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The Michigan Daily sat down for an interview with University President Mark Schlissel to address several current issues on campus, including a potential visit from Richard Spencer, Central Student Government’s vote for #UMDivest and more.
The Michigan Daily: Starting with Richard Spencer — in the Regent’s Meeting called last week, safety seemed like a big topic of discussion—that’s your top priority in your negotiations, and a major concern for students. How are you defining safety in its many components, physical, mental and emotional. How do you work through that?
Schlissel: I think the most unambiguous one is the physical safety of our community, and not just our students but the people that will come here, or may come here, to protest for or against and the safety of the speaker, the physical safety of the speaker and then of Ann Arbor. The town and the University are intimately linked, and we want to be sure as we move forward—if we do move forward— that we’re taking everyone’s physical safety into account.
TMD: What kinds of things do you think could contribute to making a more or less safe environment?
Schlissel: What the law allows us to consider is the time and the place and the manner of speaking. So for example, it would be very easy for us to say no if Mr. Spencer insisted on speaking on the Diag at 11 in the morning on a class day with a bullhorn, right? Because he would disrupt everyone’s class. So, using that as an example, what we would look for is a time of the day and time of the year and a location that our professional security people tell us is the safest possible way to do this. It would be silly to discuss these things in public and these are things that we want to discuss with Mr. Spencer’s representatives to figure out whether we can do something that’s safe.
TMD: Going forward, whose voices will you consider in negotiations? Are there any faculty or student organization voices which will take precedence over one another? Furthermore, is there an expected timeline for how long these deliberations may take?
Schlissel: I don’t know, I don’t want to prejudice them. I want to make clear again, I have no particular interest in hearing this person speak and I have no particular interest in having this person come to the University of Michigan. The idea is that he’s made a request to rent a room, and we’re obligated to consider that request without consideration of what he wants to talk about so with that in mind, as I’ve said publicly, we’re certainly allowed to put restrictions on the time, place and manner of speech to maintain the safety of our community and to minimize the disruption to our mission, and that’s what we’ll try to do.
You could think of ways we might do this, but I’m not going to describe in a newspaper article how the University is going to try to negotiate the safest possible way to do this, because that would be against our interest in doing it the safest possible way. If we do arrive at a way to move forward, we would certainly give our community plenty of notice, we would discuss with the community all of our best advice about how people can maintain their own personal safety, we would discuss ways to protest and to express yourselves if that’s what you want to do. We’ve promised to work with student groups and other groups on campus for alternative programming and if people want things in different places so they can be together with one another, rather than sitting around wondering what’s going on with this crazy person on a different part of our campus, so we’ll do all of those things but there’s not really much we can do until (we know) whether it would be possible to do this safely and when and where it would be, and we don’t know those things yet.
One thing I’m really concerned about is students are protesting this decision to determine whether we can move forward in a safe fashion, and some people have called for a boycott of classes. One thing I’m very worried about is by expressing the way we feel about this person, we may be inadvertently playing into his hands and giving him material he can use for fundraising and giving him the sense of power that none of us think he deserves, (that) I certainly don’t think he deserves. So I have this picture of this person sitting in a room somewhere laughing at us. Laughing at us because his asking to rent a room and come and say words are enough to have people decide they don’t want to go to class on Thursday, and I fear that we’re giving this man too much power over us.
TMD: Can you tell us who, besides you and Richard Spencer and his team, will be directly involved?
Schlissel: I don’t want to discuss the details — it will be people that are trusted to understand the legal issues that are involved and the public safety issues involved.
TMD: And, as far as alternative events offered to students, is there anything in place yet, or in the works?
Schlissel: No because we don’t know if or when he’s coming. What I can imagine is a series of events developed in collaboration with students and faculty for the same day he’s here if he does come here and then perhaps a moderate time thereafter of days or a week or two weeks after, a major event expressing different points of view that we might want to sponsor that more express our values. That remains abstract until we know whether he’s coming. Students have already been sending me suggestions for who they might like to see and here to express alternate viewpoints which is what we should be doing.
TMD: Before we shift topics, back to the resources you touched on — the student strike on Thursday, I think the idea behind that from protesters is that this kind of organizing and resistance takes a lot of time and effort, that maybe distracts from —
Schlissel: From their studies, and what they’re trying to accomplish as students.
TMD: Right. So, is there anything—whether it looks like resources or verbal support— that can be offered to them, not even if he comes, but during the negotiations?
Schlissel: In general, I’ve made it 100 percent clear that we did not invite Richard Spencer to come and speak here, and my strong personal preference is that he doesn’t. Personally, there is nothing he has said before that I find worth my time hearing, he certainly speaks in ways that are against my personal values and I’m guessing the values of many of us in the community. So, that’s really clear and I think that view, nothing is unanimous, but that view is pretty darn close to unanimous across our campus — among students, faculty and staff. So if that expression of solidarity is helpful to your fellow students, I think that’s great, and I also don’t mind, I think it’s always a good thing when students express their strong feelings, they organize, they protest, those are fine things. I think every person has to decide for themselves how they think about the obligations of the University when it comes to someone requesting to rent a room. I laid out as carefully as I could the way we thought about this, I spent quite a bit of time talking to students, faculty and staff before we arrived at a position about how to move forward — so people have had lots of opportunities to express their thoughts and I think they’re all valid and I don’t reject any of these thoughts, it’s just at the end of the day the University had to make a decision to prioritize the physical safety of everyone in our community, but respect the Constitution of the United States and the rights of speech. I think the question was most interesting that was raised during the arguments beforehand was whether we should say no to express our values — recognizing that we would be sued, and it doesn’t matter, just go ahead and sue us — in this instance I didn’t think this would be the smart way forward. No one has successfully prevented this person from speaking when he sues to speak, so I think the likelihood of Michigan winning a lawsuit by simply saying “no” is almost zero. By saying no, we are making him a hero because he’s going to go to court and use our resistance to his speech rights as justification for the terrible things that he says. A subsequent event after he wins a court victory might be much more difficult to keep as safe as possible, and it wouldn’t prevent him from speaking here. The other thing it would do, it would show that when we get afraid, and somebody scares us, we’re willing to forget the Constitution and the First Amendment, and I think that’s just such a dangerous situation for our country to be in. We can look at this guy and almost all of us agree that what he says is hateful, but who are we going to trust to make a determination, on our behalf, in American society today who should be allowed to speak and who shouldn’t? I don’t trust anybody in government to make that decision, and that’s why I wasn’t willing to make that decision either.
For the rest of the interview on divestment, Greek Life, and tax reform, listen here: