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One of the most crucial triumphs of Jim Hackett’s tenure as Michigan’s interim athletic director is not nearly as simple or tangible as hiring Jim Harbaugh.

After taking over in a time of turmoil between the Athletic Department and the wider student body, Hackett seems to have begun to bridge the divide.

The result could be as simple as having a winning football program to keep the students happy, but there is also an aspect of Hackett’s attitude that makes him especially amenable. He wants to hear what students have to say. He wants to create solutions.

Few students, if any, have gotten to work as closely with Hackett to create those solutions as Central Student Government President Cooper Charlton, an LSA senior.

Before becoming CSG president, Charlton was president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, a role that allowed him to get a glimpse of Hackett before they formally began working together.

On the day Hackett was announced as interim athletic director, Charlton snuck into a meeting — as Charlton puts it, he was welcomed but didn’t get the formal invite — to hear Hackett address the athletics staff and coaches. It was at that meeting that Charlton first heard Hackett allude to a topic that would go on to not only permeate their working relationship, but may go on to define Hackett’s legacy: design thinking.

“Design thinking to me is really a concept that breaks down to what the people want,” Charlton said Thursday in a phone interview. “Not necessarily telling people what to do or what they should like, but more so listening and hearing what they need.

“It’s really based around listening to those who use the service, those who are involved in the tradition, in this case football. What do they want, and where can we meet them where they’re at?”

Rarely does a theory fit a person so naturally as design thinking seems to fit Hackett.

Through fireside chats and close relationships with student leaders such as Charlton, Hackett included the rest of campus in his thought process, though not in an ask-receive relationship. In fact, avoiding the ask-receive relationship is part of the point of design thinking.

“A word that Jim and I use often when we discuss things is prototypes,” Charlton said. “Instead of necessarily diagnosing a problem, taking a step back and forcing the Athletic Department to fix it, (it’s about) creating a personal and collaborative relationship where we can discuss a prototype, pilot a prototype, figure out what works well and what doesn’t and keep iterating from there.”

So how does Charlton have such a developed view on this concept, which Hackett also used in his time at Steelcase Furniture? Simple. Hackett helped teach it to him.

The first time they met, Hackett gave Charlton a list of websites where he could read about design thinking.

“It wasn’t necessarily like, ‘Here, Cooper, here’s material,’ ” Charlton recalled. “It was like, ‘Cooper, here’s the concept, go back and chew on it a little bit.’ … He was very much a teacher in that sense.

“What he really pushed was, if you see a problem, bring a solution. Bring a prototype to fix it. And even if the prototype doesn’t work, we at least have something to start with. And it’s always easier to edit than create.”

To be fair, the moves Hackett has made while in charge are hardly concessions from the Athletic Department to the public. Hiring one of the nation’s top football coaches, agreeing to a lucrative apparel deal and extending a future Hall of Fame basketball coach are no-brainer deals. But that’s a key indicator of design thinking — no one is sacrificing, per se, there is just a solution that solves both parties’ problem. 

And even outside of the headline-making decisions, Hackett’s mind has also been at work on matters of less visible importance.

At Big Ten Football Media Days in July, Hackett spoke about improving fan experience at football games, remembering what struck him about the football atmosphere when he was a student. He discussed a desire to alleviate student fees for intramural and club sports, and he expanded stadium Wi-Fi and installed more accessible stadium features like wider aisles and hand rails. 

Even though not all of these projects are completed, they do show a glimpse into the way Hackett thinks — the reason he is an effective leader.

Speaking with the Daily, Charlton also highlighted some of Hackett’s other attributes he feels will be most important for the incoming athletic director to mirror.

“In no particular order, I think humility is very important,” Charlton said. “You’re not a leader because you tell everyone you are, you’re a leader because you show everyone you are. And I think Jim did a really good job of understanding the importance, the magnitude, of the University of Michigan both in our country and around the world.”

Next on his list were tradition and innovation, two traits that, as Charlton pointed out, seem contradictory, but are really just two sides of an important balance. Calling it a “dynamic modernity,” Charlton believes Hackett struck that balance.

Charlton noted that Hackett wasn’t always fully transparent, or sometimes visible, with the student body or student athletes, something he would like to see improve in the future, but he was effusive in his praise of Hackett’s leadership.

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to discuss Hackett’s time as athletic director without discussing his predecessor, Dave Brandon. Brandon resigned amid controversy on Oct. 31, 2014, at a time when students were vocal about their displeasure with the Athletic Department.

But Charlton, who also worked closely with Brandon while he was president of SAAC, says the differences between the two are hardly good guy vs. bad guy.

“What’s similar about them, and this going to sound very odd, but they both truly care,” Charlton said. “Toward the end of Dave’s tenure, people assumed … they just didn’t think Dave cared. And that just truly was not the case.

“If you look back at what the regents mandated Dave to do, it was to balance the budget and expand athletics as it stands at the University of Michigan and around the world. And he did both of those things. So I think Dave gets painted in a very negative light.”

Indeed, students planned to wear “Fire Brandon” T-shirts to the Michigan vs. Indiana football game on Nov. 1, 2014, until Brandon resigned the day prior. But Charlton says the primary difference between Brandon and Hackett is more about where their main attention was focused.

“Dave was here for student-athletes, to expand and enhance their experience at the University, where I think Jim had a more holistic view,” he said. “Jim’s difference is, he’s here for student athletes, but he also understood the importance of the full campus community.”

It’s an enviable legacy to leave behind.

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