The Michigan Daily sat down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel Wednesday to discuss a potential lecturers’ strike, calls to rename campus buildings, Schlissel’s football season prediction and more. Check out part one of the interview, discussing preparations for the fall semester amid the ongoing pandemic, here. This interview has been edited for clarity.
The Michigan Daily: The Lecturers’ Employee Organization quit their contract with the University earlier this month, meaning a large portion of faculty instructors could go on strike the second week of school. What is the likelihood of a LEO strike?
Mark Schlissel: It’s up to LEO. I really don’t believe that a strike is necessary. I think a strike represents a failure. It represents the failure of both parties to diligently negotiate in good faith with one another with the shared intention of arriving at a fair contract. So if there’s a strike, we failed. I’m very hopeful that there won’t be, but that’s really in LEO’s hands.
The University made a recent salary offer. LEO told us the most important issue to them was starting salaries, particularly in Flint and in Dearborn where they had been quite low. With the last contract, the starting salaries went up quite a bit, and the University just last week offered increases to lecturers’ starting minimums between 16% and 17% increase. 16% and 17%, that’s a pretty fair amount all at once, as well as across-the-board annual increases. There’s a negotiating session today. The University is ready to negotiate every single day, and we remain committed to continuing to bargain to come to a fair resolution.
A strike would cause tremendous harm to students. Lecturers are critical colleagues in delivering the Michigan curriculum. They’re a great part of our educational experience. They’re our colleagues, they’re our friends, they’re our neighbors. We would really love to find an amicable way to move forward and treat everybody fairly and not really cause the challenge and the chaos of a strike at the beginning of the semester. Last fall was a rocky semester. We’d really love to give our students the gift of a Michigan education instead of this labor strife.
We’ve called upon a state mediator who’s been working with us. We also petitioned the state for a fact finder — that’s the next step after mediation where someone comes in and determines facts on both sides and then proposes a way forward. We’re committed to that process.
TMD: What did you learn from last fall’s Graduate Employees’ Union strike as you prepare for the potential of a similar one?
MS: I think one of the common lessons of the whole pandemic is that communication is really important, and having open lines of communication, so that we don’t just think we understand a group or a person’s situation — we actually ask them about it. And what we’ve been doing in the many months since last academic year is really meeting with GEO regularly, absent a crisis, on often on a weekly basis, to work on shared issues of concern to try to head things off at the pass before they get to the stage of provoking frustration and anger that might lead to some kind of work action.
So that’s what we have learned from GEO last year, and we continue to work on it optimistically in partnership to avoid the same kind of thing moving forward. The GEO has been very supportive of vaccination efforts, for example, and masking indoors and the like. Efforts to keep people safe have been quite collaborative.
TMD: Over the summer, separate contingents on campus have called for the renaming of Weiser Hall, Yost Ice Arena and Schembechler Hall, for their namesakes making misogynistic comments, having a “deep and negative impact on people of color” and allegedly dismissing complaints of Robert Anderson’s sexual misconduct, respectively. You’ve already recommended against renaming Weiser Hall. Do you support renaming Yost or Schembechler? Or removing Schembechler’s statue?
MS: That remains an ongoing and important area for us to continue to discuss as a community. We had the President’s Advisory Committee on University History look carefully at the Yost circumstance. We put their preliminary report out there into the public domain. We solicited and got back hundreds and hundreds of comments from people on campus and from people all around the country and all around the world, and we’re digesting, we’re stewing about this. I think we’re going to reopen that conversation during the fall semester and figure out what’s the best way forward.
Certainly the message that I got and that I’m kind of trying to wrap my hands around is as an institution, the University has a past that is as racist as the society it was part of, and I think we have to come to grips with that. The fact that there were so few Black people on our athletic teams during that era, that’s an embarrassment, that’s evidence of who we were. I learned by reading the report that our residence halls were segregated. People weren’t treated to the level of our values today.
