraduate student experience. Right when we when we bring undergraduate students at the University of Michigan, right? Our goal shouldn't have a transform transformational intellectual experience. And we do that in a number of different ways. Maybe do that through traditional classroom learning. I mean one of the things that we do because we're such a great a great research University with breath of Excellence across all of our schools and colleges is we give students an opportunity to participate in research rights and not just we're not just passing knowledge onto our undergraduate students were actually involving their undergraduate students and knowledge creation.

12:38 Optimize is doing right and optimizes a type of experiential learning right rather than learning in a classroom learning in a laboratory optimize is all about is getting students out there. Got to give it a go, right and these types of minutes a laboratory in a sense. Right? We'll have it exactly the world is the laboratory students can experiment and and I like those for the rigorous way in which you lead students through this project development phase and then a down select and sort of those things get refined and ultimately were able to support on the fair number of these projects that actually launch and go out into the world $200,000 in funding. Yeah, which is which is fabulous. Absolutely fabulous right after this is an opportunity for our students going to get out there and try things right in his innocence. They're going to learn how to be members of a team right there going to be there going to learn how to drive innovation.

13:33 They're going to learn how to fail right they're going to learn how to run a run up against the wall and figure out how to run around it. And in all of those things are incredibly important skills that that our students are are going to need in the rest of their lives. Right? And so one of the things that's one reason, I really like optimize the other one of the other reasons why I really like what's going on in optimizing and social Innovation more General rise. It takes a different approach to our society's biggest problems, right? So you can look at Society, political scientists. And so I should have let you know. I always tend to look at things to a political economy lens. You look across in our society. We have lots of very significant problems right in one thing we can think of citizens is what somebody else's problem to deal with right? Well if that's the case nothing's ever going to get any better write another time in another approach is to say well that's government's responsibility write in a can't be the case of government responsible for all of the problems in the world. In fact, some of the problems were created.

14:33 Government, right and what's nice about social Innovation is it is really giving our students agency? Right? I mean we're empowering our students to look at the world to try to find a problem in our students are not at least in the first instance going to solve poverty or the opioid crisis today, right they may do so in 20 or 30 years. I'll be able to look at the world to find a problem and then to work on it in a way outside of existing institutional structures, right that's very empowering for our students. But I think ultimately is also going to lead to better Solutions, but imagine a world in which everyone looks out at the world tries to see a place where we're not serving others in a way that they should be served. Right and rather than you know, rather than saying. Well that's too bad right to be able to step out and actually do the work to help those individuals. Right? And that's what's happening in Social Innovation. And then again, so it's about with the students are getting

15:33 I'll bet it's also the approach to problem-solving a really really important problems and the phrase that's the kind of guiding phrases to ask yourself. Why not me a problem and you think someone needs to do something exactly. It's all about stepping up its about agency, right? It's about owning. It's about owning what's out there in the world and doing what we can to make the world a better place and if you think about what a model citizen looks like in a modern democracy write a model citizen citizen in a modern democracy is someone who's willing to step up take responsibility and work for the greater good if we all did that this would be a far is would be a far better place. And do you think that you know, there's this be read the book excellent sheep or heard about that. Do you know Jeff you told me about this book at least two or three times and I haven't read it yet. Yeah. It's in my pile part of the the arguments from

16:28 I think there's some irony in the fact that his former Yale Professor, but he talks about how college is not doing a good enough job preparing students for finding a direction. That is there's rather than just following whatever they think they should do jumping through the next hoop. And that's the kind of Eid excellent sheep. It's you know, you're very well prepared very well credentialed very skilled in a lot of ways but haven't actually figured out how to ask yourself. What do I care about? And what do I want to do and and he makes the case that it's not so much the the problem that students aren't prepared with with skills training. It's it's that they don't actually have that internal intrinsic motivation for how to apply it. And so if you know whether it's taking on a social problem or joining, you know the workforce if you don't have an intrinsic sense of how you actually want to apply your skills.

17:20 He said, you know, this is why I think at the time of the book like 60% of Princeton graduates went into finance and he was like this not that 60% of them love Finance, you know, maybe 20% of them to put the others basically just didn't have a sense of what they could do and what they cared about and you think that's a fair critique and if so, you know, what or what do you think can be done to address that? Oh, I think it's it's a completely Fair could take and it's actually one that's probably more germane for the College of literature science and the Arts which is a comprehensive Liberal Arts and Sciences College, then it is for more professionally oriented a school or college. You know, I think a part of our roles as part of our role as a university is to help Empower our students. I find a sense of purpose.

18:11 What is it that they want to spend the rest of their life? So what are they want to spend the next phase of their life? Come on, and of course our curriculum does that for some students write a particular students who are interested in researcher interested in graduate education, you know, a lot of them could find their path. I'm inside the walls of our departments and inside of our classrooms and that's great for students aren't going to do that even a great research University like Michigan. And so I think it's part of our responsibility to help our students do this in lots of different ways. And I think the thing that we know is the is there a couple of values write 1 values exploration, right? It's really important to not just come to a place like Michigan and then in and follow a single path of it really to have a breadth of experience and when we bake that into our curriculum and every time I talk to her undergraduate student encourage them to take coursework all over the college to explore different student organizations different opportunities.

