At its last meeting of the year, the University of Michigan Senate Assembly invited President Mark Schlissel to provide remarks on University progress and challenges from the past semester. Schlissel discussed sexual harassment on campus, the effect of the tax reform bill on graduate students and Richard Spencer’s impending visit.

“It’s been obviously a really challenging semester on campus,” Schlissel said. “The challenges largely being around social issues, issues of inclusion and community occurring in a very difficult national political moment in the United States.”

Schlissel began by listing the series of accomplishments, scholarships and awards earned by alumni, students and faculty over the past year. He underscored the University’s $1.48 billion in research conducted in 2017, resulting in it ranking as the second-best university in the nation for volume of research expenditure among public universities.

Schlissel also remarked on the promising fundraising efforts and growth of the University’s endowment, which has reached about $11 billion.

“Your university, through your efforts, is actually doing spectacularly well,” Schlissel said. “I wanted to give that little bit of a pep talk because we’re dealing with challenging issues on the campus, but I want to be sure we don’t forget that our mission is of profound importance to the broader society, and certainly to our fellow citizens and friends and neighbors in the state of Michigan.”

Afterward, he fielded questions about various challenges facing the University. The first question regarded the current tax reform bill and its provision about taxing the tuition waivers that are provided to doctoral students. Schlissel promised that the higher-education community is lobbying Congress to keep this proposal out of the final version of the tax code. He cautioned that if it did pass, the University would only be able to financially support affected students temporarily.

“I can imagine if there’s a very short-term and immediate change and our students are in big trouble, we can step in and help people,” Schlissel said. “That’s a short-term, not a longer-term solution.”

Schlissel heard questions from faculty members at the meeting on sexual assault and harassment on campus. He affirmed the University has clear rules, procedures and sanctions in place, but there needs to be a culture where people have confidence in the reporting process.

“We have a scheme which I think is a good one,” Schlissel said. “What we have to work on and share responsibility for is a culture in which people who feel as if they’ve been discriminated against or they’re being treated unfairly or they’re being harassed … we have to a culture where that gets reported and people have confidence that it would be fairly and sensitively investigated and adjudicated.”

Social Work professor Robert Ortega, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and Senate Assembly, subsequently announced that representatives from the Office for Institutional Equity will be coming to SACUA next semester to discuss reporting and the culture of sexual misconduct.

Schlissel then fielded questions about Richard Spencer’s request to speak on campus and the University’s response. He justified his decision to consider Spencer’s request and attempt to find a time and location where the event could be safely held. He cited legal obligations and fear over the University violating the First Amendment as reasons to permit Spencer to speak.

“Imagine the circumstance, if, in the not too distant future, Michigan’s behavior in rejecting the speaker based on content gets used, inappropriately, but used by others to deny the speech rights of a marginalized group,” Schlissel said.

Schissel added that granting Spencer permission would avoid a lawsuit and give the University more leverage on the time and location of the event.

“The easy thing in the short term would’ve been to say no; everybody would clap, we stood up for our values,” Schlissel said. “We’d end up in court, we’d lose, we’d have much less control over the ultimate event and he would be a hero and there’d be even a larger convening here of very challenging people.”

Provost Martin Philbert added that the University will be sending resources out to faculty for them to pass to their students who may feel particularly vulnerable in light of Spencer speaking.

After Schlissel spoke, Ortega introduced the High 5 Challenge, an initiative to engage students and faculty members in smaller conversations about sensitive matters on campus.

The High 5 Challenge would entail faculty members identifying five or more students in their classrooms who may be struggling with sensitive issues and inviting them to have a more intimate conversation inside or outside the classroom.

“We want to move this and make us as faculty and also students aware that there are faculty who are open to having these difficult conversations,” Ortega said.

Senate Assembly member Christianne Meyers, an associate professor of theatre, responded that some professors may not be well-equipped to lead such intimate conversations.

“In my experience in the last two to three years, I have been asked to be or needed to pretend to be a social worker,” Meyers said. “That’s not my training and that’s not my expertise. I can attend a two-hour workshop. That’s like a Band-Aid.”

The High 5 Challenge has not been completely solidified, and SACUA is seeking feedback from faculty before rolling it out.

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