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University of Michigan students have been organizing protests and demonstrations in the last two weeks after a slew of anti-Latino and anti-Black incidents. The Daily sat down with University president Mark Schlissel to talk students' reactions, his responses and administrators' actions moving forward.
Schlissel said focusing on the lack of success in catching racist perpetrators is "not productive." The administration will be rolling out an online tracker of bias incidents in the coming weeks—though Schlissel said he has not caught wind of many good policy proposals yet. His main priority remains building a community of support for students.
The Michigan Daily: How have you been processing this month’s events? Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the (racist) flyers from last year, and it feels like events are repeating themselves, but then again, this energy feels unique this year.
President Mark Schlissel: There’s a cumulative effect here, right? These episodes in the last week or two aren't the first ever, and they're not the first since I've been here. You know, it seems like their frequency and intensity are increasing if anything else. I think it has the entire community on edge, including me and my leadership teams; we’re trying to find a way to send messages of support and attempt to identify the perpetrators of these various episodes, but also help people stay on task, stay on the reason everyone’s here is to learn and to progress in your lives, and not have the time stolen away from you by evil-doers.
TMD: On those messages of support, you know one of the first demands we often hear from students is for you, for a statement —
Schlissel: — I don't think there's any ambiguity about how I feel about these episodes. The responses to every one of them have been consistent: that racism, bigotry — any forms of attack on a person and who they are, their heritage — they’re unacceptable, they’re not part of our community, they’re not who we are.
The fact that after each one of these episodes it becomes an issue about whether (I’m) tweeting or emailing or Facebooking or whatever form of media people pay attention to, and that becomes the issue … whether I respond in one hour or four hours, or whether I respond with a tweet or an email, I don’t think that's the real issue. I don't think anyone should wonder whether or not the president is against racism.
I think we are letting ourselves get distracted from the real challenge, which is supporting one another; making sure that if we see something, we say something, so we might actually have a chance of catching people doing some of these bad things; and most importantly trying to put these hurtful and hateful events in a context that allows us not to let the bad guys rob us of our opportunity to accomplish what we want to here at the University.
TMD: Speaking of this “small group of people,” the University has a history of progressive activism, and a very high profile in the national higher education landscape. It seems to have developed something of a target on its back. How do you mitigate that?
Schlissel: I don’t think you can. I think that part of being a prominent university, taking clear positions on things, having large numbers of very successful graduates out there in the world, being on TV all the time, being in the media all the time means that what happens here gets noticed. That’s the sort of other side of this double-edged sword of being famous and prominent. … It’s because of our prominence that provocateurs realize they can use us as a platform that the national media will pay attention to, to spread their terrible, thoughtless, degrading, awful ideas. They're using us.
TMD: I know you spoke with Dana Greene, who was kneeling in the Diag, and with a lot of protesters and students in the last week. What kind of conversations have you been having, and what have you been hearing?
Schlissel: A lot of what I try to do is listen and understand what they're experiencing to make sure I understand it as best as I can, and then to offer words of support and encouragement to let the people who are directly affected — because really all of us are being directly affected in one way or another — know that this does not represent our value system.
I spoke to Dana when he was on the Diag by telephone — I was stuck out of town; it was very frustrating because I would have walked over. I asked some of the senior leaders of campus to go talk to him … Royster Harper (Vice President for Student Life), Provost (Martin) Philbert and others. And I arranged for him to come and meet with me just so I can hear from him personally, and he’s meeting with me either later this afternoon or tomorrow. I’ve lost track.
My biggest challenge is when a student looks at me and says: “Dr. Schlissel, how can you let this happen to me? Why can't you stop this from happening? Why can't you catch the person with the Magic Marker writing terrible things on my door?”
Implicit in that question is I have some kind of magical power, and I truly don't. On a campus with millions of square feet of space, and tens of thousands of people here everyday, both people who are part of our community and then people who just walk across State Street and they're in our community, prevention is really hard.
