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University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel was honored Monday evening as one of four recipients of the Let Freedom Ring Award at the Cobo Center in Detroit. The award was presented by the Rainbow PUSH Automotive Project, an organization founded by civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson that seeks to promote participation by people of color in the economic growth of the global automotive industry.
Upon accepting his award, Schlissel also related the University’s work to improve education and college affordability to the work of Martin Luther King Jr., highlighting the value of inclusivity on campus and within the administration. As such, Schlissel said he hopes the Go Blue Guarantee offers more equal opportunity to all.
“The University of Michigan is proud to embrace both the quality and morality of education that Dr. King championed,” Schlissel said. “We want all of Michigan’s talented students to know that if they work hard and study that a U of M education is not out of reach because talent is ubiquitous in our society, but opportunity is not.”
Jackson and Schlissel last crossed paths in public last November during a symposium in Jackson’s honor. Following President Donald Trump’s election last November, Jackson spoke on campus in support of an anti-racist walkout that drew more than a thousand students. Organized by Students4Justice in the aftermath of not just the election, but a spate of racist incidents on campus, the walkout aimed to “hold President Schlissel and our Regents at the University of Michigan accountable for their claims of valuing diversity and student safety and well-being.” Student protesters also birthed the viral #schlisselwya hashtag last fall, asking “Schlissel, where you at?” after inconclusive investigations and a strategic plan many deemed too far-sighted.
Jackson received a standing ovation as he described current political movements and encouraged those who feel marginalized not to adjust, but to take action and rise above the maltreatment that may be felt from those in positions of power.
“It’s dangerous to be ignorant in a high place,” Jackson said. “Beyond culture and color is something called character.”
The Guarantee — a historic pledge of four years of waived tuition for Michigan residents with a family income of $65,000 or less — has achieved preliminary success in encouraging more applications from lower-income students. Still, socioeconomic diversity at the University is sorely lacking. The University ranked last in socioeconomic mobility amongst peer institutions in a study by the Equality Opportunity Project — one in ten students are in the one percent of income distribution.
In a previous interview, Kedra Ishop, vice provost for enrollment management, said the Guarantee needs further work to make sure the program doesn’t ignore the needs of new students from lower socioeconomic strata.
“We all have a responsibility to make sure that we help our students become part of the U-M experience,” she said. “It’s a challenging endeavor for us and we don’t always get it right the first time but I think we’ve put a great deal of effort … into identifying students, identifying their needs, to make sure they’re supported by the University.”
Other recipients of the award included Bankole Thompson of The Detroit News, Flint mayor Karen Weaver and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, humanitarian leader and civil rights activist. Before awards were presented, audience members heard from several speakers, including U.S. Reps. Brenda Lawrence, D-Detroit, and Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, as well as Rev. Jesse Jackson, who accepted the award on behalf of Tutu in his absence.
When addressing the audience, Lawrence highlighted the importance of remembrance on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, explaining that taking action in the face of oppression would allow King’s dream to be furthered within a democracy.
“While we stand here today and reflect on the history of a great man … Will they be able to say that we stood up and fought when they tried to roll back our rights and freedoms?” Lawrence said. “We talk about a dream but this is about action.”
Though Schlissel was selected as an honoree, many students felt that his actions this past semester — specifically toward students of color — did not warrant an award. LSA senior LaKyrra Magee, a co-founder of S4J, criticized Schlissel for his insensitivity toward members of the Black community.
“Mark Schlissel is the same University president that pulled Black students at every level from the University of Michigan into a room and told them he wanted to ‘learn’ to be a more sensitive person,” Magee wrote in an email interview. “Someone who tries to exploit Black students for their labor doesn’t deserve an award but (instead) a course to learn how to deconstruct white supremacy.”
LSA senior Jamie Thompson, also an S4J founding organizer, echoed Magee’s sentiment. This semester, she wrote in an email interview, Schlissel’s consideration of granting white supremacist Richard Spencer’s request to speak on campus contradicts the principles of DEI.
“Allowing Richard Spencer to come to campus works against every tenant of DEI and goes against what he says are values of ‘education, social justice and equality,’” Thompson wrote. “Not only is (Schlissel) co-opting the work of black student activists and faculty by taking credit for these achievements, he is actively participating in white supremacy on this campus and stripping away the small sense of safety and voice that students of color have.”