Dr. Mike Lovell: Transforming Health and Wellness on Campus and in his Own Life

Dr. Mike Lovell: Transforming Health and Wellness on Campus and in his Own Life

In today’s episode, I sat down with Dr. Mike Lovell, the President of Marquette University, to discuss Marquette’s 10-million dollar giving challenge to transform health…

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In today’s episode, I sat down with Dr. Mike Lovell, the President of Marquette University, to discuss Marquette’s 10-million dollar giving challenge to transform health and wellness. Along the way, we cover topics such as the mental health crisis on campus, how students can improve their mindset, Marquette’s 750-million dollar Time to Rise campaign, and Lovell’s new outlook on life post cancer diagnosis.

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We’ve got a special guest in this episode, the President of Marquette University, Dr. Mike Lovell, who’s been serving as President since 2014. He also serves on a number of boards and committees in Milwaukee, including the GMC, Milwaukee Film and Children’s Hospital, to name a few of many. With his wife, Amy, he also cofounded SWIM, Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee, which we’ll dive into in this episode. He’s got a lot of other stuff going on in his world. Students have been fully back on campus after being remote in 2021, which is great to see.

He also announced a $10 million giving challenge to transform health and wellness services at Marquette, which we’ll be going deep into. You’re at $500 million or maybe over $500 million on your $750 million goal for the university’s largest-ever fundraising campaign, Time To Rise. Your basketball coach is off to a pretty good start and most importantly, as a lot of our readers know, you’re in a battle with a rare form of cancer as well. Thanks for coming in. It’s great seeing you.

Thanks for having me. I appreciate being here.

Where I want to begin this episode is that Marquette announced a $10 million giving challenge to transform and integrate the university student health, wellness and recreation services. Tell us more about that and what that looks like.

Coming out of the pandemic, we realized when we looked at some of the studies that had been done on students in their overall health and well-being that across the country, one in two students is suffering from some form of mental illness. I’ve worked with students. I run with them and have tried to interface with them in any way that I can. When I meet with them, their number one concern is around overall health and well-being, particularly around mental health, because they talk about how it’s impacting their studies and overall success within their schools.

It manifests itself in many ways. One way is it’s hard for them to be motivated and focused. We on our campus need to find ways to support our students better as we know that they’re facing some of these challenges. We think about what project or what can we do on campus that will impact every student? If we find ways to be creative and innovative about health and wellness, we know that it will help the overall success of our entire student body.

When it comes to student health and wellness and mental health, you say 50% have a mental health issue right now. How has that changed since the pandemic?

Before the pandemic, in higher ed, we already called it a crisis on campus because 1 in 3 students was suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Quite frankly, we couldn’t add enough counseling staff to meet the needs of our students, so we were already in higher ed trying to find other creative ways through technology, some apps and other things that help give students tools to help with their overall mental health and well-being, so they don’t get into crisis. That’s what we want to try to avoid is the point where they need to get an acute service.

In the pandemic, students became isolated. They were no longer in the community. The entire experience changed for them, and many had to move home. The mental health, anxiety and depression increased, and for the country’s whole population, mental health and anxiety were something that many people were challenged. For the college student population, it went from a third to a half.

Do you think that number is higher because people are more comfortable talking about it right now? I know there’s still a stigma attached to mental health in a way, but it seems less than it used to be.

First of all, when you think about Gen Z, they are very much more comfortable talking about their mental health, which is a good thing for our country and them. I come from a generation where there was a stigma around mental health. You didn’t talk about it and quite frankly, that’s not good for anybody. I think these younger populations and the Millennials are a little more comfortable than my generation was.

GGP 4 | Improving Health And Wellness
Improving Health And Wellness: Finding ways to be creative and innovative about health and wellness will help the overall success of the entire student body.


More people are talking about it, so there’s more sense of awareness. I can’t estimate my generation and how many people suffer from mental illness because people hid it from others. I will say that definitely, we know that the pandemic had a direct impact on people’s overall wellness, health and well-being.

