Each month, The Michigan Daily’s Administration Beat sits down with University President Mark Schlissel to discuss important questions about University policy, commitments and challenges. Topics discussed in the interview included the Detroit Center for Innovation, the 2020 presidential debate, carbon neutrality and more. This transcript has been abbreviated and reordered for reader clarity.

Detroit Center for Innovation

The Michigan Daily: Recently, the University announced it will collaborate to open the Detroit Center for Innovation. While the University states this project will further the goal of fostering a collaborative relationship with Detroit, there has been some backlash. Specifically, some have taken to social media calling on the University to improve funding to Flint and Dearborn campuses before beginning a $300 million project, while others have referred to the University’s investment as gentrification. What is your response to both of these criticisms?

President Mark Schlissel: These (criticisms) may be based on faulty information. So the University as a whole has over 300 projects going on in Detroit. This is just the latest one. Most of them involve things where we’re working with the Detroit public K-12 school students. We have a new school we’re collaborating on at Marygrove, at the site of the old Marygrove College. We’ve got the Michigan Engineering Zone, a robotics program for high school students. We have a mentoring program for kids heading into medicine. We’ve got Wolverine Pathways, the pipeline program, and we’ve got research programs in collaboration with community advocates. We’re embedded in the Mayor’s Office with the Poverty Solutions Initiative. 

So, this is another of a series of projects we’re doing where we look for opportunities to fulfill the University’s mission of research and teaching in ways that have benefits to the public we serve and, in this case, in Detroit. We were invited by the city and by Steve Ross — one of our alumni donors — and by Dan Gilbert, a developer in the city, to become an anchor tenant of the project we’re conceiving of, that you read about. We’re actually not spending any money building the building at all. It’s going to be built by a series of donors and then gifted to the University. So, although it may end up costing as much as $300 million, the University won’t be paying for it. We’ll be receiving it, in effect, as a gift. And our role is to set up educational and research programs that help drive the entrepreneurial and technology part of the Detroit economy, so that new businesses form and existing companies grow and they don’t leave Detroit and, ultimately, the economy does well enough to provide more jobs for more people.

2020 Presidential Debate

TMD: The University announced it would be hosting one of the 2020 presidential debates on campus. What precautions will the school take to help communities that may be put at risk, such as communities of color and undocumented students, given all the national attention and heightened law enforcement presence? 

 MS: The election will be the biggest news of the coming year, and it will affect every one of your lives without a doubt, for better or for worse … One of the things that I think is very important is that students in your generation feel a sense of ownership of our democracy, and feel not just an obligation to vote, but an excitement to vote, to really learn about the issues, to try to get past the invective and the polarized nature of debate. 

In terms of the physical safety, the event itself will be held down in the Crisler Center … so it’s away from the heart of the campus. So, our day-to-day activities of going to class, and going to labs, and going to the library, and going back and forth to the dorms will be relatively unaffected, although the city will be more crowded. I don’t think it’ll be more crowded than a football Saturday.

The safety, we’ve got a year to plan for it … It’s not just our DPSS, but it’s state police, all the national security apparatus will be here. It’ll probably be the safest place in America, physically. The issue of psychological threat and psychological harm, I recognize that it’s going to be a stressful year because the body of politics is very polarized, and there’s a lot of fear mongering as part of the debate, and we’re all subject to that. I think that it may be of more intensity because everyone is here in town, but I think it’s going to be pretty intense no matter what. We have CAPS … Student Life will convene watching parties so that we can watch the debates together.”

Sexual Assault

TMD: Recently the University released its climate survey on sexual assault. The data from the campus climate survey showed decreased reports of sexual misconduct against undergraduate women compared to the survey in 2015. First, do you believe it is fair to interpret the findings as fewer instances of misconduct against undergraduate women, or could the decrease be attributed to fear of reporting?

 MS: All I can tell you is the survey was done the same exact way, asking the same questions with the same kind of incentives to answer a few years ago and then very recently. So, I don’t think it’s due to a change in comfort reporting. I think there are some people who aren’t comfortable reporting no matter what, I think there are some people that are uncomfortable making a claim of misconduct to the University and having it investigated. I think more people are probably comfortable talking or providing results in an anonymous survey. Whether that number changes over the course of years, I don’t know. But I can tell you, even though our numbers moved in the right direction, it’s nowhere close to where we need to be. It’s still an amazing thing that such a high percentage of students, men and women, are subject to all different types of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. So, even if the frequency has gone down by a few percent, we’re nowhere close to where we need to be, and we have to double down on the things that we’re doing.

