A group of University faculty, staff, alumni and students raised concerns in an open letter last week to University President Mark Schlissel over what they characterized as a lack of engagement with the Flint community in the University’s tri-campus efforts about the city’s ongoing water crisis.
“In order to serve the people of Flint, we must vigilantly work to dismantle the concentration of knowledge and power that created the Flint water crisis, and to ensure that the same denigrating and dismissive systems are not replicated through the University’s response,” the letter read.
Questions sent to a provided e-mail address on the letter were not answered Sunday evening.
The letter was spurred by an event closed to the public, Friday, during which about 140 faculty members from the University’s Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn campuses met to discuss potential collaborative research projects surrounding the water crisis. The meeting was led by UM-Flint chancellor Susan Borrego and provost Douglas Knerr.
The research in question is part of the University’s effort to address Flint’s lead-contaminated water and its detrimental health effects, which stemmed from the city’s decision to change its water source from Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water to the Flint River. The river’s water was corrosive to lead in Flint’s old pipes, leading to high levels of lead in the public water for 18 months.
Citing the fact that the meeting was closed to both the media and Flint residents, the Equitable Research in Flint Organizing Committee — a group comprised of University community members — sent a petition to Schlissel Thursday expressing their concerns with the meeting’s lack of transparency. They also noted their appreciations for the University’s willingness to take action in response to the crisis.
The University has said it will provide $100,000 in seed funding for developing research projects. In an interview with the Daily on Friday, Schlissel said he hopes to give faculty the means to establish preliminary data to eventually attract additional funding, and that the research projects will eventually allow policymakers and the national government to better help the citizens of Flint.
In the letter, the group said the University is not as focused on research-based ways to assist the residents of Flint as they are academic exploration through research. The organization said they hope any future research endeavors will be carried out in collaboration with representatives from Flint.
“Historically, relationships between researchers and marginalized communities have been fraught with extractive methodologies that benefit academics but leave communities unchanged and worse-off than they were before,” the letter stated.
The Equitable Research in Flint Organizing Committee relayed a list of nine demands in the letter, including calls for open and transparent dialogue between researchers, Flint residents and philanthropy-based University organizations. The organization also wrote that Flint residents should have a say in how the funding is allocated, and that the University should provide services such as child care and transportation to ensure Flint residents are included in such discussions.
When asked about the absence of the media and of Flint residents from today’s meeting, Schlissel said in an interview with the Daily Friday the meeting was closed to the public because it was a chance for faculty of all three campuses to get to know each other, and was a preliminary meeting to help spur academic research.
“Well, (Flint residents and media) are not professors at Ann Arbor, Flint or Dearborn,” Schlissel said. “This is an academic meeting, it is not a public meeting to talk about people’s impressions of what it is going on. It’s getting a number of scholars with technical and academic expertise to meet one another, because not everyone on each of the three campuses knows each other, and then to talk about ideas for research projects. They are not talking about ideas for community service type projects. This is projects aimed at understanding.”
Marjory Raymer, special adviser to UM-Flint’s Chancellor Borrego for media relations and communication, said the meeting was closed to engage many faculty members who have never met before in deciding on research initiatives.
“This was really a meeting for the faculty to begin the process of talking to one another,” Raymer said. “Many of them had never even met before. This is about allowing the people who need to brainstorm ideas that opportunity to brainstorm ideas openly with each other. This is about function. This is about moving forward. This is about what do we do. This is not about a media event.”
Tri-campus research-based gatherings surrounding the Flint water crisis will continue, Raymer said, though she did not know whether or not it would be open to the public.
Raymer also noted resources that UM-Flint has available for the public, such as a course about the Flint water crises available for both students at UM-Flint and to the general public. She also referenced other efforts UM-Flint has put forward in light of the crisis such as, frequent water testing and filtering UM-Flint has been practicing for months, assuring the campus that the water on UM-Flint’s campus is safe to drink.
“This is where faculty research is impact focused,” Raymer said. “We have separate things that are also going on in the community such as a Public Health course.”
Ann Arbor campus spokesman Rick Fitzgerald echoed Schlissel’s comment, desribing the event as a preliminary step in discussing potential collaborative research projects.
“We don’t expect any specific outcome, just an initial start to that conversation,” Fitzgerald said. “This was a specific call-out to faculty to talk about how they might contribute as experts in particular areas.”
In speaking to the effort, Schlissel said he believed this crisis in Flint has a “silver lining” in serving as a catalyst to further tri-campus collaboration. Similarly, Raymer said she is grateful for the University’s recent involvement in Flint during the water crisis.
“It is really wonderful to see how everyone, no matter what campus they are on, is really engaged in making sure we do everything we can, as University of Michigan and as people, to help this community,” Raymer said.