Looking back, I graduated in 2011 and I don’t even know if I knew what mental health was. Looking back, I had some issues and I’ve been open on this show about talking about a bunch of the anxiety issues I’ve worked through and dealt with, but that wasn’t even a thing back then, which is crazy to think of. What’s going on right now? The giving challenge, for this to happen, what does it look like? You are trying to raise $20 million. If the money comes in, what does that look like?

First of all, when you think about some of the facilities, we have on the campus, particularly our recreational facilities. When I think about some of the spaces on campus, quite frankly, we’re not competitive with some of our peers. It is some of our rec and wellness spaces. The other thing is we have a distributed model of overall services for wellness. It’s not in one location throughout the campus, so it’s easy for students to navigate all our health and well-being resources.

Secondly, if we can combine health and wellness and think about mind, body and spirit altogether, it’s easy because there’s one place for students to go. It also reduces any stigma that would be out there around mental health because people would be going to a space where their entire self can be made the best version.

They can go work out or see a therapist. They can do all this under one roof.

In adding spaces, there are things that are new and have shown to have an impact. Things like a renovated facility, but things like Himalayan salt rooms and other things where people can meditate, relax and think about not only getting physically better but also working on their overall mental health and well-being.

That’s so important, especially at that age with all the stress college students deal with, in general. I remember going to therapy around that age and the therapist recommended meditation. I didn’t even know what it was at that point. There’s less of a stigma and a lot of that stuff is much more mainstream than it was years ago. You’re able to remain open hopefully for the entire academic year. With the new variants and everything, we’ll see what happens. Tell us about what being in the community has done for the health and wellness of the campus community in general.

We’ve done two things to help decrease the impact of COVID-19 on the campus. The first is that we mandated that students get vaccinated and have a mask when they’re indoors, particularly in the classrooms, to ensure that we can stay in the community. What we found was that when students were not in the community, it changed the overall experience they had within the campus and with each other. As I’ve gone to events and done things with students, they are so happy and particularly, you think about some of the students who lost their senior year in high school and then lost their freshman year in college.

I often say we almost have two different freshman classes on campus. We have the sophomores that never experienced their true freshman year and they’re still learning what it means to be on the college campus. We have the incoming freshmen as well. At the beginning of the year, we have an O-Fest event where we have all the student organizations opening up with potential organizations. It’s all in the Central Mall.

I walked through there for a couple of hours and I couldn’t believe the joy the students had by being together and getting to interact with one another because it had been so long that they’d been able to do that in that way. I’ve been told over and over again by the students about how happy they are to be going back to basketball games and to have that as part of their experience.

If you were a freshman in 2021, you didn’t get to go to any basketball games. We have 3,500 students come to each game, and I think probably before anybody graduates, everybody at least goes to a few basketball games to experience that. To think that some of our students didn’t get that changes the way it feels to be Marquette.

Try something you've never thought you'd ever do before, go for it, and get out of your comfort zone. Click To Tweet

The in-person element is so important. I think back to my college experience, there are so many good times that would not have happened and that’s too bad those students got a year taken away from them from that, but it seems like you guys did as good of a job as possible adapting. Have there been any difficulties transitioning back to in-person, or has it been pretty seamless and everyone’s happy about it?

It’s been great. We haven’t had any issues and again, the number of students that did contract the virus was very low. We never had many students, maybe 1 or 2 at a time, in quarantine. We’ve been very happy. To be honest, we were thrilled that when we asked the students to get vaccinated, they did. We had very little complaints and I think about us being able to deliver the type of education and experience we want. Having our students step up and do that was important.

I was going to ask about what it was like getting the mandate pushed through because that’s been controversial just in business in general. Companies, if they’re going to require people to get vaccinated or not, a lot of people have been in an uproar on that, but it went pretty smoothly for you guys.

