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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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From the Daily: Eager for a challenge

BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Published January 25, 2014

Early Friday morning, the University’s Board of Regents unanimously approved Brown University Provost Mark Schlissel as the 14th University president. While his background makes him a qualified candidate for the University presidency, Schlissel has many challenges ahead.

The president-elect has an extensive history in academia as a respected medical doctor and researcher. As provost at Brown University, Schlissel was responsible for all academic programmatic and budgetary functions of Brown, supervising the academic administration and taking care of the daily management of the institution. However, coming from a university of about 9,000 students to about 44,000 here will be a huge undertaking, as the University’s finances, academics, student life, and campus climate is completely different.

However, as president, along with ensuring that the internal affairs of the University are in order, Schlissel will also deal with external relations of the University – which most importantly includes reaching out to donors. In her 12 years as president, Mary Sue Coleman was instrumental in raising money for the University; the Michigan Difference campaign led by Coleman broke records by raising $3.2 billion. Coleman also directed the launch of the Victors for Michigan campaign last year that aims to raise at least $4 billion. Schlissel must emulate, if not surpass, Coleman’s extraordinary run at fundraising for the school. Schlissel will have to keep in mind that unlike Brown — a private Ivy League school with merely one-fifth of U of M’s student population — Michigan is a large public school with a diverse student population and alumni. As such, he must facilitate these funds to ensure that less prominent schools such as the School of Nursing and the School of Music, Theatre and Dance can compete on even footing with already well endowed units — such as the Ross School of Business or the Athletic Department.

Arguably, Schlissel’s greatest attribute is his strong background in scientific research. The University is the top public university for research, spending $1.3 billion last year alone. Given Schlissel’s demonstrated commitment to research, there is little doubt that his tenure as president will let that slip. Schlissel should continue to further expand the University’s research efforts. It is clear that this is Schlissel’s primary area of expertise, and his presidency should push research — but not at the expense of other essential University priorities. It is important that Schlissel maintains the University’s commitment to undergraduate teaching in addition to research that happens at the graduate and faculty level.

Furthermore, the University has a strong history of social engagement. President John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps on the steps of the Union. The University was a catalyst for protest movements in the seventies, and the student body has demonstrated a clear interest in peace and justice even today. The new president cannot ignore this broad tradition of excellent engagement. His interests in research — especially in the sciences — should combine with the school’s tradition of innovation in a way that directly benefits the students and the global community. Specifically, Schlissel should promote research in sustainable energy. His scientific background should inform decisions that utilize that knowledge, while also reducing the school’s financial investments in fossil fuels. Colman began a sustainability campaign during her presidency, during which the University saw marked improvements towards sustainability. Schlissel should expand this effort and bring a new perspective.

As the president of a university that enrolls nearly 44,000 students, Schlissel needs to devote significant attention and resources to supporting the student body. While at Brown, Schlissel championed an affordable education, arguing that barriers to entry could restrict the demographic makeup of the student body. Not only can tuition hikes detract from racial diversity, but they can create a socioeconomically homogeneous campus. With recent concerns about falling acceptance rates for low income students, Schlissel must keep his passion for keeping college affordable and accessible.

Recently,culturally offensive incidents and a steady drop in minority enrollment have suggested a lack of campus diversity and cultural awareness. Strong efforts by the Black Student Union this academic year — spearheading the #BBUM campaign and their recent protest on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — have helped initiate these discussions. The University has long branded itself as a diverse institution with a culture of tolerance. In his tenure Schlissel will be responsible for maintaining the high standards this University has set for itself.

Finally, the regents’ failure to include a student representative on the Presidential Search Advisory Committee should not set a precedent for the new president-elect. A troubling pattern of discounting student voice has manifested since the beginning of the 2013-2014 academic year. University administration has revised a number of its policies that affect a large proportion of students, forgoing their input. Last semester, the Athletic Department abruptly changed the key policies forfootball games and basketball games without attempting to consult with students. Student voice is crucial to the advancement of any educational system; Schlissel’s willingness to incorporate these voices will reflect the University’s commitment to its students.

Undoubtedly, running a top public university comes with seemingly endless and insurmountable difficulties. Yet, President-elect Schlissel's leadership at UC Berkeley — as a professor and dean — and as Brown's Provost shows that he is prepared to put students first and lead the University into a progressive new era.