19:11 Because you know if you if you don't cast a wide net that you may not find the thing that's going to really drive you going forward rights of the so so so that the exploration is really important. We also know that experiential learning is really important right in order to try to find what it is. You want to spend your time doing it turns out it's useful to go try and do it right kind of obvious. Right but it's but that's but that's really important. Right as we were students interested in doing research, you know spending time in our library is working with our humanities faculty or spending time in the Laboratories working with faculty in the medical school or what are natural science department to me that's really great experiential learning for a research career. But if that's not what you want to do, right? It's probably a good thing to try on what it would be it would it be like to go work on Wall Street or to work in a law firm to work in a nonprofit or work as an educator right and in so what we can do as a college to provide those types of opportunities within our curriculum with a narco curriculum.

20:11 And make sure that is happening outside of the curriculum as well. That's going to serve our students all the better write an optimized an important part of that ecosystem. We have an LSA. I think if if you look the matically at what we've been doing as a college, they over the last decade and undergraduate education write this has been front-and-center for us. And I think it really was one of the reasons that drives the popularity of what we're doing because students realize they can come here and get that world-class education and at the same time be put in situations where they can really explore what does opportunities are as kind of the future of this. You know, how do we how do we see this moving forward? And obviously, this is something we're not going to have all the answers but it seems to me that you know in my my experience is more focused on optimize where is yours is more focused on the College of the whole, but it seems to me that we're

21:07 Not exactly scratching the surface but we're definitely have not, you know gotten to the the depths of the potential here for mobilising more students into these kind of experiences. But there is there some challenges that to you know, and that there's only 24 hours in a day students have all different kinds of constraints. How do we think about moving this? I think that the type of stuff we're talking about right now. If this was 20 years ago, this would have been so far on the fringes that it couldn't leave you the dean of the college would not be having a conversation about this right right. Now we are you know, that's very exciting. What does it look like moving forward you think well where I'd like it to be moving forward is a world in which at least in the College of literature science and the Arts of the University of Michigan that every one of our undergraduate students. I would have at least one significant experiential learning opportunity while they're here.

22:02 And that sounds pretty simple Until you realize we serve 17,000 undergraduate students write O scale is our scale is our our big challenge. There's another there's another systemic channel that has to do with access has lots of students who you know, lots of students who were supporting with financial aid. We just don't have the time right to be able to spend significant amounts of time outside of their outside of their coursework because of their family responsibilities because of jobs and those sorts of things that I think it's our responsibility as an institution out to be able to provide the resources. So every one of our students can take advantage of these opportunities, whether it's participating in optimize I'll having a rich study abroad experience. I taking a summer internship being able to spend time doing research with faculty members and I'd say that we're doing a pretty good job at that today at the University of Michigan, but we need we need to do better. I think a fundamental Challenge and higher education.

22:58 Particularly with regard to undergraduate education is how to differentiate what's happening on our residential campuses like the University of Michigan and small liberal arts colleges, right? How do we differentiate what's happening on our campuses? From what you can get online right through one of those vendors or through one of our community colleges. We are not in the commodity education business right optimized is not something that you can throw online. Right? Right and then teach in in in in distributed fashioned writing involves getting people together and in the same physical space at the same point in time at work together to drive a project and and so the fundamental challenge for higher education is how do we differentiate what we're doing rights of the people are going to continue to want to come here? Right? And I think that we are on the path of the University of Michigan up to doing that. There's lots of other campuses that are doing it.

23:58 Quite well, I'm better as we think about how do we serve this undergraduate student population. We need to be thinking about programmatically. How do we deliver at scale of these types of educational experiences? Yeah. Yeah, and I completely agree in and it's interesting. Think about how do we incorporate, you know digital tools into what we're doing but at a certain point being in a room with somebody working on a project it's very different then watching lecture online. And then I think that's part of what we're doing here. And that was actually part of our original kind of pitch was you know, that's why I optimize is not friends thing. It needs to be this is going to be the car of the future of the residential University in and of course this afternoon, I'm doing this moderation on the campus of the future, right we on with the president and I think that's going to be a big part of the focus of the student projects there is thinking about how do we incorporate Technologies while also making the biggest use of of the residential Focus?

24:58 Here in this chair today is it is because of this very Dynamic and I fell in love with doing research in the computer lab back when we had computer labs as a graduate student. I work collaboratively with a group of four or five of their graduate students. We've all co-authored together and have been lifelong friends and that intense collaborative environment doing research that ultimately led to my dissertation mother Publications in my first academic job. That's the model for how I like to do work and interesting ly over the course of my academic career with with co-authors and collaborators spread all over the country with time becoming finite administrative responsibilities getting more significant. I wasn't able to spend as much time in those collaborative environments. I'm in it turned out for me moving into leadership roles actually allowed me to go to be in those collaborative environment again, right and if I think about my day today to my day today now, right of course is which is just meeting meeting meeting meeting me.