I always look at the number of complaints that come into my office as an indication of how controversial a topic or an issue may be. I can only say there were only a dozen or so complaints that came in and it was primarily either from parents or from people from outside our community that didn’t think that we should require such a mandate. We did have religious or personal health exemptions that they were allowed to have, but almost 95% of our students got vaccinated before they came back to campus.

Do you have any overarching advice or are there things you say to students to deal with their mental health?

The most important thing for students, particularly when talking to freshmen, is during their first six weeks on campus to ensure that they get engaged and find groups and others that are like-minded. Moving away from home during your freshman year may be the hardest thing you’ve done at that point in your life. You’re trying to find yourself. You’re away from home. If you don’t have a support mechanism around you and if you become isolated, that’s when I think you are at your most vulnerable.

Bringing it back to O-Fest, find something you already like to do and get involved in that group when you go to O-Fest. Find something that you may have always wanted to do and you think as a good way for you to pursue. Try something you’ve never thought you’d ever do before and just go for it and get out of your comfort zone. If they do that and they can make friends, I think that’s very important for them.

I was listening to your one-year-old podcast with Chuck on Innovators on Tap. We got to work with him and help him. Part two was about SWIM, Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee, which you founded with your wife. I thought it was cool what you were doing there. Can you tell my audience what that is?

Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee is now a nonprofit, but it was founded to help make Milwaukee one of the most trauma-informed cities in the country. John Schmid, who was a former writer in the Journal Sentinel, wrote a series of articles about many of the disparities and challenges that Milwaukeean faces, the trauma that several generations of Milwaukeeans have faced over the years.

There’s a simple test called the Adverse Childhood Experience, the ACE test, that shows how much trauma you experienced as a child. There’s a direct correlation between your likelihood of success in terms of your health, overall well-being, and ability to function within organizations with your score on the ACE test.

The likelihood of being successful in life with an ACE score of five is pretty low, but the good news is that it shows that you can change the way your mind works through mindfulness and other things. Also, if you have 1 or 2 trusted adults during your childhood, it can help navigate you through the traumas you’re facing and help you succeed in your life.

GGP 4 | Improving Health And Wellness
Improving Health And Wellness: If you don’t have a support mechanism around you and you become isolated, that’s when you are at your most vulnerable.


We founded the organization to raise awareness about trauma and the ability for people to learn how to be resilient even though they faced trauma by helping them be successful. It’s also to bring together a set of organizations that would work on helping Milwaukeeans heal from the trauma that they faced over the years. We have become a nonprofit. We have an executive director. We have a chief trauma officer.

The organization is actually starting to mature, making an impact and doing trauma-informed workforce training. We are going to workforce and train. Organizations that are on the frontline of trauma help them heal from the secondary trauma so they can continue the important work they do. Most importantly, it is to increase collaboration between all the organizations in Milwaukee that work on trauma to ensure that we’re making the biggest possible impact possible.

What does success look like 5 or 10 years down the road? Milwaukee is a city with a lot of issues. It’s a very segregated city. What are you trying to accomplish?

I think first and foremost, we want to help individuals with the city be the best versions of themselves because we know that if you have suffered trauma and you haven’t addressed it, things like your ability to function in the workplace go way down. If we can help individuals get the help they need through the available resources and increase those, I think that is what success will look like.

Secondly, I believe that ultimately we have to find ways to reduce trauma within the city because it’s great if we help people heal from the trauma, but if people seek getting exposed to the trauma over and over again, that’s not going to solve the root of the problem ultimately. As we work with organizations and the police department in others, finding ways to help reduce the trauma that citizens within Milwaukee face and then allow those who have experienced trauma to get the help they need.

You mentioned you dealt with trauma growing up. You’ve gone on to have a very successful career and you’re taking on these big mental health initiatives right now. Are there things that you do for your own mental health?

You asked me what I tell students. I tell all students that I do two things every day that I recommend that they do. The first is I exercise every day, whether it be running, cycling, swimming or even just walking. I think it’s very important for you to find an outlet and that may not be exercising. Maybe that’s something else. You either play music or something else to find an outlet that allows you to relax and unpack some of the things.

