The Inauguration of the President Metropolitan State University

President Sue K. Hammersmith

President Sue K. Hammersmith’s past and present roles make her difficult to pigeonhole. A traditional academic administrator. A long-time motorcyclist. Sociology professor. Mother of five. Pioneering sex researcher. Hog farmer’s daughter. A Ph.D. who studied deviance and social control.

In a sense, Hammersmith’s varied background is fitting for Metropolitan State; after all, it is Minnesota’s most diverse university. As the university celebrates Hammersmith’s inauguration on Oct. 2, here is an upfront-and-personal look at the institution’s sixth president.

CHILDHOOD

Hammersmith was born and reared in southern Indiana on a 500-acre hog, corn and tobacco farm. Her nearest neighbors were her grandmother and grandfather, who lived two fields away.

“Growing up on a farm, you tend to look at the world as it is and figure out how to use whatever resources you have available to fix something or make it happen,” said Hammersmith. “It’s never neat. If it takes duct tape and baling wire, that’s what you use. That carries over with me to today. I’m much more interested in getting results than in having pristine procedures. I’m a practical problem solver.”

The area where Hammersmith grew up was very poor—her tiny grade school offered only outdoor restrooms. The area was also very conservative. The public high school Hammersmith attended sported separate “boys” and “girls” stairs. Sock hops and proms were forbidden. “The thinking was, you could go to hell if you danced with someone,” she recalls.

And while many living in southern Indiana never even imagined college, her parents preached that a higher education was just expected. Unlike many of her neighbors who never left the region, Hammersmith’s middle-class family traveled broadly, all over North America. It wasn’t uncommon for her sister (also a Ph.D. and one-time academic administrator), three brothers and parents to take a month-long summer camping trip.

From her father she picked up her “corny” sense of humor and a love for the outdoors, the arts and things international. Her dad was philosophically a pacifist and socialist—an extreme rarity for those parts. From her mother, a certified dynamite operator, she learned a can-do spirit.

“My parents always taught us it’s a big world and that you should treat everybody with respect,” said Hammersmith. “You put yourself in the other person’s shoes to better understand where they’re coming from. They encouraged us to bring people to the table who were not like yourself, and that’s very enriching and important.” Indeed, many persons from foreign countries were invited for dinner at her parents’ house.

In Pekin High School (now called Eastern) in Pekin, Ind, “Susy” was an active organist, singer, reader, and involved in 4-H, where she was a state champion seamstress and public speaker. She was a cheerleader in basketball—which Hammersmith called a “civil religion” in Indiana—and was selected homecoming queen, Miss Sunshine and salutatorian.

COLLEGE AND CAREER

Hammersmith’s love for public higher education occurred almost the instant she set foot on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington.

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” she said. “Here I was, able to go to a major, public, affordable research university and meet people and have friends from all over the world. And to study things I never knew existed, that was just enormously enriching. That’s why I never left academia.”

With the social upheaval of the 1960s as a backdrop, Hammersmith no longer felt compelled to pursue teaching or nursing, two common professions previously associated with women pursuing advanced education. She majored in anthropology, earned a graduate degree in sociology and pursued a Ph.D. studying deviance and social control.

“I’ve always been interested in things that are a little bit different,” she explained. “In deviance, you study everything from mental illness, crime, delinquency and drug usage to gangs and stigmatized phenomena like unmarried motherhood and gay rights. It was fascinating.”

Her first job after graduate school was as a researcher at the renowned Alfred C. Kinsey Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University. Hammersmith worked on pioneering research on the development of sexual orientation. The landmark study busted several prevailing myths about homosexual orientation and landed Hammersmith on national TV, including the Today Show, Good Morning America, The Phil Donahue Show—even Oprah.

Hammersmith joined academia as a sociology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. That’s also where she had the first two of her five children. She later served as assistant dean at the School of Liberal Arts at the university. At Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., she was picked to head University College, an academic unit she launched.

“I was brought in to create the academic unit from scratch for both at-risk students and those uncertain about their majors,” said Hammersmith. “Nobody knew what that was supposed to look like, but yet I was under the gun to produce results quickly. That was such a creative high; it was wonderful—probably the most fun two years I had in my life.”

She also served for fifteen years as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Ferris State University, which has several campuses in western Michigan. Prior to arriving at Metropolitan State, Hammersmith was University of Wisconsin–Green Bay’s provost, vice chancellor for academic affairs, chief operating officer and professor of social change and development.

“I wasn’t into football until I moved to Green Bay,” she said. “There’s no other place like that city in the United States. The Packers permeate into the life of the community every day of the year. People even reschedule their wedding if it conflicts with a Packers game.”

METROPOLITAN STATE

Hammersmith had heard about Metropolitan State long before assuming the university’s presidency on July 1, 2008. She was aware it was a national leader in online learning, targeting working adults, offering credit for prior learning and the applied studies bachelor’s degrees.

And how does what she heard about Metropolitan State match up with the reality?
“The reality is even better,” she said. “Among the things I really love here are the creative energy, the irreverence to traditional academia and the can-do attitude. People at Metropolitan State relish the opportunity to be pioneers in their teaching and academic programs. The university is a national leader in putting whole degree programs online, in offering individualized degree programs and innovating new academic programs to meet emerging workforce needs. Our two newest graduate programs are examples—a Doctor of Business Administration program developed at the urging of the Minnesota Society of CPAs, and an Advanced Dental Therapy program developed to prepare experienced dental hygienists to assume an expanded scope of practice to meet pressing public health care needs.”

Hammersmith said she is impressed with the university’s commitment to quality and affordability, the reliance on many community faculty members, and the institution’s diversity.

“I’m very proud of the diversity of the university, including the many ethnic groups and ages represented,” she said. “I’m also very proud that we look at each individual student and develop a program that is right for the student. That is surprising in higher education.”

Also surprising for Hammersmith, who lives in Woodbury, is the warm reception she and her husband, Allyn Uniacke, have been accorded. When you combine that with the Twin Cities’ many cultural amenities and natural resources, she feels blessed to serve as Metropolitan State’s president.

“The people in this community have been so warm to us,” she said. “My husband and I feel at home here.”

~ Story by Harvey Meyer; Photo by Anne Hodson