We’ve had to change the way we investigate and adjudicate sexual misconduct cases due to the order of a court of appeals, so lots of things are changing, and we’re trying to get it right. The one thing that really strikes me is that, although we’re focusing a lot of attention on this problem of misconduct at universities, it doesn’t only happen at universities, and it doesn’t only happen when you’re 20. It happens when you’re 15 sometimes or, you know, really young. So, it’s our piece of a big societal problem. And personally, I don’t think that rules and laws can get rid of sexual misconduct. And even if we come up with a much better way to adjudicate cases, I don’t think that will eliminate sexual misconduct. It’s so common and so depressing everyday that what’s going to get rid of it is you all looking each other in the eye and saying, “We’re not going to tolerate this in our community.” Not just you, but 46,000 “yous” where you just say, “Look, this is literally ridiculous. This will not happen in my house.” And we don’t have enough police to sit in every party and every meeting, and stand next to every man and woman on the campus and make sure nobody puts their hands where somebody doesn’t want to go. That’s up to all of us as a community to kind of crowdsource the solution to this, to really say, “This is not tolerable; we will not let this happen.” And if 95 percent of you can say that, it will stop. And we have to figure out how to get everyone to embrace a sense of shared ownership that men and women in the classroom, in the dormitory, in the parties, wherever you are, that as a community, we are not going to let this happen. We’re going to see it and we’re not going to let it happen. We have to protect each other. I’m sorry, I get really upset about this.

TMD: There was a statistically significant difference in rates of “nonconsensual sexual contact” between heterosexual students and members of the LGBTQ+ community. How will the University work to support members of the LGBTQ+ community who also experience disproportionately high rates of sexual assault? 

MS: We take the same approach that we do when survey data tells us other particular communities are at risk. So, we learned a while ago that there were increased incidents in Greek Life and club sports, so we focus extra training and monitoring on those areas. What we’re doing with this information about the LGBTQ+ community being more subject, is we’re making sure that all of our counselors get training, particularly at SAPAC, about how to support people from that sub-community who are going through episodes of this type. We have to use the information to target the education so that this particular sub-community gets more than its share of support because it’s being victimized to a greater extent.

Carbon Neutrality

TMD: At the Regents meeting in September, a new 12-story inpatient hospital was approved with an estimated cost of $920 million. At last month’s interview, you cited cost as a reason the University hadn’t made drastic changes to its carbon and fossil fuel usage. Yet, as stated, there’s a nearly 1-billion-dollar hospital being built. But, I’m curious as to what determines where the University’s money goes and what is preventing it from going towards reducing the University’s carbon footprint even after IPCC reports said climate change will soon be irreversible, and students are willing to get arrested for the cause?

MS: …So, if the example is an expensive new hospital, the money used to build that hospital came from our healthcare work, so it came from reserves built up by the hospital from taking care of patients that they knew they would have to use to modernize our facilities. So, it didn’t come from tuition, it didn’t come from the state, it didn’t come from endowment, it didn’t come from sources that you would consider flexible. It was specifically saved up by the health system and then using gifts from donors that want to make a contribution to healthcare.

Overall, the University, when it establishes its budget each year, looks to see how it can best satisfy its mission and how it could, at the same time, moderate the growth and the cost of higher ed, make sure we invest enough in financial aid to make sure people can have access to the education no matter where they’re coming from economically, that we can invest enough to maintain our competitiveness as a research University and that we can satisfy things like our commitments to diminish our carbon footprint. So, all of those things compete with each other. The provost is the chief budget officer for the University, and the provost works with the deans and the other executives of the University, they all make budget requests, and it’s the provost’s job to balance that off, and it’s my job to say whether I think he has it right or not, and then the Regents ultimately get to decide, they vote on it.

