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University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel addressed students concerns about commencement, President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts to research funding, the reorganization of Michigan Medicine — formerly known as the University of Michigan Health System — and Medical School integration at the Monday meeting of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs. During their weekly meeting, SACUA also approved Robert Ortega, an associate professor of social work and current SACUA member, to replace current Chair Bill Schultz, a professor of mechanical engineering, next year.
Schlissel clarified the plans for the bicentennial commencement ceremony, specifically the choice not to have an outside speaker, which has sparked negative reactions from students. He cited recent commencement speakers like Michael Bloomberg, who was criticized for his discussion of safe spaces and trigger warnings, and the founders of Zingerman’s, who some students considered not sufficiently “prominent” to speak at commencement, to show how controversy over commencement is an annual occurrence.
“I point this out to say it’s always controversial,” Schlissel said. “In this particularly politically polarizing era, it would have been very challenging to find anybody in the political domain because everybody offends somebody these days in politics. We’ll go back to having speakers in subsequent years’ graduations, but for this one time, we decided to do something different.”
He acknowledged student complaints that their voices were not heard during the decision process, but he emphasized the efforts of the University to make the bicentennial commencement unique.
“I heard them, but I didn’t obey, in effect,” Schlissel said of student voices. “I think that’s healthy, I think the student voice is always important, it’s always welcome, but I think it’s misleading to think that it’s always determinative.”
Despite the student body pushback, Schlissel emphasized his belief that commencement will still be memorable for all those who are graduating.
“We’re stepping away from tradition for the sake of making this a special graduation,” Schlissel said. “I’m confident it’s going to be great.”
Schlissel also discussed the University response to the proposed “skinny budget,” which would potentially cut National Institutes of Health funding by 20 percent and materially impact the funding of research at the University.
“We’re lobbying on this,” he said. “We’re reaching out to the people we have contacts with who understand the importance of research and the fact that it’s a long-term investment, and we can’t lurch from good funding to bad funding.”
At the mention of searching for alternative funding sources like the Food and Drug Administration, SACUA member David Smith, a professor of pharmaceutical science, said researchers at the University should strive to retain a high standard of research, even with the uncertainty of funding sources.
“We can fund ourselves and wind up being a very good mediocre school,” he said. “In no way would I encourage anyone to give up on NIH.”
Schlissel also spoke about the progress toward reorganizing Michigan Medicine as a cohesive unit.
“This reorganization, the goal of it is to make our health care delivery and academic enterprises a single enterprise so that their shared responsibility of all the leaders will be the success of both sides of that house in order to teach the research side, the clinical side,” he said. “The idea of bringing those two positions together and setting up a leadership group that work together on problems on both sides of the organization is to try to ensure that integration.”
Sami Malek, an associate professor of internal medicine and an upcoming member of SACUA, said, in his personal experience, he has found the University Medical School is in need of some sort of change.
“I think we’ve gone through the dark ages,” he said. “I just don’t think they had what it took to run such a thing on a competitive level. I think we all have to make sure things get better because it wasn’t good.”
At the end of the meeting, Schultz asked for further nominations for both the chair and vice chair positions for the next academic year. Ortega, the only nomination for chair, won with acclamation and the election of vice chair was postponed to provide further opportunities for nominations.