The other thing is particularly now with technology and everything’s moving so fast to find at least fifteen minutes a day for reflection, prayer and quiet time. Turn everything off and go to a space where you do not have to deal with all the noise around you. I tend to do more than fifteen minutes, but I say fifteen minutes shouldn’t be that much time for them to have time for themselves. If you don’t take those breaks, both from a physical viewpoint or from a mental viewpoint, it’s hard for you to reflect and spend mindful time with yourself, so you don’t get overrun by everything else that’s going on in your life.

 When you’re taking that fifteen minutes or longer for yourself, are you doing any breathing exercises or meditation? Is it mostly journaling or what? What does that look like for you?

I usually take more than fifteen minutes. I do pray the rosary every day. That’s about fifteen minutes there. I’ve taken mindfulness courses. It’s been amazing to me. Simple things like breathing can center you. I oftentimes center myself and even the way you sit and the way you put your feet on the ground. Those things are important things that you learn through mindfulness. One of the things I learned through the trauma I experienced and going down this journey is that when experiencing trauma, you have reactive tendencies. Something happens and you go from the front of your brain, where you have logical reasoning and then going to the back of your brain.

Everyone has their own things that cause them to have it and it’s based on what they’ve probably experienced when they were younger. You can change those patterns through mindfulness, which was incredible for me. That’s something that I’ve worked on. I think about even myself as a leader and things that used to trigger me. It caused me to be not the best version of myself as a leader. I focused on how I’ve changed some of those things. When I do get triggered, I don’t immediately react in a way that I’m maybe not proud of, but I am more thoughtful and get to a better place.

Reflect and spend mindful time with yourself so you don't get overrun by everything going on in your life. Click To Tweet

People significantly underestimate how much they can change if they do that stuff for 15 minutes, 30 minutes or 1 hour a day, the exercise and the mindfulness stuff. When I had a bad panic attack on a plane out of nowhere a few years ago, I had to deal with all these issues. I was afraid to fly for the first time in my life. Elevators were very hard for me and being stuck in traffic.

It’s all this stuff that you’re not going to die doing any of that stuff, but my body reacted to it in that way after I had that big freak out. I was very leery of breathwork, meditation and all that stuff. My little sister’s into it and she set me up with this person in LA that I got on an hour Zoom call with who led me through a bunch of stuff. I got this crazy high and I was like, “This shit actually works.”

I will tell you that I was very skeptical and my wife booked me a class that was eight weeks long. I did it because sometimes you just do it when your wife asks you to do something. I was skeptical going in and part of it was I read a book called Brainstorm. It talks about the way the pathways of the brain and the way mindfulness changes the pathways.

As I read the book, I understood science and being an engineer, science helped me be a believer in the other side and then once I started doing the work on the mindfulness part, I became a true believer. I still believe now that you can do mindfulness in exercising your brain and in those ways, you can become a better version of yourself.

You can completely rewire your brain. I would say to people, though, the first step is you want to be open about that stuff. It helps to be open but actually putting in the work and constantly doing it because you can make a change, but you can also easily revert back to your old habits if you don’t continually do it. When you’re dealing with trauma or anxiety, you might know more than me in the back somewhat genetically. When I was in therapy, I made all that progress, doing exposure and riding elevators every day. We had a shoot and COVID has given me an excuse.

Most people have had higher anxiety. Mine’s gone down because I haven’t had to travel or ride elevators and stuff like that. I had a little episode. I got on the elevators and rode them. I was fine after that and I felt better because I had accomplished something. I’d let people know all this stuff’s great, but the consistency element, even if it’s those 10, 15 minutes a day every day, is so important to make real progress and maintain it. I want to touch on Time To Rise since you’re in the midst of this historic campaign. You’ve raised over $500 million of the $750 million goal. I know this huge business school is in the works. Can you give an update on that, what that is and why it’s important?

