Courtesy of Eli Friedman

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At the University of Michigan’s first community feedback session for the ongoing presidential search process on Friday, faculty and staff members emphasized a need for strong moral character and a commitment to carbon neutrality from the next University president. The listening session — which was hosted by Regents Sarah Hubbard (R) and Denise Ilitch (D), as well as John Muckle of the search firm Isaacson, Miller — was directed toward faculty but also featured student and alumni speakers. 

Other common themes that emerged during the session were a commitment to social justice, a willingness to listen to students and faculty and the ability to innovate. 

Rita Loch-Caruso, professor emerita of toxicology and the program in the environment, said the Board of Regents should use the presidential search as a way to address the “crisis of morality” she perceives within the University. 

“The new president must have, above all else, demonstrated ethical behavior and demonstrated moral courage,” Loch-Caruso said. “As someone who was involved in the Philbert fiasco, I saw first-hand how policies without moral leadership fail to protect students, staff and faculty from abusive behavior of those with higher authority in the institution.” 

Former University Provost Martin Philbert was removed from the role in March 2020 following sexual misconduct allegations from over 20 women at the University. WilmerHale, an independent law firm, conducted an investigation and found Philbert engaged in sexual misconduct for over two decades and that top University officials were aware of complaints against him.

Strong morals was a theme echoed by many of the 20 total speakers, including Brian Athey, founding chair of the computational medicine and bioinformatics department and co-director of the Michigan Institute for Data Science. Athey said the next president will need a strong moral character to repair the integrity of the University.

“It hurts so badly when we hear about the block ‘M’ being tarnished and the effect that it’s having on our community,” Athey said. 

After former University President Mark Schlissel was fired as a result of an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, members of the campus community reacted to the news by defacing the Block M by adding references to Schlissel’s relationship. Students also rallied in front of the President’s House the same night.

Athey said he experienced problems with former President Schlissel’s administration when it came to listening and respecting new ideas, particularly for community members on the Flint and Dearborn campuses.

“It’s not only listening, but it is involving empowerment, it’s involving building a team, and it’s involving the idea that we’re a community even beyond Ann Arbor and to the two campuses,” Athey said. “I am a proud alum of the Dearborn campus before I came to Ann Arbor, and we have so much to offer if we think about our statewide responsibilities more globally than just in the Ann Arbor campus.” 

Athey also suggested the new president should have experience operating an organization with the scale of Michigan Medicine and reiterated a point made by many other speakers: the desire for a commitment to carbon neutrality.  

University alum Jane Vogel was the first speaker at the event to bring up carbon neutrality, which she felt was among the most urgent priorities for the next president. Vogel requested that the next president implement the recommendations released in March 2021 from the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality. 

“I firmly believe, as a U of M alum, as someone invested in this University, U of M has the capacity to do this,” Vogel said. “And (climate change) is the societal crisis of our age. And much like that commitment when the President’s Commission was launched, this University needs to demonstrate the solution set that is scalable across the country (and) globally.” 

Vogel’s requests were echoed by Knute Nadelhoffer, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology and member of Voices for Carbon Neutrality. Nadelhoffer criticized the Presidential Search Committee for not including a commitment to carbon neutrality on their community survey.  

“Confronting the climate crisis by elimination of U-M carbon emissions is integral to the U-M’s public mission to support human health, social justice and wellbeing,” Nadelhoffer said. “Given that the commitment to achieving carbon neutrality is not woven into the provost’s search, nor into ongoing searches for at least two deans — the Ross School dean and the STAMPS School — I recommend, and my colleagues as well, that the Presidential Search include candidate commitments for achieving carbon neutrality in line with the March 2021 President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality Report.”

Multiple speakers also emphasized their desire for the next president to prioritize equity and social justice. LSA junior Chanel Barnes discussed feeling underrepresented as a Black student on campus. Barnes said she hopes the Regents consider a candidate of color to address the issues of representation for minority groups on campus. 

“As a person of color at the institution, I always find myself feeling unseen, unheard and oftentimes just silenced about my views,” Barnes said. “Yes, they could bring another white individual to this space, but this white individual would not hold the experience that a person of color will.” 

Other speakers reiterated Barnes’ comment and added their own desires for the president to address the challenges faced by other marginalized groups on campus. LSA senior Vincent Pinti encouraged the Regents to select a president willing to bolster resources for disabled students and remove implicit biases against disabled students, Black students, Latinx students and students of low socioeconomic status.

“These groups are grossly underrepresented and have voiced their concerns in the 2016 University Climate Survey,” Pinti said.  

Nora Krinitsky, a lecturer in the Residential College, said the next president should prioritize women’s safety and implement programs to better support community members who have families at home.

“We need real, material benefits for women and people with families at this University,” said Krinitsky. “Inclusive, affordable, accessible childcare. If these sorts of programs are not implemented, women and people with families at this University will be left further and further behind.”

Daily staff reporter Eli Friedman can be reached at elisf@umich.edu.