Courtesy of Sejal Patil

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The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs met virtually Monday afternoon to discuss the revised U-M inclusivity statement proposed by the Committee for Fairness, Equity, and Inclusion (CFEI), the ongoing presidential search and to hear from University Provost Susan Collins.

SACUA Chair Allen Liu, associate professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering, introduced CFEI Chair Mark Allison, associate professor of Computer Science at the University of Michigan-Flint, who shared the goals of the new statement.

“The major scope that we have been working on has been to look at better integrating inclusive resources throughout all three campuses,” Allison said. “More pertinent to this meeting today is to redefine and update our definition of inclusion. ‘We hear what you are saying’ is the language used in the older model but that is not truly inclusive, it is too passive to incite change.”

The CFEI came to the meeting hoping to get faculty input on their revised statement. The revised statement reads: “We commit to ensuring that our University are a place where differences are welcomed, different perspectives are respected and every individual has equal access to opportunities and resources.”

Allison said this new statement is concise and will work to make the University a more accepting place.

“Let’s shut the back door and make our environment so welcoming that students and faculty choose to stay,” Allison said. “Let’s attract the best talent and keep them. This is the first and most important step for us to move forward.”

Social Work professor Rogério M. Pinto said the revised statement is a move in the right direction but still contains passive language.

“I feel that if one of the major goals is to use active language, then the statement is still lacking,” Pinto said. “The beginning of the statement still uses the phrase ‘We commit’ which is not definitive or measurable. I am always one for short statements, but what we need to be doing is using active verbs like ‘We will’. Without this (guarantee of) inclusion, it will be hard for people to feel supported by this statement.”

Allison said CFEI discussed having specific goals in the statement but decided committing to specific plans of action would be premature.

“We are the actions,” Allison said. “We can look at our work and validate our actions instead of using definitive actions in our statement. We ran into the issue of figuring out how much to put in this definition. It feels like we left out things but until we have numbers showing progress, we can’t make any assumptions about what exactly we will be doing.”

The committee then welcomed Regent Jordan Acker (D), chair of the Board of Regents, to discuss the ongoing presidential search prompted by the termination of former University President Mark Schlissel on Jan. 15, which followed an internal investigation that revealed he engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. 

“The dismissal of President Schlissel came as quite a shock,” Acker said. “Whether you are a first-year supervisor or the president, his actions were not tolerable. It remains a goal of the board for the campus to be safe for everyone and people should feel safe to teach, learn, and conduct research.” 

The Presidential Search Committee will work with students, staff and faculty members to search for the University’s next president. The committee met for the first time on Feb. 8 and the Board of Regents hope to have the next University President elected by Summer 2022.

Derek Peterson, professor of history and African studies, said certain academic groups were being underrepresented on the search committee.

“Candidates with backgrounds in social sciences are unrepresented in the president search,” Peterson said. “Are the regents working on the presumption that the new president and provost will be (doctors)? I think we need to expand the representation to include fields such as my own.”

Acker said although he couldn’t reveal many concrete details, no candidates would be ruled out of the preliminary process on the basis of their field. 

“We are dedicated to finding a person with the vision to lead our institution,” Acker said. “We have representatives from the arts and at least six committee members in humanities. I unfortunately can’t see a situation where the search committee is expanded to more than the 26 members that there already is.”

Art & Design professor Rebekah Modrak said she and a majority of the faculty noticed issues with Schlissel far before the regents.

“It’s a little surprising to hear that you were surprised about Schlissel’s leaving,” Modrak said. “I think there needs to be more attention paid to the faculty voice. We have a good grasp on the efficiency of people in positions of power and would like to share our input.”

Acker said the regents were surprised with the specific allegations prompting Schlissel’s termination rather than the termination itself.

“I think the next president must have the ability to listen and engage better with our campus community,” Acker said. “We are very aware of that as an important aspect of the University’s leadership. You can’t be an effective leader without being an effective communicator.”

Another issue brought up during the meeting was the fact that there has only been one female U-M president, and no person of color has held the position. LSA professor Luke Williamson Hyde said people across campus have concerns about the identities of the new president.

“It is surprising that our presidents have lacked diversity since the University should be prioritizing inclusivity, especially in positions of power,” Hyde said. “I also worry about the merger with Michigan Medicine and feel that there may be a bias towards selecting a physician as the next president. But being a physician does not make someone uniquely qualified to be the leader of a University.”

Information professor Kentaro Toyama said it would be helpful to have an open search process, so members of the University community can hear from the candidates’ past employers.

“I think if you announce the (presidential) search finalists, we can hear from the institutions that they are coming from,” Toyama said. “The students and faculty at Brown said that Schlissel didn’t handle matters well there but that only came to our attention after Schlissel was already active here. I understand that it may be uncomfortable for candidates to have their names announced but I think it will be for the greater good.”

Acker said although a public and open process would be ideal, this could limit the number of candidates and pose an issue if candidates have to tell their current institutions that they are thinking about leaving.

Collins also attended the meeting and said despite the obstacles faced by the University in the past two years, the institution still values input on services for faculty.

“Central offices of the University want to know how we can help faculty continue their important work of supporting our students and fellow faculty,” Collins said. “In order to create a comprehensive infrastructure for students, we need to strengthen compassion to fit complex needs. We have to make services for students more visible so that they can find the help they need. We can expand peer support programs and increase access to screening.”

Peterson asked Collins about Schlissel’s termination and what faculty could have done to avoid the events that transpired. Collins said she has no particular comments about the situation but thinks it should be used as a cautionary tale to correct the systemic faults in the University.

“I think that we need to work together now more than ever to have the culture that we all deserve,” Collins said. “The policies we put in place need to apply to everybody, but I want to focus on looking forward and focus on the positive news in our University. I want to recognize the tremendous value our faculty and students are adding to the world. We need to work together to get to a better place.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Sejal Patil can be reached at sejpatil@umich.edu.