Michael A. Driscoll started as IUP's new president July 1 after six years at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
He says wonderful things about his former university and life in the Last Frontier; his children are even staying on to finish their degrees there. But Driscoll had been exploring opportunities for a presidency—not because of any longtime career goal, he said—he was simply ready for a new challenge.
It's been a recurring theme in his life, and one he came upon honestly.
Driscoll grew up in Montague, Michigan, a town of about 2,000 on the Lower Peninsula. His father, David, worked in industry—first pouring iron, then making piston rings for the auto industry, but an on-the-job injury sent him back to college while Michael was in high school.
Long after he had learned to read on his father's lap tucked behind a newspaper, Michael Driscoll found himself helping his dad with his math homework while his mother, Bette, managed the home and raised him and his younger sister. Driscoll's father ended up earning a bachelor's degree in social work, and his last job before he retired was as a counselor in a methadone clinic.
In high school, Driscoll knew he wanted to go to college and get a doctorate in electrical engineering. "I'm not sure why," he said, "except that electricity was the one thing that I just didn't quite understand in high school physics, and I thought, 'I need to figure this out.'"
At Michigan State, Driscoll did almost all those things—earning a bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D. in electrical engineering with a focus on computers and computer design—though he says he still doesn't quite understand how electricity works.
While those old enough may associate Dungeons & Dragons at Michigan State with the late-'70s disappearance of a student believed lost in the school's steam tunnels in a live-action version of the game, in a roundabout way, the game led to Driscoll's meeting his future wife.
He had made friends with a student couple through D&D gatherings in his dorm, and, at their wedding, he met the former Rebecca Young, the bride's cousin, who sang at the ceremony. Afterward, he and Young corresponded between East Lansing and Los Angeles, where she lived with her grandmother during a break in her study of theater at Humboldt State University.
In 1984, Driscoll headed to Los Angeles on his first plane ride and joined Young and her mother on their drive home to Redwood Country in Northern California. Along I-5 in the foothills town of Los Gatos, Driscoll proposed to Young amid walls of semis in the parking lot of a Motel 6, and the two were married in Michigan in September of that year.
Their daughter, Katie, was born in 1988, right after Driscoll defended his dissertation and three weeks before they moved to Portland, Oregon, where he started his first faculty position at Portland State. Their son, Greg, was born three years later.
Portland was a big city by their standards, with a population of about 400,000, and the university, founded in the mid-1940s, was young and growing. "I could have gone to an old, established place that wasn't change oriented," Driscoll said. "But it was really fun to be where we could make a difference—and grow and change things."
In the electrical engineering department, Driscoll started to notice declining enrollment and other issues that needed to be addressed, and, at some point after receiving tenure, he took on the role of associate chair with a focus on recruiting students. From there, he continued to step into new opportunities.
"There wasn't a big plan at the beginning to end up where I am today, but I found that I really enjoyed bringing people together, solving problems, and moving the institution ahead," he said.
Engineering was the lead project in Portland State's first capital campaign, and, as executive dean, Driscoll played a large role in raising the $100 million that would help the engineering school become a college, then a named college, and eventually move into a new building.
Driscoll never had an office in that building. Instead, he was hired as the university's vice provost with responsibilities for academic personnel and budget. "Those seemed to be the two areas that were most important to the continued health of higher education, and I thought it was an important place to be," he said.
In his 18 years at Portland State, the school dramatically increased enrollment to more than 22,000 students and saw significant gains in national reputation and faculty research, he said. "I feel fortunate that I was a part of PSU's tremendous growth."
In the meantime, Becky Driscoll's grandmother, with whom she had stayed in Los Angeles, was in declining health and had come to live with the Driscolls in Portland. Her death after three years left the family in a state of transition, and, when Driscoll received a call from a recruiter about the provost and vice chancellor position at the University of Alaska Anchorage, he and his wife decided to look into it.
In February 2006, they were on the ground in Anchorage for the interview. It was 5 below and sunny, and, in a few days, they had seen the full range of weather—rain, snow, hail, sleet. But they were taken with the university and the city's small-town feel and rich arts community, and Driscoll started as the chief academic officer that June.
As in Portland, Driscoll said he was part of a great team—it grew enrollment, enriched the program set, put new buildings in motion, achieved success in fund-raising, and fortified relationships with the state's oil and gas industry. The university also bolstered its reputation in preparing students for health-care careers and served as a pilot for the new accreditation standards for institutions in the Pacific Northwest.
But eventually, Driscoll and his wife started to think a presidency would be a good fit for him, and he took part in mentoring programs to help build the needed skill set. He was also fortunate, he said, to have had bosses who allowed him to be visible in the community, raise funds, and do other things that "normally a provost wouldn't do."
Driscoll knew of IUP through Michael Hood, dean of the College of Fine Arts, who left the University of Alaska Anchorage for IUP before Driscoll had started there but would return on occasion for a UAA theater conference. As news of the opening at IUP spread and Driscoll began exploring it further, he said he was intrigued by the school's rich history, the faculty's dedication to student success and willingness to involve students in research, and IUP's overall ability to churn out public higher education success stories, which Driscoll knows a bit about.
When he was selected by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Board of Governors in January to be IUP's next leader, he was well aware he would be inheriting some anxiety within the university about the turnover of presidents over the last decade. He said he is grateful to David Werner, IUP's interim president of two years, for the positive tone he set and for "keeping things moving ahead productively, not just minding the store."
To those concerned about what the length of his tenure will be, Driscoll notes two things: (1) He and his wife hate to move (no doubt reinforced by their recent 6,000-mile meandering drive from Anchorage to Indiana, which they started two hours after Becky Driscoll defended her dissertation for her master's thesis in English), and (2) he started at UAA under similar circumstances and became the longest-serving provost in the school's history. "One of the key things I brought was calmness, and I came to work every day and was there," he said. "And that's part of the healing."
Driscoll also comes to IUP well versed in the financial challenges it faces. To address them, he said the university must be creative in finding new ways to deliver the same great education and research, be as efficient and effective with tax dollars as possible, and demonstrate the value IUP provides through the investment made by Pennsylvania taxpayers. "We know that we do a lot for the commonwealth, for the citizens. We need to make sure everyone understands what that is."
He doesn't plan to take on those challenges alone.
During his visits to campus, he said he was impressed with IUP's strong alumni base and the commitment of the greater community to the university, evidenced by the service of groups such as the Council of Trustees. Driscoll believes those groups want to be further engaged and said his first key task as president would be to open the lines of communication and involve all stakeholders, internal and external, in discussions to determine a shared vision for IUP's future.
While those discussions will offer guidance in critical questions about where IUP's resources should be focused and what the size of enrollment should be, he said the greatest value will be in "exciting people about the future of the institution, so we become shared partners" in its success.
Driscoll, too, is excited about the task ahead…as always.
In his spare time, of which he has little, he likes to do crossword puzzles, often fitting in two or three a day. At some point he decided that, if he could do them, he had better figure out how to construct them. Although he says the first ones he completed aren't very good, it's something he continues to work at.
"Well, that's the next challenge," he explained. "There always has to be a new challenge and something new to learn, and that's probably the key."