The Michigan Daily sat down with the Regent Jordan Acker (D), chair of the University of Michigan Board of Regents, to discuss the University’s plans for addressing COVID-19 concerns, the new Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX office, the expansion of the Go Blue Guarantee, climate change initiatives, Ron Weiser and more. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Daily cannot independently verify Acker’s comments on documented cases of classroom transmission at the University of Michigan.
The Michigan Daily: What is your response to the University of Michigan faculty signing petitions this week requesting stronger COVID-19 protections for the fall semester? How do you plan to address concerns surrounding COVID-19 guidelines?
Jordan Acker: Well, I think that one of the things that we’ve done really well is keep everyone safe in the classroom, whether it’s vaccine requirements, masking requirements. We still haven’t had a single documented case of classroom transmission. All the public health experts suggest that our current path forward is the right one to balance that in-person experience that we can only have in Michigan, with a mask in a classroom, with the safety of our staff, with the safety of our faculty, with the safety of our students. The best way to get there is to make sure that everyone is vaccinated. We’re getting there — the students are doing a great job, the faculty is getting there, the staff is getting there. But we need to be there to make sure that we’re protecting everybody.
TMD: How do you believe the creation of the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX office to replace the Office of Institutional Equity will place a greater emphasis on supporting prevention and reporting efforts? And are there any other initiatives or policies you support that you’d like to see implemented this year addressing prevention and reporting efforts?
JA: The process that went into creating the ECRT was one of the initiatives that I really worked hard on as the vice chair of the board with Regent Ilitch to get done last year as part of a holistic approach toward making sure that our campus was safer — not just prior to any sort of misconduct happening on the education side, but also making sure that we support survivors afterward. We have a lot of work to do still on this.
One of the things that I mentioned in my remarks at our last Regents meeting, and that I still strongly support, is the creation of an ethics and compliance office. I think we need it — most AAU (Association of American Universities) schools have it already. The fact that we don’t is, frankly, a glaring hole in our regime of preventing misconduct of any kind. And as we see some of the things that happened in the past, especially involving Martin Philbert, this sort of office would have gone a long way toward making sure that didn’t happen. So that would be the biggest initiative. But I think there’s still more work to do. I think the cultural journey is going to be very important. And I think we still have to keep looking at our peer institutions, seeing what they’re doing, and making sure that we follow the path of best practices amongst our public and private peer institutions.
TMD: How do you think the expansion of the Go Blue Guarantee free tuition program to the University of Michigan’s Flint and Dearborn campuses this year will ensure more academic opportunity for lower-income students within the University of Michigan system?
JA: It’s a big step. I think that first and foremost, adding our Dearborn and Flint campuses was crucial to providing the promise of the Go Blue Guarantee. But it’s just a start. One of the things that we need to think about is where experts are (aware of) when it comes to students who come from low-income backgrounds is making sure that we’re not just talking about free tuition. We’re not just talking about the cost of education, although that’s a very important part, but we need to make sure that we raise our graduation rates.
Frankly, some of the things that we need to work on most are raising our graduation rates in Flint and Dearborn. It’s one thing to get into school and to start school and to have free tuition there. But the most important thing is to leave those campuses or our Ann Arbor campus with a degree. Our graduation rates in Ann Arbor are pretty high, and in Flint and Dearborn, they need to get higher.
When we talk about as a board where we’re spending money and on what services, making sure that we raise our graduation rate is crucial. Yes, affordability is the number one challenge, but we also don’t want anybody graduating with any sort of student debt and not having the degree that will allow them to pay it off. We need to do more to raise those graduation rates, period.
TMD: In April, you issued a statement urging Regent Ron Weiser to resign from his position following multiple scandals. Though the board censured him, he still is on the board. How will you continue to work alongside Weiser this year?
JA: I think when it comes to serving on this board, you have to put what’s best for the University first. I remained disappointed that Regent Weiser continues to have an unresolvable conflict as a board member, and I want to be clear about that. He, as his job as Michigan Republican Party chair, has an obligation to attempt to replace two of our current board members with Republicans. That in and of itself is a conflict. And his comments, as I noted at the time, were entirely out of line, unacceptable and unbecoming (of) a leader of this institution.
With that said, as long as the people decide that Regent Weiser is a member of the board, I will continue to work with him, like everybody else, on issues that we agree on, and continue to argue and discuss issues that we disagree on. But ultimately, when I work on the board as chair, we have to put what’s right for the University first, and that is the main and the only thing.
TMD: After the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality released their final report in March, University President Mark Schlissel introduced a plan that will achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. Across all three campuses, what do you hope to see be done this year to ensure the University stays on track with this goal?
JA: I think the biggest thing and the next thing that we have to talk about is ‘How do we measure this’? Whether it comes to the endowment, whether it comes to carbon neutrality on our campus, we have to make sure that we have not just a path — and I think we do have a path now — but making sure that we have provided the metrics to move along in that goal. And I think that’s going to be the biggest thing this year, is not just starting to work on moving in that direction. But more importantly, for this year, making sure that all of our metrics are in place. So our community knows, ‘Hey, we’re moving in that direction.’ And this is how we’re doing it.
TMD: What policy proposals, frameworks, etc. do you plan to prioritize in the upcoming school year?
JA: We talked about the ECRT and we talked about ethics and compliance. But the one thing that I want more than anything else — maybe not a policy priority, but it’s a priority for the institution — is we need to experience everyone on our campus. I want to be able to experience joy this year. I know that everyone has struggled a lot over the last 18 months, not just through some physical health issues around the COVID crisis, but also mental health issues.
But ultimately, I want to make sure that our students, our faculty, our staff, experience joy, whether in a class that they’ve been really looking forward to taking in person, or whether it’s tailgating with friends or at a football game, or doing research or joining a club or fraternity or sorority. Whatever that is, I want people to make sure that they’ve been able to experience what makes Michigan so special: that in-person experience with some of the brightest minds assembled from throughout the country and throughout the world in Ann Arbor, in a really unique place that is the University. So a return to normalcy is almost the most important thing that I want to see as board chair.
TMD: Lastly, I have something to talk about that brings you joy. I’ve heard that you’re a huge Taylor Swift fan. Which album do you feel that you most identify with and why?
JA: I will preface this question by saying that I have three girls under seven years old. So I spent a lot of time in the car listening to Taylor Swift. Personally, my favorite album is “folklore.” I think it’s the best album all the way through, but she is an incredible songwriter. My four-year-old is really into the album “Lover,” so we get a lot of that these days, too.
Daily Staff Reporter Julia Forrest can be reached at email@example.com.