And I think in order to make the University a better place today, we need to figure out what we did back then and the structures that were created that still influence the nature of the University, so we can continue on our struggles to make this a more equitable and inclusive place.
This Schembechler issue is too tied up in the litigation around the awful acts of Dr. Anderson to really act on right now. We’ll see what happens down the road.
TMD: Can you speak a little bit more broadly on how you evaluate, in all three of these cases, memorializing people who have made significant contributions to the University but whose words and actions have sometimes strongly conflicted with its values?
MS: Your question in a way is the answer. It’s extremely difficult. People are complicated, and with the value of historical vision, of hindsight, everybody has good components to them. Everyone has bad components to them. We set out a few years ago a set of criteria and a process we would use when somebody from our community brought forward a well-documented request that we consider removing a name. And that’s what happened with Yost. That’s what happened with C.C. Little Hall, where we did end up removing the name from C.C. Little. So we’ve got a pathway and we have a set of criteria — they’re published up on my website — but essentially we have to look at how the actions of the person in total mesh with our values. And then we have to contextualize them with the values of that day.
To impose modern values on somebody that lived 100 years ago is a very difficult thing, so they should be judged perhaps by the values of their own day. And if they’re in an era where the founders of our country were slaveholders, then perhaps it’s a little bit difficult to say this person should have known better. But if they’re living in an era where enlightened people were already moving past this terrible legacy, and they did it, they remained stuck to these less enlightened values, less egalitarian values, maybe we should change how we honor them.
TMD: Following an exhaustive report of Robert Anderson’s decades of abuse at the University and U-M officials’ knowledge of it, statements from you and the Board of Regents have apologized for Anderson’s actions. Why has the University not apologized for enabling him, and what do you believe the University still owes to Anderson’s victims?
MS: I’ve spoken, and others have, many times about the crimes of Dr. Anderson. I’ve apologized, as have members of the Board and others in our community, to all of those that were adversely affected by his actions, and I’ll apologize again. I think it is a stain on the University, and it’s something that we have to continuously work to prevent future episodes that have anything remotely similar to this. And we have been doing that.
We’ve been working on continuously improving our policies and practices, our education around sexual misconduct, our prevention efforts. We’ve recently reorganized how we investigate and adjudicate cases. We’re working on an umbrella policy that’s been modified a number of times. We’re in alignment with guidance from the Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. We’re working with a consultancy called Guidepost where this is their niche. They’re helping advise us on what’s the best practices, not just from higher-ed, but from big organizations, to diminish the frequency of sexual misconduct and to support and fairly investigate accusations or allegations. So we work on it literally every day, and we have to continue to do that until we get it completely right.
In more detail, there are large numbers of court cases, lawsuits, that have been amalgamated and are being heard in court right now. We’re undergoing court-ordered mediation with a court-appointed mediator, and the judge involved has said, “Look, parties: Please don’t try to adjudicate this in public. Please don’t talk about the details of these cases, so that in private with the help of the mediator, we can come up with a just and fair way to compensate those that were hurt.” And we remain committed to do that, and that’s really all I’m at liberty to say about the case.
TMD: In May and June, the iconic rock at the corner of Hill and Washtenaw became a flashpoint on campus for expression about Palestine and Israel. Administration has received pushback ranging from a list of demands from the campus Palestinian activist group SAFE to some Jewish students and families accusing the University of not adequately condemning antisemitism on campus. What are your thoughts on these events, and how do you plan on addressing ongoing relations on campus regarding the issue?
MS: The impact of heightened moments of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is sadly predictable. It’s a conflict that’s been going on since the 1940s. It’s discouraging in the sense of how little progress has been made in developing an ultimate way for people to live together in peace.
And sadly every time something happens in that part of the world, it plays out on campus. It plays out at the intersection between social and political beliefs and religious beliefs and religious rights, and it’s a complicated, difficult, challenging landscape. The University approaches these things by providing support for students from all different backgrounds. Bias, discriminatory behavior, hateful activities around campus are brought out by things going on in society but have effects on every individual who has deep feelings or deep thoughts about the issue.
