After having lived and worked across the country and the world —and even having been knighted in Finland—Northland College’s new President Marvin Suomi has made his way back home to the Northwoods.
“I grew up about fifty, sixty miles from here. I was born and raised in a little town called Wakefield, Michigan, and I spent the bulk of my early years figuring out how I could escape Wakefield, Michigan—and I did,” Suomi said.
Suomi attended the University of Michigan and Princeton University before going into business and running a large global company, serving as the president, CEO, and chairman of Kajima Corp—one of the largest builders and developers of real estate in the world—and its subsidiaries.
“On Jan. 1 of 2017 I said, ‘You know, I’ve worked for some 35 years and I want to do one last thing somewhere in the academy,’ and I wasn’t sure whether I was going to teach fourth grade or I was going to be the president of a college,” he said. “I wanted to go someplace where I thought I could really add value to the place.”
Suomi has served on dozens of boards in higher education and as it turned out had occasion to meet former Northland College President Mike Miller in 2014 at the Council for Independent Colleges President’s Institute, where Suomi presented on college infrastructure and building innovative partnerships. Suomi and his family then visited the Northland College campus during the summer of 2015.
“I’d served on the boards of a number of colleges and universities while I was in business and (Miller) said that he was retiring,” Suomi said.
Right away, he was interested in the position.
“I said to him, ‘Do you think Northland would be interested in me because I’m about to take on another presidency,’ and he said ‘Of course they would,’ and that’s how this discussion started,” Suomi said.
Northland College’s Board of Trustees announced in April that Suomi – an international business leader, philanthropist, and educator – would take over as the 14th president of the 126-year-old liberal arts college with about 650 students located on the shore of Lakes Superior.
Chad Dayton, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, who led the presidential search committee, explained why they chose Suomi.
“At this critical time for Northland College – and small liberal arts colleges in general – the opportunity to make a bold choice and bring innovative and experienced leadership seemed the right choice for Northland College in every way,” Dayton said. “Marvin’s passion for Northland College and the broader geographic region combined with his dynamic professional background made him the obvious choice, and we are all extremely lucky to have him at the helm.”
Dayton said that Northland College’s future is bright with Suomi at the helm.
“We are confident that Marvin will manage the areas where Northland excels and boldly expand the college’s opportunities through innovative partnerships and initiatives while enhancing Northland’s mission, purpose, and reputation,” he said.
The board didn’t make the decision on its own. It even involved students like soon-to-be-senior Zachary B. Hough Solomon in the hiring process.
Solomon said he is pleased with the college’s decision.
“I think (Suomi) brings a lot to the table, he’s very inspired,” said Solomon. “President Miller positioned Northland College in an excellent place and I think Mr. Suomi can build off that.”
Solomon has been meeting with Suomi since he took office on July 1 and said he has found Suomi to be very open to new ideas.
“I am a forestry major and also a dual major in humanities and I wanted to talk with him about exploring different ways of integrating more experiential learning into the natural resource program,” Solomon said. “We’ve met a couple times over the summer and have been in communication talking about different ways we could use assets that we already have and explore different ways to make it more accessible to people within the natural resource program.
“He’s been very receptive and taken a great deal of charge to try and help different students’ needs and causes.”
Suomi said he really enjoys working with students and is looking forward to the start of the new term. But while he would love to teach and work closely with students, he was hired for other priorities.
“When a college like Northland hires a new president, I’m what’s called a non-traditional candidate. I wasn’t a provost at another university. I came out of business. You hire somebody out of business at a time when you need somebody to guide your finances,” he said. “I have to make certain that I can raise enough external funding to continue to sustain us. That means looking for foundation grants and looking for revenue sources to support this place as well as individual donors and alumnus.”
Suomi expects to be on the road plenty as he seeks foundation and grant money—and increasing exposure of the college.
“Northland as an institution has to become more well known than it is. We’re not a secret,” he said pointing out that the college’s location is both a benefit and a challenge.
“We have some of the most prestigious colleges represented here in terms of where our faculty went to school and it’s simply because they want to be here, they don’t want to be at Harvard, they want to be here,” Suomi said. “It really is kind of a remarkable story in itself. It makes me feel like their dedication deserves a lot of dedication on my part.”
Being located on the southern shores of the world’s largest freshwater lake doesn’t seem to hurt either.
“We have the biggest freshwater laboratory in the world in Lake Superior and we use it, we utilize it,” he said, referring to the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation and its work on the lake and its surroundings.
“The education that we provide to students here to not only study and care about the environment but to integrate it in the curriculum is amazing,” Suomi said. “The environment is integrated into the curriculum at every step of the way and it is impressive for somebody like me, two months into the job and learning about Northland myself.”
Because Northland is both remote and has a very specific niche and purpose, Suomi thinks it will always be a small school. But that doesn’t mean he has to think small.
“To have a national reputation as one of the top environmental colleges in this country is our objective … is my goal,” he said. “In some quarters we already are, it’s just that we don’t have the same exposure that some other colleges do.”
Suomi has long felt a connection to the area as even though his six children grew up either New York or Los Angeles Suomi said he ensured that they had some sense of the area where he grew up and the values of that place by sending his sons to Camp Manitowish and his daughters Red Pine – both in the Minocqua area – every summer.
“It was fun coming back and it was fun having them get to know and understand this area,” he said.
Overall Suomi is pleased to have returned home for his final gig.
“It’s a wonderful challenge and I’m about as tired and excited as I could be at the same time,” he said. “I was up at five o’clock thinking about this program or that program and it’s fun to be that excited again.”