Time To Rise is the biggest campaign in Marquette’s history. We’re looking to raise $750 million over a period of about eight years. I’m very proud to say that we’re up to over $520 million and we’re looking to close out a strong. Hopefully, that number will get even higher. We’re ahead of the pace of where we want to be and it’s been a really important campaign for several reasons.

First, it’s a student-first focus. We’ve raised well over $200 million for student scholarships. When you think about some of the things that our students face now, Marquette is very proud of the number of first-generation Pell students we educate. We know that they have more financial needs than ever. Our alumni and friends have stepped up and helped support our students. We were able to give Marquette education to a very diverse population. In the history of diversity, our freshman class now is 35% diverse students and 22% Pell students. It’s very exciting for us.

You mentioned some of the capital projects. Our new business school is the largest, fully funded capital project in the history of the university at $16 million. That’s a flagship program on our campus and to have a new home that, quite frankly, we want to be a space where the business community comes and we’re looked at as the thought leader in having solved some of Milwaukee’s biggest problems, we want that to be a great home there as well.

The campaign touches all aspects of our campus. We think about some of the programming and some of the ways we support our faculties and the research. It’s helping us be the best version of ourselves. When we think about what it means to be at Marquette, first, we are grounded in the Jesuit Catholic character and the Liberal Arts and Humanities. Also, being able to support those programs and help them do well. The campaign touches every part of the university.

I couldn’t be prouder of our alumni and friends of the university that have stepped up to continue to invest in our campus when we’ve needed it the most. When you think about what we went through during the pandemic, our giving went up. It was incredible to go through that. I’m also very proud of our advancement team, the people, and the leadership doing the fundraising because I will tell you that fundraising during a pandemic was different. It’s like teaching classes is different, but everyone was able to adapt and do a great job.

GGP 4 | Improving Health And Wellness
Improving Health And Wellness: When you can connect with people individually, you know how to motivate them to be successful and be the best version of themselves.


You talked about the advancement team. How key of a hire was Tim McMahon? That guy seems like an absolute one-man wrecking crew.

Tim has been great. He’s been a great asset and addition to our leadership team. It’s always good when we get somebody from Villanova to come on our team.

When it comes to basketball, we got Shaka now. How did that all transpire and what’s that been like so far?

It’s fascinating how fast things happen when you get to major college sports. We started looking for a basketball coach on Monday, and by Tuesday, they had narrowed it down to about 2 or 3 people. I talked to Shaka by phone on Tuesday, and by Thursday afternoon, our director called over the office and said, “We need Dr. Lovell to get on a plane and fly to Texas now.” We flew down and I met with Shaka and his wife, Maya. After spending 2 or 3 hours with them, it was clear that he was the right person for us to bring to Marquette to lead our basketball program.

He’s got Wisconsin ties. What was the pitch like to him? What was the sell and what was most appealing for him to come here?

He was at VCU. He had a great successful run and it was most in Texas. For him, the difference between being in a small or university where it was more of a family atmosphere and going to a big place like Texas, where he said that he lacked that sense of feeling of closeness both within the campus community but also in the broader community because it’s such a big place. He really desired to be at a place that had a family history, but also basketball was the focus. You can imagine in Texas, football is by far probably the biggest sport there, but then there are also a lot of other sports there that are high profile, including baseball and other things.

He had to be at a place that is, first of all, centered on basketball and also be a smaller place. I’m not sure how close of a relationship he had with the Athletic Director or his President, but I can tell you that I see Shaka almost every day. I know that he and Bill Shaw probably talk every day. It’s something that he’s aspired to and he’s a Wisconsin native. To be back home closer to his family is something that’s also very appealing to him.

There was an interesting quote. I was reading an article that you were in and you said, “Of any coach I’ve ever met, and I played sports growing up, I met a lot of coaches in higher ed. He’s a really deep thinker. He reads more than any other coach I’ve ever met.” Can you expand on his overall philosophy and why you think he’s a good leader?

