Michigan State University Interim President Teresa Woodruff spoke with ELi this week on topics that concern the university’s relationship with the East Lansing community. Woodruff shared her thoughts on the recent violent events downtown, the second year live-on requirement, and creating positive relationships between students living off-campus and other East Lansing residents.
Woodruff took over as interim president on Nov. 4 following a conflict between the MSU Board of Trustees and former President Samuel Stanley, a conflict which led to Stanley’s resignation. Woodruff is the fourth president in as many years to lead the university.
Woodruff had served as MSU’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs since 2020 and, before that, as the dean and associate provost for graduate education at Northwestern University. Woodruff is also a respected research scientist and was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Mentoring by President Barack Obama in 2011.
On safety downtown
Woodruff said she lives in downtown East Lansing, not far from where there have been shootings and a rash of other violent incidents this year. She stressed the importance of safety from the university’s perspective and said it isn’t only students impacted, but that many of the university’s faculty live in the city.
“One of the things that’s most important to all of us is that we have an ecosystem that allows all of us to be safe and be able to reach our full potential,” Woodruff said.
Woodruff pointed to the newly formed Proactive Engagement And Community Enhancement (PEACE) team as an initiative that will help increase safety. The team, announced in October, is a partnership between the East Lansing Police Department and the Michigan State University Department of Police and Public Safety.
The PEACE team’s mission is to stop crime before it happens and promote public safety and education through community events. The team is expected to address crimes through investigative methods, technology and analytics.
Woodruff also said it is important for all the different entities in the downtown area to work together to promote safety. She said she recently talked with City Manager George Lahanas and Mayor Ron Bacon, along with other community leaders.
“I’m really working to develop that relationship between the university and with the local community, as well as the broader community,” Woodruff said.
Specifically, Woodruff stressed the importance of the university continuing a dialogue and collaboration with city, county, community and faith leaders in the downtown area to ensure safety.
“It has to be all of us,” she said. “An ecosystem is a lot of parts, it’s not a singularity.”
On relations between off-campus students and other residents
Year-round East Lansing residents, particularly those living within a half-mile of campus, have raised concerns over the years about the relationships between them and students living off-campus. Conflicts can range from noise complaints about late-night parties to frustration with riots after sports games.
On this subject, Woodruff highlighted the work of the university’s Community Liaison Sue Webster and Assistant Vice President of Community Relations Janet Lillie. Both employees are tasked with fostering a positive relationship between the university and city.
“I talk with Sue Webster all the time,” Woodruff said. “I see her walking across East Lansing a lot. I’m a waver and a handshaker, so I get to chat with her quite a bit when we’re out and about.”
Woodruff said she doesn’t want students to view their neighbors as the “grumpy old man from UP” and that the opportunity for students to learn from neighbors from different generations can be exciting. She said she’d like to amplify the stories of students who have good relationships with other residents.
“I would love to elevate and lift up the stories of the intergenerational learning that occurs every day across this great city,” Woodruff said. She added that highlighting positive interactions can encourage students to seek healthy relationships with their neighbors.
Woodruff continued to say she doesn’t want to downplay problems students sometimes cause in residential areas and expressed confidence in her staff to handle those issues.
“It’s not to sugarcoat the fact that there are times when a burning couch really is horribly disruptive, and so Janet and Sue and others work in that way,” she said.
On the second year “live on” requirement
The MSU class that arrived on campus in the fall of 2021 is the first to be subject to an enforced second year “live on” policy that requires second year students to reside on campus. There are some exemptions, including exceptions for students who live in university-approved Greek Life houses.
The policy has changed the East Lansing housing market, as there are thousands fewer students looking to rent houses and apartments off campus. It has also changed the demographic of students living off campus, as the off-campus student population is now on average older, more mature and closer to graduation.
Woodruff said the policy is a part of a plan to create a more stable environment for students.
“I think what we did was try and enable the most enriched environment in which students could succeed and part of that is through that two-year live on requirement,” she said.
“We know if a student actually transitions [successfully] between the first and second years, their likelihood of graduating is very, very high,” Woodruff continued.
Woodruff said there are no plans to change the second year live on requirement, but that there are still pieces in motion to create a better environment for students.
“We’re working very hard to get that equation right,” she said. “There’s changing student behaviors, changing student interests and we’re working across all those domains.”
On her future
Woodruff currently serves as president on an interim basis, which means her hold on the position could be short-lived if the board looks elsewhere to fill the position long-term.
Woodruff spoke highly of the university, but stopped short of saying if she is interested in dropping the interim tag.
“This is a great university with great underlying strengths that I try to magnify and my hope is that every day I can do that and the rest is up to the board,” she said. “That will be its own process. But I am focused on the day-to-day of running this university.”