Returning home to Michigan: Mary Schutten brings years of experience in education, leadership

Provost Mary Schutten speaks with students at the "Pizza with a Professional" event on Aug. 20 near Rose Ponds.

After more than 30 years of working in higher education, with 11 years as a dean or associate dean, Mary Schutten decided it was time to try leading a university as its provost.

The dean of the College of Health and Human Services at San Jose State University applied to a variety of universities that were hiring provosts. She was familiar with Central Michigan University, having grown up in the Great Lakes State. The more Schutten began researching the universities she applied to, the more CMU appealed to her. 

"The more I looked into it and the more I connected, the more it seemed like a good fit," she said. 

Her career in education began 40 years ago when Schutten received her teaching degree from Calvin College and moved to Bellflower, California to teach at a high school. At first, Schutten was hesitant about moving to California, but her dad encouraged her to.

"He said, 'You'll always wish you did it. If you don't do it now, life will unfold and you may not get that experience,'" she said.

She taught math and physical education, and she also coached women's sports.

Schutten began working at a liberal arts college in Iowa after receiving her master's degree. 

"There was supposedly a glut of teachers at that time, but I was very appealing because of my degrees in math and physical education," she said. "PE appealed to people who wanted to fill coaching spots."

Eventually, she moved back to Michigan. She taught at Calvin College, Western Michigan University and Grand Valley State University. Schutten's first administrative position was at GVSU when she was promoted to associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

She served as an associate dean at GVSU for six years before heading back to California to serve as dean of the College of Health and Human Services at San Jose State University.

In December 2018, former Provost Michael Gealt announced his plan to step down from his position. A month later, President Bob Davies appointed a search committee to find CMU's next provost. Schutten was invited to speak at a candidate forum April 26, where she discussed interdisciplinary programs and involving departments in budget conversations. The university announced her hiring as CMU's next provost on May 2, 2019.

"She's proven her ability to tackle issues, to have straightforward conversations and to serve as a leader while also developing leadership in others," President Bob Davies said in a press release. "She's a strong advocate for all parts of the academic division and has a creative, innovative and collaborative approach."

Although she had to say goodbye to the California beaches, Schutten is excited to be back in Michigan. 

"It's more about the work and how it will fulfill me, not necessarily about the geography," she said. She is excited to live closer to family now.

Schutten said she began seriously considering CMU as an opportunity just a few weeks after the job position was posted. 

"It seemed like an exciting place to be," she said. "I began looking at it more thoroughly, and the three imperatives of student success, scholarly work and community engagement are really important to the work I have done."

Since she took over as Executive Vice President and Provost on July 1, Schutten has been soaking in as much information as she can about the university. On what she calls her "looking and listening tour," Schutten hopes to visit every single department at the university.

On her tour so far, Schutten has identified a few areas where CMU excels, and others that could use improvement. She said she is impressed by the amount of nationally-ranked programs and the scholarly research happening on campus.

"There are so many exciting things going on here," she said. "We should try to scale that up a little bit and show the world what we're doing."

As for challenges, Schutten acknowledged the issue of recruitment. CMU, like other universities in Michigan, has had a decline in enrollment for nearly a decade. Schutten said it is important to be creative in dealing with issues like recruitment and retention.

"Most people think that when we say, 'do more,' that they have to work overtime or do lots of things, but that's not necessarily true," she said. "We just have to work better and look at ways we can use and share resources."