The first question I asked Shaka when we met with him and Maya in Texas was, “You’re at VCU now and you’re in Texas. What have you learned through your time as these head coaches that will help you succeed at Marquette?” His answer was about fifteen minutes long and he had learned a lot. What I think to me was most interesting was that he learned that relationships are the most important thing for success within the organization. His relationships with all his fellow coaches, especially with the players, had to be really deep and very much an individual level.

He had learned through all the reading and all the things that he had done that he’s learned how to connect with people on a very individual basis. When you connect at that level, then you know how to motivate them to be successful and be the best version of themselves. Certainly, when I grew up as a player when I was younger, we were all treated the same by our coaches. It was typically you were yelled at.

Shaka has learned to have this very deep personal relationship with the players. After the game, I go to the locker room, so I’ve seen it when players haven’t had the best game or done the best. He doesn’t yell at them. He talks to them. He acknowledges that, “You didn’t have the best game,” but then he’ll find ways to uplift him and talk to him.

You can do mindfulness and exercise your brain. In those ways, you can become a better version of yourself. Click To Tweet

“We noticed you didn’t have the best energy. As a team, when we see that, we all got to rally around you and help you get that energy for the game. We didn’t help you with that.” It’s interesting that he acknowledged maybe when they didn’t play their best, but he also has unique ways of supporting them and helping them so that they don’t get down and can focus on whatever they need to focus on to do better next time.

I want to end on this. There are a lot of people who know. You were diagnosed with sarcoma. It’s a rare form of cancer. What’s that been like so far? It seems like you’ve remained very active.

As I said going in, first of all, there are a lot of things I have to be thankful for. One is that when I went into this, other than cancer, I was healthy and strong. I competed in the USA Triathlon National Championships the week before I got diagnosed. The treatments, of course, you go through chemo, which is hard, but I’ve been able to handle them pretty well. I’ve been able to keep most of my life fairly normal.

The thing that has been almost overwhelming for me is the amount of support that I’ve gotten both from the Marquette community and the broader Milwaukee community. I would say that when we do have cancer, sometimes it’s easy to get down and get mired in it, but all the support, the prayers, the notes, the cards and everything that I’ve gotten helped me stay positive and focused on getting better.

I ride the elevator with somebody and they inevitably tell me about how they’re praying for me and their mothers are praying novenas for me and their parishes. It’s incredible. Probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had at Marquette in my several years was the student-athletes organized a 5K to support me and my journey. For those of us who were there that day, Marquette was at its best with the energy and positivity.

Our student-athletes totally organized this event and we had over 500 people there from our community. They were to support me, but others that had undergone within our campus. So far, so good. My treatments are working. I remain to have a positive outlook. It’s never fun having cancer, but I’m also blessed that we have one of the sarcoma experts at Froedtert in Milwaukee. I also get to do my treatments at home. I get to go home. I feel blessed that I don’t have to go to someplace like MD Anderson, where I’m isolated. I’m away from my loved ones and the community that I love. I have a lot to be thankful for, particularly as we head into this holiday season.

Has this experience over the last few months changed your perspective on life at all?

Yeah. I will tell you, as we’ve talked about before, exercise is very important to me. I am thankful for every time that I get out to run. I am thankful every time I’m at an event. I feel blessed to be there. I have time with family. You take for granted sometimes the holidays like Thanksgiving. I will not ever take for granted Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday with my family and with everyone around me. I’m going to cherish each of those days because having something that just happened puts you into perspective. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt invincible.

I never thought that my days on this Earth would not be a long time. Now, I have to look at each day as a gift. It also puts a lot of things in perspective. You also spend your time with things that give you positive energy. I don’t want to spend time on things that are going to bring me down because I want to focus on making a positive impact and doing the most that I can with the time I have here.

Thanks so much for coming on. It was great seeing you. Thanks for opening up, sharing your story and for all that you do for Marquette and for the city. I appreciate it.

Thanks a lot for having me, Richie.

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