I’m pretty sure that when the carbon commission is done with its work, we’ll have a much smarter idea of what are the investments we should be making and what orders of magnitude of investment. If somebody said, “President Schlissel, here’s a billion dollars to spend on making Michigan carbon neutral,” I wouldn’t know what to do with it. What would you do with it, honestly? Just because the students say they want us to go carbon neutral, that’s great, how should we do this? Well, it’s a big responsibility, and we’re not making short-term decisions; we’re making decisions that will last the rest of the lifetime of the University. So, we have to make good decisions.”

One University

TMD: The One University campaign has been a topic of conversation for several months now. You have fielded questions about One University for a while now, and you’ve already spoken on the fact that the different campuses have different needs, but the fight does not seem to be slowing. At the last Regents meeting in Flint, a speaker said, and I quote, “Our students may not come from the wealth that many Ann Arbor students do, but they are of equal worth.” What do you think of this quote and, more generally, the belief that Flint and Dearborn receive less funding due to the lower socio-economic status of their students?

MS: I think that all of the comments made are interesting, important, legitimate, honest and sincere comments. I don’t think Flint and Dearborn have less funding because their students come from lower socioeconomic communities. I think they have less funding because they get less money from the state, they collect less tuition from their students, they don’t have nearly the philanthropy Ann Arbor has and instead of being 200 years old, with hundreds of years to develop the support that and the infrastructure the University has, they’re 50 years old.

Both campuses have chancellors who are relatively new. They’re working on strategic plans for how to best serve their communities. Just like this question of “what would I do if I have a billion dollars to fix climate change at Michigan” that I don’t have the answer to, I think it’s up to the campuses to decide where the best places are for the campuses to deploy resources to best serve their mission. And it might be financial aid — each of those campuses has significantly increased their financial aid in recent years. Those campuses, Flint and Dearborn, invest a fair amount of aid in scholarships to attract very high-performing students. Ann Arbor chooses to provide more of its aid to promote socioeconomic diversity. One of the challenges here has been relatively few students from the lower third of the economy are on this campus, whereas Flint and Dearborn look like the economy, they’re the same as the economy. So, their goals might be different in terms of how to deploy their financial aid.”

DEI Reflection

TMD: The Diversity, Equity & Inclusion third year reflection plan was released. Vice Provost Robert Sellers recently addressed students, faculty and staff about the progress of the strategic plan. Sellers noted the DEI initiatives were not created by you or other University officials, but were instead developed by individuals in all sectors of the community. How have these action items changed, if at all, in the three years since the strategic plan was implemented?

MS: Some things are working well and some things are working slowly. There are some things that I’m particularly proud of and other areas we have to double down. One of the things that I think has worked out great has been the Go Blue Guarantee on the Ann Arbor campus has significantly increased the frequency of applications from lower socio-economic students. In just the few years it has been in effect, our percentages of PELL eligible students have gone up quite a bit … so that’s impressive. LSA has had a postdoctoral program … trying to identify scholars whose research contributes to the diversity of the community, and that’s been really successful.

I think it’s fair to say, overall, our work on DEI is a work in progress. I don’t think it’s going to end in five years. I don’t think the need to make sure this is an environment that is similarly (welcoming) to people from all different kinds of backgrounds where everyone is treated equitably, which means to me you don’t treat everyone exactly the same, you treat everyone by providing them what they need to be successful and to have the opportunity to be successful. I think that’s going to be an ongoing effort.

In the year ahead, we’re going to think about what happens after year five, so what’s the plan, what is DEI 2.0? That’s when we’re going to take stock of what has worked well, what’s worked less well and figure out what’s the next round of investments to be made, and also how do we keep people’s energy and focus on this … I don’t want folks to get DEI fatigued. We really have to re-energize the community.

TMD: What goals are you most proud of achieving since the beginning of the plan? What areas do you feel have been lacking?

MS: The campus undergraduate student population is not sufficiently representative of the breadth of people in the state and country that we’re serving … I’m 100 percent confident that there are talented people in all communities because of differences in the access and the quality to good primary education and public schools, it’s sometimes hard to identify really talented students coming out of less advantaged school systems and from families where no one else has gone to college before. I think we have to work harder on how to identify talent in less privileged communities and work on the pathway to get people here. eged communities and work on the pathway to get people here. 

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