Michael Mullins Recognized for University Senate Service and Leadership
For his service as president of the University Senate, Michael Mullins has been selected to receive Michigan Technological University’s 2023 Faculty Distinguished Service Award.
On July 2, 2018, Rick Koubek met Michael Mullins for lunch, an event made noteworthy both by its timing and the rapport it initiated. It was Koubek’s second day on campus as the new president of Michigan Tech. It was Mullins’ second week as president of the University Senate.
“We had no office, no furniture, no staff people, and all of our stuff was packed up in boxes and stacked in a storage room,” Mullins recalled. “Rick said, ‘Michael, just let me know what you need and we’ll make it happen, because I’m going to enthusiastically support shared governance.’”
Koubek kept his word on that pledge, and with the support, Mullins thrived in his new role. For three of the past five years, he led the senate through some of the most significant challenges in the University’s history, along the way making Tech an even better place to learn, teach and work. Mullins’ leadership during that time has earned him the University’s 2023 Faculty Distinguished Service Award.
“In his role as University Senate president, Michael had to navigate the onboarding of a new University president and several new deans and address major curricular changes on campus, while assuring the quality-of-working-life issues were at the forefront,” said Koubek. “He also helped shepherd Michigan Tech through the early stages of the pandemic. Such productivity is indeed a testament to Michael’s commitment to the University.”
"Michael always goes above and beyond the call of service for Michigan Tech. We are thankful for his leadership on campus, and I am truly delighted to congratulate him on receiving this well-deserved award."
Andrew Storer, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, echoed Koubek’s sentiments about Mullins’ work as a leader and shared governance advocate. He specifically noted Mullins’ reminders to colleagues of their responsibilities as senators and alternate senators, and his confidence while leading the senate through many robust debates.
“Under Michael’s leadership as senate president in recent years, the senate has navigated many challenging issues,” Storer said. “These include the changes that were needed in order for the University to continue to meet the needs of students during the onset and progression of the COVID-19 pandemic. As senate president, he was called to serve on many committees and other groups that worked to ensure the University continued operations during extremely challenging times.”
Advocating for Shared Governance
Mullins joined Michigan Tech in 1988 as an associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. His first encounter with shared governance on campus came a couple of years later, when he co-authored the proposal for launching the department’s Ph.D. program. He presented the proposal to the Faculty Senate — the precursor to today’s University Senate. As its name implies, the Faculty Senate provided no representation for Michigan Tech staff members. Mullins was intrigued by the governance process and soon got more involved. He has since served on the senate in various capacities — as a senator, alternate senator or president from 1991-95, 2009-15 and 2017-23.
Distinguished Faculty Service Award
The Michigan Tech Faculty Distinguished Service Award recognizes faculty whose service to the University community has significantly improved the quality of some aspect of campus or community life. The award is intended to recognize exceptional rather than integrated service. The work could have resulted, in part, from compensated efforts, but it must have been of a level that distinguishes itself above and beyond the normal execution of those tasks. Nominations are solicited from University members and reviewed by the award committee. Winners receive $2,500 and a plaque at an awards dinner sponsored by the Office of the President in the fall.
During and between his stints with the University Senate, Mullins also served Michigan Tech in a variety of other roles. He chaired the Department of Chemical Engineering from 2001-07, during which the department’s research expenditures grew from $1.3 million to $3.7 million. “A strong component of this growth was [Mullins’] efforts to encourage interdisciplinary and multi-institution collaborations,” said Pradeep Agrawal, the current chair. “This was a period during which the department grew, both in faculty and student body size, in spite of the growth being punctuated by major state budget cuts and elimination of several academic programs.”
Mullins has been the principal advisor or co-advisor to 30 graduate students and has brought in over $10 million in research funding as a principal investigator (PI) or co-Pl, including $5 million in individual research funding. He was named as the first Fulbright Distinguished Chair from Michigan Tech in 2015 and spent that academic year in Sweden working with Swedish government agencies, industry and academia.
Mullins’ work with the University Senate distinguishes him as an exemplary leader and highlights his dedication to Michigan Tech and the campus community, according to letters nominating Mullins for the Distinguished Faculty Service Award.
