EMU President: “My Advice Is to Take Risks”

WCC Foundation lunch honors local women leaders
Susan Martin, president of Eastern Michigan University.

Susan Martin, president of Eastern Michigan University.

It turns out that at least two high-profile women in this area  got their educational start in a one-room schoolhouse – both were at Tuesday’s Washtenaw Community College Foundation Women’s Council Lunch. One we’ve written about before, and one – Susan Martin, president of Eastern Michigan University – gave the luncheon’s keynote speech.

As we summarize below, that speech ranged from slaughtering chickens to kicking down doors.

But before that, three women – Lisa Hesse, Ann Mattson and Ellie Serras – were honored for their leadership roles in the community. Hesse is founder of the nonprofit Girls on the Run of Southeastern Michigan, which works with preteen girls to develop healthy lifestyles through running. Mattson recently retired as 15th District Court Judge, a position she held for 15 years. Serras serves on several nonprofit boards, and was the longtime executive director of the Main Street Area Association.

The 275 people attending Tuesday’s lunch also heard from Vanessa Ray, a student in WCC’s culinary arts program who received a $1,600 Women’s Council scholarship for the past academic year. She spoke of her struggles as a single mother, working a minimum wage job and fighting the drain of poverty. Her grandmother had been a caterer as well as a role model, Ray said, and when she decided that she needed to return to school to make a better life for her and her son, she followed in her grandmother’s footsteps.

Becoming a student wasn’t easy, she said, and issues of transportation, Internet access and childcare meant that every day could be a struggle. But she kept her focus and relied on the help of her family, the WCC Foundation and Women’s Council, the Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan and others. With a 3.88 GPA, Ray has landed a job with Simply Scrumptious Catering, a Dexter business owned by Lori Shepard. Ray said she spends her days in a bustling kitchen full of obstinate women, “and loving it.”

Ann Mattson, when accepting her award later in the program, had some encouraging words for Ray. Mattson said that like Ray, she got her start attending community college – in Mattson’s case, she studied at what’s now called Mott Community College in Flint. Two years there helped her get accepted into the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and eventually go on to law school. “I’ve lived that experience and I know there’s a great life ahead of you, Vanessa,” Mattson said.

During her keynote speech, Martin told her own stories about an unlikely background leading to her current role as EMU’s first female president. But she started by acknowledging the challenges as leader at Eastern, saying “Boy, have I got myself into a job!” She said she does have a “nice little house,” referring to the controversial University House, a building that includes the president’s residence. (It was constructed during former president Samuel Kirkpatrick’s tenure, and its cost overruns in part led to his resignation.) “Drop by sometime,” Martin joked. “They change the sheets and everything – it’s great.”

Martin said she grew up on a farm in Croswell, Mich., where her mother was hooking sugar beets in the field when she went into labor. Among the anecdotes she shared: They killed their own chickens for dinner  – “and yes, they do run around with their heads cut off,” she said – and when her father let her drive their new pickup truck, “I rammed that baby right into the porch.”

That was her childhood. “I have no idea why I went to college,” Martin said, adding “I worked one summer packing pickles and that really convinced me.”

She graduated from Central Michigan University, and her first job out of college was as a secretary, while her husband attended school in Texas. When they returned to Michigan, she got a job as a senior secretary (she says she can still type 80-90 words per minute). She enrolled in the MBA program at Michigan State University – after graduating, she said she would have pursued a Ph.D., but they told her she needed business experience.

So through her connections in the Porsche Club – her driving had improved since the porch-bashing days – she landed an interview with the state’s auditor general. ”He said, “OK, it’s about time we hired a woman,” Martin recalled, and with that, she got the job.

Being a woman in a predominantly male field raised some issues. Her boss was reluctant to send her on business trips with male colleagues because of concerns “that sex might occur,” she said. “I assured them that with looks like theirs, there was no chance of that.”

During her first trip she and her colleagues went out to the bar at the end of the day. She managed to get stuck in a bathroom with a jammed lock, and after trying to get her out, the bar workers finally told her she needed to kick the door down. “Let me tell you,” Martin said, “that’s a lot of fun and I did – I knocked that baby off its hinges.”

Martin eventually returned to get her Ph.D. in accounting from MSU – while studying, she got a call asking her to interview for the state Commissioner of Revenue position during Gov. Bill Milliken’s administration. She got the job and held it while continuing to complete her degree. “I’ve kind of been working at that level ever since,” she said.

She spent the bulk of her academic career at Grand Valley State University, working there for 17 years as faculty and in administrative positions. After 18 years at Grand Valley, in 2006 she was named provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, which she described as her dream job.

But then the job at Eastern came along, and she figured since Michigan citizens had paid for her tenure over the years at public universities, she’d take on the challenge – even though, she said, “it seems like a really risky job. They tend to turn over presidents.”

But ultimately, “my advice is to take risks,” Martin told the crowd. “Look at me – I took the presidency of Eastern!”

Lisa Hesse, founder of Girls on the Run in Southeast Michigan

Lisa Hesse, a health and wellness consultant, is founder of Girls on the Run of Southeastern Michigan.

Ann Mattson

Ann Mattson, retired 15th District Court judge, is president elect of the Kiwanis Club of Ann Arbor.

Ellie Serras

Ellie Serras is a community activist and former head of the Main Street Area Association. Her new venture, called Main Street BIZ, is working to create a business improvement zone along a three-block stretch downtown. (The pink button she's wearing says "Downtown Diva.")

Peg Talburtt was emcee for Tuesdays lunch. She will be receiving an award herself on May 16

Peg Talburtt, executive director of the James A. & Faith Knight Foundation, was emcee for Tuesday's lunch. She will be receiving an award from WCC on May 16 – the 2009 Award of Merit, which is the college's highest honor.