I hope that somebody who witnesses one of these events is willing and brave enough to speak up about it to the authorities. Then we can track down potential perpetrators, and we have both on-campus student conduct things we can do — which have potentially very serious consequences — and for some of these acts, they are potentially crimes we could refer to the police. But all that starts with the witness being able to say ‘I saw something,’ and then we can investigate.
TMD: Are there any new items or policies that the administration has talked about?
Schlissel: I wish I could say there were good ideas that have hit the table. We heard the other night at the forum, and then I’ve heard from individual students, “Why not put cameras everywhere? Why not put cameras up and down the walls of the residence halls?” There are a lot of consequences of putting cameras everywhere: In an effort to catch somebody with a Sharpie, you're giving up an awful lot of privacy, and you're exposing yourself to legal risk. There's underage drinking in our dormitories and now I have video evidence of who's drunk, do I have to do something about that? Can the police come and ask me for that video, so they can go ahead and prosecute a crime? How does it fit in various misconduct investigations? We have to think about it, but I think there are lots of challenging consequences of that.
I think one thing we are doing is trying to be more rapidly transparent about episodes that occur, so that everyone in the community knows where to look when they hear a rumor about something. We’re putting up a website that gives basically a running summary of the events that happened, and the results of any investigations and practical things. I think that will at least help people know what’s going on.
There is no effort here to hide bad things, even if one wanted to one couldn't, and I’m not sure why one would want to. I think by letting people know we’re being assaulted by evil people spreading hate may increase the vigilance of our community where somebody may speak up and say something when they see something and may increase the number of people who are going to reach out to their classmates and support them in the setting of these bad episodes. I’m pretty discouraged and depressed when they keep happening, but hiding them is not part of the response.
TMD: You’ve been saying for the last year or so that you really can’t do anything about these incidents. They’re faceless —
Schlissel: — well if we had faces and suspects, or people that are being identified, then we can do things, but absent, that the thing we really can do is support one another and help people realize that almost certainly this is a tiny minority of the thousands of people on our campus who are being hateful and they feel licensed to be hateful.
TMD: That messaging has been consistent, there. I think there was an exchange between you and a student last week where he had asked how many people have you caught in the last few years…
Schlissel: We haven’t caught anybody, to my knowledge.
TMD: Right, and I think between those two components — the investigations and policies — students are feeling like things are unresolved.
Schlissel: Do you think it's because we don't want to catch people?
TMD: No, but … how do you build trust?
Schlissel: Well, I think one way to build trust is to focus on what the bad guys are doing, and in other words not to, because we’ve had no success catching people.
Turning that lack of success into the problem I don’t think is productive. I think this notion of the community supporting one another‚ as was evidenced when Dana took his knee and many people came by to offer him both support, encouragement, comfort, an umbrella to sit under — that's the approach to these things.
I recognize that absent the ability to stop these things from happening, when there's emotional upset and anger, people have to focus that in a direction. I think that's what we're seeing in terms of criticism of the University, of our police force, of me. It’s frustration in our inability to prevent hateful people from hurting us with words and with physical grafitti.
TMD: Students have also directed anger towards DPSS, and you’ll notice protesters getting rankled at police presence at demonstrations. What is that relationship between protesters and campus security … and again, how can you build trust?
Schlissel: The role of DPSS is to keep campus safe. They’re as good as I’ve ever seen at that job. They use minimal force and maximum communication and organization. Thank goodness we have not had episodes, as have happened on other campuses, of violence between police and students in our community. They, too, are a symbol upon which to foist anger. When you can’t find the person who wrote the thing with the Sharpie, you can holler at the president, or the man in the uniform, and that’s understandable. Look what they did the other day in clearing the street so a group of protesters could cross without worrying about a person who had got out of his car. They’re doing an incredible job.
TMD: The anger towards (the Division of Public Safety or Security), you or administration is understandable. Do you think it’s also warranted?
Schlissel: It’s not a surprising thing. I understand where it’s coming from, and a lot of it is coming from a place of frustration.