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During a community conversation on race and campus climate Sunday, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel listened to student concerns and emphasized the impact he hopes the upcoming release of a University-wide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan will have on campus.
The conversation, announced on Wednesday, was planned in response to racially charged fliers that were hung in Mason and Haven Halls last week. The fliers, along with a planned debate over the merits of the Black Lives Matter movement, prompted large student protests throughout the week.
Both events occurred a week before the release of the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan, a year-long initiative launched by Schlissel last September and slated to be announced Thursday.
Schlissel told the crowd that he believes the success of his presidency rests on the execution of the plan, and his ability to improve climate on campus.
He also stressed the need to get students involved in resolving campus climate issues, noting low attendance at events.
Four forums held by LSA over the past few weeks about their portion of the strategic plan had notably low attendance, averaging about 40 people each except for one for staff, which drew 120. Sunday’s gathering had one of the highest reported attendances for a University-sponsored event regarding diversity on campus this past month, with over 180 people.
However, student attendance has been much higher at student-run events, such as protests Monday and Tuesday night that drew more than 600 people.
During the forum, Schlissel asked how University can engage better with students, asking for input from the audience.
“Where are the majority of students on the campus, and what more will it take to get everyone involved, woken up and care about this issue?” Schlissel said. “Just having this group here talk, it does us good, but we are not reaching enough people.”
E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, also said she wished more students had attended the LSA diversity forums and other University-sponsored events, and highlighted the importance of bringing everyone together into one space to address issues of diversity on campus.
“Look at our community: We are together, we are talking,” she said. “We are not perfect, but we sure are trying.”
Speaking directly to the posters, Schlissel reiterated several of the sentiments in the campus-wide email he sent Wednesday, saying while the administration is investigating who was responsible for the posters, it may never find the party responsible.
The event was split into three parts: small group conversations, group summary discussions and lastly, a speakout where students were given two minutes to share their opinions about the recent events on campus. Conversations began in small groups of nine and were led by faculty facilitators. Attendees were given 20 minutes to share their thoughts about the recent events on campus and suggestions for how the University can best respond to the create a more inclusion environment.
Most of the conversations focused on wanting a more responsive administration that, instead of responding to racially charged events on campus, prevents them from occurring originally. LSA senior Jamie Thompson, who attended the event, wrote in an email interview that she thought conversation was a good start, but also noted common problems with this type of University-sponsored event
“Although these responses are very reactive, I definitely liked the space and I appreciated that so many important people were brought together in one room to listen to us,” she wrote. “What I, and others, don't like about speak-outs and taking input from students is that it is just another example of students of color putting in work and giving free, emotionally draining labor.”
During the week, protesters expressed a similar theme, calling for the administration to act to resolve campus climates issues more quickly and also criticizing the DEI plan for being too forward-looking.
In his remarks, Schlissel acknowledged these concerns, saying he believed the plan will be able to create impact on campus now, not just in the future.
“This is not a plan to make the world a better place in 2025, this is a plan to make Michigan a better place yesterday, today and tomorrow,” Schlissel said. “This is a plan for right this minute. We need everyone's help, suggestion, advice and criticisms.”
During the speakout, facilitated by CSG Vice President Micah Griggs, an LSA senior, similar themes emerged, with many students calling for the University to take more action.
Along with the fliers, students also touched on discrepancies in diversity and inclusion requirements across departments, failure to discuss racial issues in class and a lack of diversity and inclusion discussion in all social groups on campus, like in Greek life, were all addressed.
LSA senior Maham Shaikh, who attended the event, wrote in an email that faculty needs to be more considerate of racially charged incidents’ emotional impact, and should address students as such in classes.
“Instructional Faculty need to understand the toll that incidents like these take on students and be accommodating to give extensions and so on to ensure a student’s success,” she wrote.
LSA freshman Asia Green, who spoke at the event, said she had experienced micro-aggressions while on campus, and was grateful for the conversations the event produced.
“I do not feel like there is enough attention to the transition to being a Black student at the University,” Green said.
Schlissel stressed during his closing remarks that he wanted to continue the conversations started, saying he would be willing to remain at the event beyond the scheduled time to be present for the students in attendance.
“The people that have not had a chance to speak, I am happy to stay here as long as people have things to say,” Schlissel said.
When asked why they attended, many students said they wanted to be part of the conversation and help the administration take action. Business senior Colleen Natzke said she thought it would be good to come and listen to the conversation, and was thankful Schlissel was hosting a discussion like this.
Others, however, said they didn’t think the conversation had succeeded.
Thompson wrote that administration must still be held accountable to include all members of the student body in initiatives, citing low numbers of of white students at the forum.
“I don't think that the conversation was productive and conversations like these will never be productive until white people and privileged people take the time to educate themselves and until we are able to see true change, and actions implemented on campus,” Thompson said. “Schlissel insisted on speaking about protecting white students…he stated, “I have no idea how to prevent this,” rather than, “I will try my hardest to prevent these things from happening and by holding our student body accountable.”
University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said the goal of the event was to help students feel included in the process of creating a more inclusive environment on campus. He also noted that the University planned many events allowing students to join the conversation over the past 18 months.
“The primary purpose of today is to have a venue so we can hear from students directly. There will be a number of faculty and staff here to listen,” Fitzgerald said. “We want to consider their opinions thoughtfully, moving forward.”