“I first got to know Michael during my early years on the University Senate, and it was obvious right away that he has a strong commitment to service to the University,” wrote Storer. “Michael is always willing to share his views, and is forceful in expressing these. However, he retains the ability to be good humored, and to consider the views of others.”
“Having served on the Senate Executive Committee for the past five years straight, I can tell you personally that Michael’s leadership was welcomed and much needed,” wrote Robert Hutchinson, University Senate president-elect and professor of accounting in Michigan Tech’s College of Business. “He provided a steady hand on the helm as we navigated through a stormy and unprecedented change in the senate. I have heard this sentiment repeated by many of my colleagues on the executive committee, by our senate support staff and by senior administration.”
Above and Beyond
The unprecedented change Hutchinson referenced was an abrupt leadership vacancy in the University Senate in August 2022. Mullins decided to run for the elected position, and his prior experience as senate president made him a leading candidate. He won the election, stepping up to serve despite many responsibilities elsewhere on campus.
"I’ve been here 35 years. I’ve devoted half my life to Michigan Tech. I want it to be successful. I want to see it thrive."
Mullins’ advocacy of shared governance formed the cornerstone of his service to the University. At Tech, shared governance means that the University Senate and the University’s administration, Board of Trustees, student government organizations and other campus groups function as active partners in decisions affecting academic and administrative affairs.
Mullins said the University Senate plays an important role in campus business. “Basically, it’s the foundation of our shared governance system here. There’s a lot of bureaucracy — and the University Senate is part of that bureaucracy, but we are the only collective voice that speaks for and carries authority for the faculty and professional staff,” he said. “Some of the work of shared governance can be frustrating, of course, but also rewarding. That’s one reason I came back as president, because I believe in the process.”
"Shared governance means that in a very real sense, the faculty and professional staff on campus make decisions that affect their day-to-day working lives."
"Michael is well known on campus as a defender of shared governance and the collective
interests of faculty and staff, which he has demonstrated consistently over the better part of four decades at Michigan Tech,” said Hutchinson. “However, this past year was exceptional, even by the high standard of faculty service set by Michael, as he postponed his personal and professional plans of sabbatical to step up one last time to serve as University Senate president.”
Agrawal further highlighted just how significant Mullins’ recent effort has been. “Normally a role like University Senate president would involve reducing one’s teaching workload,” said Agrawal. “However, due to the department being short on faculty, it was not possible to find a substitute instructor for the new course Professor Mullins had agreed to teach. As if he didn’t have enough service on his plate, he was also on three separate search committees.”
"I am proud of him being able to juggle between his various service activities, all the while developing and teaching a new course. Professor Mullins has risen to the challenge again, continuing his service to the University and community at large."
Mullins’ democratic approach to governance extends to his personal leadership style in senate matters. “My model for running the senate was to empower the committees and the committee chairs to do their jobs without any micromanagement or interference,” Mullins said. “You’ve got to let them operate.”
He made special note to acknowledge the current Board of Trustees as foundational to the success of the University Senate in shared governance — especially in the recent approval of Michigan Tech’s new nursing program, a normally yearslong process of consideration and approval, which in this case needed to happen in about two months.
“This current Board of Trustees has been a champion of shared governance, which is remarkable, to my mind,” Mullins said. “That is seldom the case. A lot of the people come from business and industry and are used to a very top-down approach. But their support, and the support of President Koubek and the administration, have made efforts like the nursing program possible.”
Of his work with the University Senate over the years, Mullins said he is most proud of the tangible gains made on behalf of the faculty and staff at Michigan Tech.
“We have been able to improve the lives of people on campus, students included,” Mullins said. “We’ve had some successes negotiating for benefits, like bumping the matching retirement benefits from 7.75% to 8.5%, and increasing the tuition reduction program from 50% to 75%. We were able to get sabbatical funding increased to two-thirds, to get sabbaticals approved for instructional-track faculty and to get the new nursing program approved in record time. Those are all good wins.”
"The senate’s decisions can make people’s lives better. And when we have success in that — when we improve the lives of the people who work here — that is what’s gratifying."
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.