25:58 Meeting meeting with lots of different people crises thrown with a few crises thrown in between butt butt on a daily basis. I get to work with great collaborative teams on all different types of strategic problems right in for me. That's the most satisfying type of work and I learned that as a graduate student right and that an innocent image sort of paradoxically led me away at least for the time being from a career as a scholar and an educator right to be an academic to work in academic administration because it allowed me to work with Roku smart committed people and a collaborative way and for me that's the most important Dynamic at least amount on a day-to-day basis. So taking a bit of a Segway off of that and recognizing we have a few minutes left. I'm going to indulge this process and ask a few questions that I'm just curious about. Okay, great. So I think it's

26:50 One of the most surprising and things about optimize when I talk to people around the country is the fact that this started as a student club and then the dean's in the University actually.

27:05 Let's make this a department and add a full-time staff component to what is still a student-led organization and created this collaboration and I think from you know from your perspective. I'm just curious. I don't think that there's many other Dean's

27:20 Here or around the country who wouldn't have nots who would have but who have hired 20-somethings to create a new department and and start creating out this this new Direction. What is the about me or about our team about this idea of having young people on staff working as you know and collaboration of students? What is it that made you do that and that excites you about that? We did it because they the idea was so compelling right? And we also know a couple of things right. The one thing that we know is it is very very difficult to sustain a student-led organization over a long. Of time right and organizations with your wildly successful in doing big important projects often times. Once the one of the founding leaders leave. It's just really difficult, right and until we knew there was something great happening with optimized and we were concerned that if we weren't if we weren't dinner

28:20 Analyze This that it was likely not not going to be able to be long-lasting and we thought that was a missed opportunity would be a missed opportunity for us students the other thing frankly as we also know that we're really lousy a commuting communicating with students who are in their late teens and early twenties and I think that that those in a sitting sitting where I said, I think that we believe that we would be good at communicating to are 18 19 20 year old selves, right? But of course that was like 25 years ago, right and it's different it's different today right into having having a having you and some other young folks who work on our team. I'm going to get with you and the out to my folks. We have a college connections team in LSA advancement and some other but we haven't, you know new graduates who are working for the college and then my Dean's fellow is someone who just graduated incomes and serves of college for a year, you know, it's great to have these people around because it allows us to bounce ideas off of the folks that are that are there closer to the end of

29:20 Experience when you're getting a little bit long in the tooth. So, you know, you may not let you know you're getting a little farther away. Is he as the years go by new technologies and everything right Generations, I think are getting smaller because of Technology. Absolutely. Absolutely. So what's in a one of the big things I think that we're doing here is talking a lot more about Vision than about, you know, just nitpicking at the the current state of things. Do you know what what is are kind of expensive vision for the future and if we just pursue that, you know, kind of like Ari weinzweig from Zingerman's talks a lot about your sat down with him, by the way ever, you know, I've met him I haven't had a deep conversation with him. I think you would enjoy enjoy that. Maybe I'll try to set that up but you know a lot about how if you just put forward a really expensive Vision, sometimes you can actually transcend the current problem.

30:20 I'm just remove that by going in a totally different direction. So it without a mind like Alyssa's close by asking you know, where do you see yourself in 10 years. And and what does that look like to you?

30:35 It's a complicated question because I can only serve in the store in this job for 10 years. I only have you know that the clocks ticking and I've only got six years left. I'd like to thank the 10 years from now that I'm doing on a daily basis what I'm doing today ride to that. I'm working with really talented professionals really talented faculty colleagues really great students to make to make the university and even an even better an even better place and he knows I think about you know my goals for the University of Michigan. It's it's it's pretty straightforward. Right? I mean if I would have stayed waiting what's it what would be my goal for the University of Michigan in the next decade or the next 25 years? It's simple we want University Michigan to continue to be the very best place for the very best people can do their very best work right now that's complicated in order to make sure that we're recruiting and retaining the very best right as complicated because we need to make sure that we've got a climate that empowering and allows people to rise to their full

31:35 Rise to their full potential and we need to have the resources available in order to make that possible, but but I think that's the goal that we continue to reach for as an institution. And and that's something that you know, I made I like to think about every day, and it's something that we're going to continue to drive forward on and I think that there's no better place to be doing the kind of work that optimizes do then here at LSA at Michigan, and of course open to all students not to tell us a student's, but I really appreciate being able to work with you, and I'm glad you had a chance to talk right now. No, thanks Jeff, and it's a real pleasure to have you on the team and you know, I continue to be impressed every time I learn about what optimizes up to next to me. You're all are doing really great things and in providing really transformative experiences for undergraduate students really grateful for that work. Well, thanks. Thank you.