Leader’s dark childhood helps university cope with Covid turmoil

Survivor of a bleak upbringing, Marquette’s Michael Lovell sees pathways to assist students burdened by pandemic

June 2, 2021
Marquette University president Michael Lovell
Source: Marquette University
Marquette president Michael Lovell turns a community mindset into initiatives such as ‘staycation days’

Covid has brought higher education well above average levels of mental stress. For students at Marquette University, the torment of their president, Michael Lovell, may be helping them get through it.

Dr Lovell, head of the private Jesuit institution in downtown Milwaukee since 2014, comes from a troubled family background. During his childhood he witnessed alcoholism, depression and violence within his extended family. One of his grandfathers killed himself and his mother made repeated attempts.

On the standard 10-question Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire – for which just two or three negative indicators predict poor adult outcomes – Dr Lovell scores a hard-to-fathom five.

“Typically,” he noted, “success at that number is very low.”

Yet he has prevailed personally and professionally, only to be placed in higher education leadership at a moment of great need.

 Jae Crowder #32 and Jimmy Butler #33 of the Marquette Golden Eagles help teammate Dwight Buycks #23 up off the court late in the second half during the second round of the 2011 Big East Men's Basketball Tournament
Helping hands ‘One kind word or gesture can make someone’s day better,’ says Marquette president Michael Lovell

Even before the pandemic, mental distress was climbing towards crisis levels among college students and young Americans more generally, with polls blaming factors that included widening income divides and worsening human and planetary health.

That translated, pre-Covid, to about one in four US college students seeking mental health services, Dr Lovell said. But now, he said, after a year of students and families losing jobs and being kept away from friends and favoured activities, it’s reached about half.

The pattern is widespread. One survey, published this year by the educational technology company Chegg, found that only 70 per cent of undergraduates worldwide said they feel happy overall. In the US, the rate was 58 per cent, second lowest among 21 countries surveyed.

Along with the human toll such numbers signify for students, they reflect a situation that exceeds the functional capabilities of many universities to help them.

For answers, Dr Lovell said he reached into his past to consider what was right amid so much that was wrong. His recollections centre on the advantages of his small home town in Pennsylvania, where many people beyond his front door were aware that troubles lay behind it, and constantly took the time to look out for him.

“Even though my immediate family unit was not very stable,” he said, “I had friends, parents, coaches, teachers that invested in me.”

At Marquette, he’s turned that community mindset into initiatives such as “staycation days”, in which students are given a day off and faculty are asked to not assign work.

Instead, students are guided towards group activities such as zip lining, miniature golf, laser tag, fireworks and hot-air ballooning. “Just things to help them take a break,” Dr Lovell said.

Marquette also makes a point of bringing mental health counsellors into classrooms to “meet the students where they are” and to help them learn about their mental well-being in ways that normalise the need, he said.

“They really try to knock down the stigma,” he said of the counsellor visits, which typically last 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of a class.

The university has also been trying out a phone app through which students can assess their level of anxiety or depression and be guided to help as needed.

Other ideas come from Covid itself. In particular, Dr Lovell said, the move to online classes has given faculty and other campus staff a means for noticing more quickly when a student gets into a decline in performance that could be a warning of rising mental distress.

There’s also Marquette’s religious affiliation. Institution-wide devotional practices may be relatively rare in US higher education, but Dr Lovell – former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – saw them as providing insights with broad applicability.

At church-centred campuses, Dr Lovell said, there are often plenty of places for people to sit and contemplate, and an expectation of people taking the time to do so. At secular institutions, he said, that could mean creating any kind of free space, in physical terms and in cultural acceptance, that allows and encourages students to regularly pause and meditate or otherwise clear their heads.

And, very simply, the president also urges his students, especially during the pandemic, to find some way to show kindness to others. “You’d be surprised,” Dr Lovell said, “at how one kind word or one gesture can actually make someone’s day better.”



Print headline: Dark childhood helps head lead campus through Covid

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Reader's comments (1)

Very inspiring!