Our head of Student Life, Martino Harmon, and Rob Sellers, our chief diversity officer, have met a few times with the leadership of SAFE. The talks are challenging, the talks put issues on the table. We look for areas where we can make progress, things that students care about that we can do that make progress, and we continue to have those talks. We plan to be engaging with students and student groups from Hillel and other Jewish groups in the weeks ahead and just do the work of trying to broker understanding between groups that haven’t really found a great way to talk to one another.
I want to be clear too, although I’m not sure why one really has to, there is no tolerance for antisemitism on campus, and there’s no tolerance for anti-Muslim prejudice, anti-Palestinian prejudice. Any prejudice or hate or bigotry based on an identity is not tolerated on our campus. It goes without saying, but since many people are listening, I’ll say it again.
TMD: In May, you announced a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality across all three U-M campuses in the coming decades. Where can students expect to see progress being made on this commitment this upcoming school year, and what accountability measures are in place to ensure that the University is on track in the coming years to reach its final goals in time?
MS: Our drive to carbon neutrality is going to become an everyday part of the University’s function. It’s not a one-year project — it’s a forever project. The President’s Commission did a great job defining the scope of the challenge, making a whole bunch of recommendations, and last spring we accepted the vast majority of those recommendations and we’ve begun to work on them.
So, for example, a big piece of what they recommended is getting to neutrality on Scope Two emissions, which is our purchased electricity. We’ve already begun the process of developing the requests for proposals to get green electricity and electricity made from renewable resources from DTE or from other providers. I’m pretty optimistic — it’ll cost a little bit of money, but I’m quite sure we’ll get to the goal by 2025.
So one of the recommendations, and the biggest challenge, is how to heat and cool a campus at our scale without using fossil fuels, and the recommendation that was made by the task force was a combination of electric heat pumps and geothermal energy to make the electricity more efficient at heating and cooling, using the earth as a sink. So we’re shaping our first couple of projects, and we’ll be able to announce them this fall with some new and some renovated projects where we’re going to make them geothermal. We’re going to make them carbon neutral.
We’re getting organized to start replacing our hybrid buses with all-electric buses. We’re putting aside money and coming up with a timeline to do that. We’re setting aside funds for a pilot project, a revolving fund, so we can try things with investment money and then pay ourselves back as those investments yield fruit.
We’re putting together advisory groups, and I plan once or twice a year on reporting back in public on where we are just like I’m doing now. I’ll go over the series of things we’ve committed to and the series of things we’re still considering and update the community. The time horizon in some sense is long, but it has to be shorter. I’d be thrilled if we got to neutrality for Scope One before 2040. The most recent Intergovernmental Committee report argues that perhaps the deadlines we’re looking at are too late, that climate change is happening faster, its consequences are occurring more quickly, and we have to redouble our efforts. That’s what we’ll do, and that’s what we’ll report back to the community.
One of the things we’ll be doing this year that was recommended by the committee is hiring an executive officer, probably a vice president-level person, to run this whole operation and to report directly to me. So we’re shaping the job description for that position, and we’ll go to market nationally and try to find that outstanding person to come and help us as well.
TMD: You said you don’t have a crystal ball, but what do you see as the football team’s final record this year? What’s your prediction?
MS: Of all the questions you’ve asked me today, that’s the hardest question. There have been years that begin with such a sense of optimism that you say, “We’re going to be 11-1 and we’re going to beat Ohio this year,” and there are other years that start and nobody knows what’s going on. So this is a year where I have confidence in the coach and the coaching staff, and I think we have great student athletes, but it’s a year of uncertainty.
So, the broken crystal ball remains broken when it comes to predicting the outcome. I think for the very first part of the season, we have as much of a chance of winning a league championship as anybody else in the league. Nobody’s played a game yet.
Check out part one of the interview, discussing preparations for the fall semester amid the ongoing pandemic, here.