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From Brown to Blue: A conversation with Mark Schlissel

Ruby Wallau/Daily
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By Sam Gringlas, Daily News Editor
Published January 26, 2014

What did your interactions with faculty and students on Friday tell you about the culture of the University?

“I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of interest, enthusiasm and excitement. It told me something kind of interesting about the way that the University community feels about the University. When I stand up and say hello for the very first time and I get an enormous round of applause (and) people don’t really know me, I’m not foolish enough to think they’re applauding for me — what they’re applauding for is their University.”

“In effect, the next president becomes the face of the University, and I interpreted the enthusiastic welcome I got as emblematic of the way people feel about their University.”

“It felt right. It felt like the beginnings of a conversation. I just had a very comfortable sense. I felt like I fit at the University of Michigan and that I’m on the same wavelength.”

What was spinning the Cube with the students like?

“These will be memories for a lifetime. I consider this all the high point of a long and happy academic career.”

“The Cube is very funny because although I had seen the Cube before, I didn’t appreciate the fact that it really did spin. In the back of my mind, I was worried I was being set up. The student body president was telling me that Mary Sue was able to spin this cube every day and energize the campus and I should do so too. I had this fear that I would start pushing it and nothing would happen and it was all a big joke. But it was really great fun when I was able to spin it around. And the students were all very happy and laughing and it just felt very welcoming.”

Could you describe your experience meeting President Coleman for the first time?

“In the only brief time I’ve had with her so far, (I understood) the way she feels a sense of responsibility and commitment to this place she clearly loves. She was basically telling me that I’m going to have a fantastic time here and grow to love it as much as she does.”

How was your experience with the University’s presidential search process?

“What was remarkable, was after a few minutes, it stopped being an interview and felt much more like a conversation between colleagues about the issues that are critical and important and challenging for higher education.”

What’s your vision for the University?

“At the highest level, my ambitions for the University are to first maintain access and affordability to students all across the economic and social spectrum of our society, and also from around the world. I think we have to build a community of learners that’s broadly representative of the society we live in to optimize the quality of education.”

“I want the University to pursue areas of research and an education that have impact and value to society — I think that’s one of the roles of a public research university is that the scholarship we do should matter. I want to be sure that’s not misinterpreted because I’m not referring simply to biomedical research and engineering, but I’m talking about history and anthropology and music and political science and economics — things that really help us understand the world around us and teach people how to relate to one another.”

What’s the role of a college president in interacting with student activism on campus?

“I actually applaud the students for bringing forward a hard issue and in a way getting in the University’s face and provoking important discussions that I’m quite sure will make the University better in the long run, so I think student activism is a good thing.”

“The president is ultimately responsible for important institution-level decisions that take place both in response to activism and otherwise. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the president to immediately meet with every group that’s upset about something. But I think it is the responsibility of the president to make sure that every group that has concerns that should be known by the administration of the University has a pathway to make those concerns known. A lot of what I want to do is listen in the first months of my presidency but also on an ongoing basis. I want to find ways not just to engage with students bringing forth an advocacy position, but also more generally with students regarding their experience and their take on the environment of the University overall.”

How do you plan to interact with students when you arrive to campus?

“I’m going to have to think hard about how to get exposure to students apart from those organized in student government. I want to listen to a wider array of voices and it’s going to take a while. I still have a day job. I’m still the Provost at Brown. That said, I’m still going to devote as much time as I can to prepare for July when this very large responsibility becomes mine.”

Does a new president have more leverage in working to address ongoing challenges or is it tougher without the rapport of a longstanding president?

“It’s a true double-edged sword. I get to bring a fresh set of eyes and the experiences of a long career in the academy. Also I’ve found when I’ve made other transitions of this type, people are very anxious to get a relationship with a new leader off on a good foot and maybe they’re even more willing to be open and compromise and you might be able to make unusual progress. The flip-side of that is I don’t have deep institutional knowledge of Michigan, and I won’t be operating from as informed of a situation I have to climb the learning curve and I certainly don’t want to make rash decisions until I understand from as many perspectives as possible the huge array of issues that will be coming at me.

What’s the mission of public institutions of higher education?

“As a public institution, the mission is to educate the most talented, hardworking students of each successive generation and that’s the part I find inspiring. The mission of a public university is to be as close to a meritocracy as possible, to educate the very best and brightest and most hardworking students in the state regardless of the circumstances they’re coming from.”

What’s your vision for the undergraduate experience?

“To me, education you have to think about holistically. It’s not just what happens during the 12 or 14 hours a week you’re in class, but it happens in the dorms and in the activities you’re participating. What the University has to be attentive to is making that total experience as strong a learning opportunity as possible.”

How do you plan to approach issues of diversity on campus?

“In terms of specific issues, the University has to struggle and continue to work on continuing to improve diversity on all levels — not just students but faculty and staff — and also inclusiveness. It doesn’t really accomplish the goals of having a diverse campus if subsets of that community don’t feel like equal partners. Those are going to be long-term goals we have to continue to work on methodically and together.”


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