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Covering issues such as higher education and influencing change through academia, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel highlighted on Thursday what he considers the importance of being a research institution socially, economically and internationally.

However, Schlissel veered from the central topic of the colloquium — a President’s Bicentennial Colloquium event held at the Rackham Graduate School featuring four former University presidents, including Harold T. Shapiro, James J. Duderstadt, Lee C. Bollinger and Mary Sue Coleman — to speak about issues he found more significant: immigration and a university’s responsibility to speak out within the current political climate.

“The challenge we’re going to confront in this very political era is: How do we walk that line between picking on issues that we can contribute to that make our mission stronger, make our University stronger and more valuable to society without being categorized or dismissed as inappropriately acting in the political space?” Schlissel asked.

Beforehand, Gary Krenz, director of bicentennial planning, wrote in an email interview the event’s significance was twofold.

“First, to be able to have a group of people together who, all told, can reflect on such a large portion of the University’s history is very exciting,” Krenz wrote. “It allows us to compare similarities and differences across time. Second, these presidents collectively represent an amazing amount of experience in higher ed leadership, so having them together to discuss challenges will be very enlightening.”

Susan Alcock, special council for institutional outreach and engagement, was joined by Interim Provost Paul Courant, who was a moderator of the event and introduced the overarching topic to be addressed.

“The bargain between the research university and society is under much greater stress than we imagined it could or would be,” Courant said before introducing Shapiro.

Shapiro, who was president of the University from 1980 to 1987, agreed with Courant’s initial sentiments.

“It is critical to acknowledge as a nation we currently face an environment characterized by such a high level of cultural, social, economic and political anxiety,” Shapiro said. “Michigan’s commitments to its teaching and research programs rest on a foundational commitment that facts do matter and that centuries of scholarship have created a legacy that continues to contribute to the ongoing vitality of our society.”

Duderstadt, who held the position from 1988 to 1996, followed Shapiro’s thoughts on the role of scholarship in a modern liberal state by adopting a phrase that considers the University a “privately supported but publicly committed institution.” Duderstadt acknowledged contemporary challenges the University may face.

“More specifically, our challenges have been first, to develop a financial paradigm that could address the disappearance of state support and second, to sustain our fundamental mission,” Duderstadt said.

Bollinger, president of the University from 1996 to 2001, considered the University’s responsibility to be engaged in the current political sphere, which Schlissel echoed in his comments later.

Bollinger recognized the ability of the University to bring the next generation into an intellectual life, and the important role of universities to establish an understanding of issues of social importance.

“You can’t have a love of humankind unless you start with a deep sense of love and affection for the people immediately around you,” Bollinger said. “We have to be in alignment more or less with human needs and issues and I’ve come to believe that we are not in proper alignment today.”

Coleman, who was the University’s first female president and served from 2002 to 2014, focused her individual speech on the efforts she took to digitize the University’s books.

“By digitizing today’s books through our own efforts and partnerships with others, we are protecting the written word for all time,” Coleman said. “By making them available online, we would expose them to the possibility of commercial success.”

Schlissel though quickly pivoted the conversation to a conflicting set of political issues.

“In the public space, our political leaders are talking about clamping down on immigration as a mechanism to make our nation safer, and it’s certainly a legitimate worry of the government to make the United States as safe as possible for its citizens,” Schlissel said. “Many people are concerned in this era of economic insecurity that immigrants may somehow make it harder for them to get a job.”

Yet Schlissel referred to the presence of students who benefit from the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program in the University community and those affected by President Donald Trump’s recent ban on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries.

“Here’s the challenge for us: Not only are we a nation of immigrants, we are a university of immigrants,” Schlissel said. “The folks that come here to do research are actually contributing to the innovation pipeline that comes out of our great University … The students that we educate here that go back to their own country, they take a little bit of America with them. They demystify our country.”

Schlissel finalized his remarks by noting his necessity as a University leader to speak out ethically and morally.

Krenz, a professor for the bicentennial course Philosophy 162, The University of Michigan: A Moral Institution, had a number of students present at the event, including Engineering senior Jesse Newton.  

“(The class focuses on) mostly just the role of the University and how they play in society and different ethical problems that the University can run into,” Newton said. “We went over in class before we came to this Shapiro’s role in making us a more exclusive university, Duderstadt’s role in focusing on engineering and that science (and) Coleman’s role in development of the North Campus Research Center.”

English Ph.D. candidate Elizabeth Harlow had posed a question to the panel of how a university president can be effective in exercising power in the political realm, especially in response to Bollinger’s discussion of the evolution of a global communication system. Later, Harlow said she believed the presidents were appropriate in their responses.

“I thought that the conversation about academic freedom and the existential threat of the political climate to what a university is was really fascinating,” Harlow said. “I’m a member of the graduate class that’s been convened around the question of the bargain between the University and society and it’s something that we’ve been struggling with all term and it was really interesting to think about how the University can and needs to negotiate the political.”

Robin Washington, ’84 alum and member of the President’s Advisory Council, said she wished more current students had attended the event.

“It’s phenomenal to bring together all the ex-presidents and get their perspectives,” Washington said. “It’s clear to see their passion for the school, but also their acute awareness of the importance of the University as well as the culture and tradition, which I think they all have great respect for.”

Washington noted Schlissel’s ability to navigate significant issues in a local and national context.

“It’s rare to get that type of continuity and just to hear the likeness of thought, the complementary, but also the variation in their viewpoints of what matters,” Washington said. “I love (Schlissel’s) courage and his awareness to talk about critical but politically sensitive issues.”

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