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University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel announced a $50-million increase in funding for the Center for Academic Innovation, the creation of the Firearm Injury Prevention Research Initiative and a new fund dedicated to achieving climate neutrality to a crowd of more than 200 faculty, staff and students at the annual Leadership Breakfast in the Ross School of Business Thursday morning. 

The funding for the Center for Academic Innovation, Schlissel said, would support the center as they develop strategies to make academic knowledge more accessible through technology and research. 

According to Schlissel, the funds will be distributed over the course of five years, with $10 million given to the center every year. 

“Our innovations have already personalized learning to students from diverse backgrounds, they have identified potential biases in testing and empowered learners to make data-driven choices about how they allocate their studying time,” Schlissel said. “They’re leveling the playing field and identifying opportunities that were previously unseen.” 

The first iteration of the center, the Office of Digital Education and Innovation, was founded in 2014 to bridge the gaps between digital platforms and academic learning. In 2016, it was renamed the Center for Academic Innovation and became a presidential initiative, allowing it to expand its offerings and reach out to more students. 

Currently, the center runs about 160 Massive Open Online Courses to make a University education accessible to students online. The MOOCs are courses designed by University faculty that are meant to be taken online by anyone interested in learning more about a specific subject.

Schlissel also introduced the Firearm Injury Prevention Research Initiative, a new program that aims to harness the University’s research capabilities to advocate for safer gun use across the country. Schlissel stressed the program is not interested in debating Second Amendment rights or introducing gun control measures, but instead is focused on collecting data to prevent gun deaths through safer and smarter use. 

“I trust the initiative to engage the breadth of expertise across the University of Michigan with input from non-academic stakeholders to generate knowledge and advanced solutions that will decrease firearm injury in the United States,” Schlissel said. “The focus is not on gun control, but rather on injury prevention.”

During the Q&A session that took place after the speech, an attendee asked Schlissel to elaborate on how firearm injury prevention is not a form of gun control. Schlissel responded by noting that the new initiative is only focused on the ways research can help prevent injury and is not politically affiliated in any way. 

“The challenges around the politically contentious debate over interpretation of the Second Amendment actually seem to paralyze our country from dealing with the health crisis,” Schlissel said. “So, the notion is, it’s not that I don’t think people should be discussing and considering gun control, but it’s not our research initiative.”

During his speech, Schlissel also touched on current Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plans that will continue throughout the semester. The five-year DEI plan — the University’s program to increase diversity in all sectors of the institution — is currently in its fourth year. Schlissel said he plans to work with University administrators, faculty and students to continue these efforts even after the fifth year finishes. 

“Thanks to the dedication and hard work of people of people all across our campus … the values we share are becoming ingrained deeply in the content of our mission as a public university,” Schlissel said. 

LSA sophomore Julianna Collado, the external director of La Casa, a student organization representing Latinx students and faculty at the University, attended the Leadership Breakfast alongside three other members of the organization. Collado said she and other representatives from La Casa wanted to hear Schlissel’s plans for expanding current DEI projects. 

“I was particularly interested in the DEI initiatives that are happening and how that work will continue after the five-year plan,” Collado said. “It was interesting to see what was highlighted, but also acknowledging that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.”

In the Q&A session, Craig Reynolds, the executive director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects, asked Schlissel how the University plans to respond to current policies that make it difficult for academics in other countries to do research in the United States. 

“A challenge that we face is in the rhetoric in policy changes coming out of Washington in respect to foreign influence on research,” Reynolds said. “One of the hallmarks of a strong university is our ability to attract students and faculty and post-docs from across the world, either as collaborators are as members of our community.”

Schlissel emphasized the University’s commitment to fostering an international and diverse student body and faculty, and said the University would do the most it could to continue attracting students from around the world. 

“We are a global university, and that means being open to collaborations, educational efforts, global travel in all parts of the world,” Schlissel said. “Twenty percent of all Michigan faculty were not born in the United States. Our talented, hardworking students in this year’s freshman class come from 68 countries around the globe. We’re a global university, and that’s inextricably linked to our excellence.”

Other topics discussed at the Leadership Breakfast included the Commission on Carbon Neutrality, the Ideas Lab at the Biosciences Initiative and the retirement of Vice President of Student LifeE. Royster Harper, among others. 

Schlissel also announced that an anonymous donor recently donated several million dollars to the University to fund projects that will help the campus achieve carbon neutrality. Schlissel said he asked the Graham Sustainability Institute to set up a fund with the money that will be used by faculty toward developing carbon-neutral strategies. 

Schlissel mentioned that the University recently joined the University Climate Change Coalition, a group of North American research universities that help their campuses and surrounding communities reach their climate goals. 

“The problem of global climate change is far too big for any one institution to solve,” Schlissel said. “Collaboration and engagement are key to creating real, lasting solutions that will benefit our society.”

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