Courtesy of Hannah Mackay

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On Thursday, the University of Michigan Board of Regents met to discuss disinvesting from fossil fuels and holding an in-person graduation viewing option for graduates. Regents Ron Weiser (R) and Katherine White (D) were not in attendance.

The regents and University President Mark Schlissel began the meeting by proposing a supplemental agenda item which would discontinue the University’s investments into companies that directly contribute to fossil fuel emissions — a win for student activist groups on campus that have advocated against investment in fossil fuel holdings for years. The item, which was passed unanimously, would commit the University to a net-zero carbon investment portfolio by 2050. This action would disinvest the University from companies that engage in oil extraction, oil reserves and thermal-coal extraction.

This action prompted the Board to later approve $140 million of new investments in the renewable energy sector, which includes investments in the D.E Shaw fund, Aplomado Partners and Cresta Sustainable Infrastructure.

Schlissel explained the new investment strategy and its specific implementation plan.

“U-M will shift its natural resources investment focus away from oil extraction reserves toward renewable energy investments with an attractive risk adjusted return profile,” Schlissel said. “We also will pursue infrastructure and services investments that support more efficient resource utilization, as well as investments into other emerging technologies that support the transition to a carbon neutral economy.”

Schlissel also announced that Michigan Stadium will be open on May 1 for graduating seniors to watch the virtual commencement ceremony together in-person. The event will be opt-in and tickets will only be available to graduating seniors. 

Regent Sarah Hubbard (R) emphasized that students should not feel pressure to attend the event and they still can choose to view the graduation ceremonies remotely.

“It is a great opportunity to get in the Big House one last time and enjoy your friends and celebrate your day together with your classmates,” Hubbard said.

Graduating students will be emailed a link in mid-April with more information and opportunities to register for tickets to the event. This option comes after protest from many students and parents after the University initially announced a completely virtual commencement.

Later in the meeting, the Board discussed a proposal to rename the Life Sciences Institute building after former University President Mary Sue Coleman. The item passed and the building will be renamed Mary Sue Coleman Hall.

Emerita Coleman, who retired in 2014, led multiple important initiatives at the Ann Arbor campus, including the digitization of the University’s library with Google. During Coleman’s tenure, The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the University’s use of affirmative action in the landmark case of Gratz v. Bollinger. Coleman and her husband Kenneth have also endowed multiple funds at the University in their name.

Coleman is the only female president in U-M history. The naming of the building in her honor will mark the first academic building on campus named for a female member of the faculty or female leader. A recent analysis conducted by The Michigan Daily found that campus buildings are overwhelmingly named for white men, with only one named for a person of color and 12 named for women.

Public commenters who spoke at the meeting included advocates from Lecturers Employee Organization, who discussed the ongoing contract negotiations, as well as family members of students pushing for a more robust, in-person graduation ceremony. 

Aurora Harris, an English lecturer at U-M Dearborn, appeared before the Board advocating for more stability in the lives of lecturers.

“Not having equal pay is the reason why I must work as an under-employed, or part-time lecturer, across three departments,” Harris said. “As I approach my ninth year of teaching without equal pay, my life has been living on rice paper, held in the hands of others, who can tear it at any moment, or cause me to fall through the cracks.”

Harris told stories from the pandemic when she was forced to use most of her pay on transportation to work and how she was unable to qualify for unemployment benefits. Harris asked the Board to provide lecturers with more stability and job security to prevent stories like hers from happening more often.

Jamie Wraight, a history lecturer at U-M Dearborn, further pushed for tri-campus parity — a yearslong ask by the One University campaign, a coalition advocating for equity in the allocation of funds across the three U-M campuses— and emphasized the importance of adding the title of “Teaching Professor” for lecturers. Wraight added that the title would provide lecturers with more respect from the administration, helping to provide a better educational experience for students.

“I am not one to get overly caught up in titles, and don’t require my students to call me professor, or doctor or whatever,” Wraight said. “But I shouldn’t have had to give up the rights I had as a temporary employee for job security, and being given the title of Teaching Professor would, I hope, return some of those rights and privileges.”

After Wraight spoke, Regent Denise Illitch (D) responded, thanking him for speaking and emphasizing her support for giving lecturers respect and their titles.

Maria Joseph, a first-year student at U-M Dearborn, highlighted students’ financial hardships and emphasized the need to expand the Go Blue Guarantee to the Flint and Dearborn campuses, one of the demands of 1U. 

“Many of the students go to Dearborn for the specific reason that it’s cheaper than Ann Arbor,” Joseph said. “But, we’re the ones that need the Go Blue guarantee the most, but didn’t make the cut for it because of the zip code they live in or the school they attended.” 

Joseph, who said her mother’s annual income is $20,000, has to pay leftover tuition not covered by her scholarship. According to Joseph, her scholarship does not cover housing, and she is forced to work 12-hour shifts to cover her expenses. 

“I don’t have a choice but to go to work, and it cuts into my work ethic and sometimes I get behind or overly stressed in my classes,” Joseph said. “I know that many of my other classmates and peers also share this same perspective.” 

Fernando Ramirez-Medina, U-M Flint sophomore, also urged the Board of Regents to extend the Go Blue Guarantee to the Flint and Dearborn campuses. Instated by Schlissel and the Board in 2017, the Go Blue Guarantee certifies free tuition for in-state students whose family has an annual income of $65,000 or less and went into effect starting Jan. 2018.

Ramirez-Medina is a member of the 1U and said he wanted to see continued investment in the Flint and Dearborn campuses.

“Our campus is hurting,” Ramirez-Medina said. “We need continued and sustained investment not only in our campus with these new buildings and expansions, but to our student body as well. Our students are 30% Pell Grant recipients. Many are nontraditional and have been deeply affected by this past year’s crisis … our students desperately need help, and quite frankly, our population is equally deserving, if not more deserving of the opportunity to have their tuition paid for.”

David Faltys, member of the UMICH Parents 2021 Organization and retired superintendent from the Dallas area, addressed the regents during public comments following the announcement that graduating seniors could attend an in-person viewing of the commencement ceremony. 

“I speak not as a parent, but I’d like to speak to you as a retired school superintendent,” Faltys said. “… We pulled off a June 2020 graduation for our 704 graduates at Carroll High School. It was a wonderful gift for our students who were given the chance to have one last memory.”

Several other parents voiced their desire for an entirely in-person commencement ceremony this spring. 

Debra Crystal pleaded for an in-person graduation ceremony to Schlissel, who did not respond. 

“Why not have a ceremony for them?” Crystal said. “Don’t they deserve a ceremony? Why can’t it be done President Schlissel? … We’d like to hear from you. We’d like to know why not.”

Before the President made his closing remarks, Illitch thanked the public commenters who attended the meeting. 

“I know that while we don’t respond to every speaker, I want to assure the speakers that we listen to everything that everyone says,” Illitch said. “Some issues are simple, some issues are more complex. And your comments result in very robust discussions amongst the Board … thank you.”

In his closing remarks, Schlissel addressed the procession of parents who advocated for a fully in-person graduation ceremony. 

“Unfortunately (graduation) doesn’t only involve students and parents who can choose to come or choose not to come in, it would involve literally hundreds of my staff, many of whom are not vaccinated,” Schlissel said. “Although a stadium of our size can certainly spread people out, they have to get in and out of the building, and they have to do so safely and without congregating. At the end of the day, I’m balancing the need to commemorate an important passage in the life of our students with the health and safety of the many people that I’m responsible for that work here.”
Daily Staff Reporters Jared Dougall and Christian Juliano can be reached at jdougall@umich.edu and julianoc@umich.edu.