Students and faculty weigh in on search for the next University president

Tracy Ko/Daily
Presidential Search Advisory Committee members heard from members of the faculty and staff at a forum Thursday. Buy this photo

By Peter Shahin, Daily News Editor
Published September 26, 2013

The Presidential Search Advisory Committee got an earful. And that’s exactly what they wanted.

On Thursday, members of the University’s Board of Regents and the Presidential Search Advisory Committee heard from faculty, staff and students at two separate forums held on campus — soliciting feedback on the opportunities and challenges that await the University in the near future as well as what qualities they’d like to see in the next president.

While not all regents or committee members were present, Alison Ranney, the University’s search consultant from Russell Reynolds Associates, took comments from speakers and help the audience better understand the firm’s role in the selection process.

The first of the day’s two forums, held at Hutchins Hall, was geared primarily toward faculty and staff from the Ann Arbor campus. The forum was the third so far, after one at the University of Michigan-Flint and one on the Medical Campus. Two more forums are planned for Friday, one at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the other in Blau Auditorium, which will be geared toward the Ann Arbor community and general public.

The forum opened with brief remarks from Regent Katherine White (D), the vice chair of the board, who said the purpose of the session was to help the committee better understand the needs and challenges facing the staff.

The Presidential Search Advisory Committee is composed of seven faculty members and all eight members of the Board of Regents. The committee’s role, however, is purely advisory as the final decision of whom will be selected will be left to the regents.

Search Advisory Committee members Lynn Perry Wooten, associate dean of undergraduate programs at the Ross School of Business; Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, dean of the School of Information; Tiya Miles, chair of the Afroamerican and African Studies department; and Regent Julia Darlow (D) were sitting behind the rostrum taking notes on speakers’ comments.

Ranney briefly addressed the faculty, saying the purpose of hiring a search consultant is not to pick the next University president, but to assist the Board of Regents in finding qualified candidates.

“What you’ll see is that this is really a discussion session, a listening session,” Ranney said.

Several issues recurred throughout the faculty forum, including faculty development and retention programs, providing growth for basic research opportunities and not just applied research, refocusing on creating a diverse University and increasing cross-disciplinary collaboration.

“We have a very unique position with Detroit not too far away and other urban areas that we can draw from,” James Logan, a BBA program outreach coordinator at the Business School, said. “I think it needs to be a focus of the strategic plan of the University, not a subset or an aside. … If we continue to go down this path of not improving declining underrepresented minority enrollment, it will send the message that we are not the leaders and best in our thoughts and our actions.”

Many faculty members said they were not concerned solely with racial diversity, but also deeply worried about socio-economic diversity at the University.

Engineering Prof. Bill Schultz spoke in favor of increasing interdisciplinary opportunities at the University for faculty — something that has been a priority for students in recent years. Schultz said that because the deans and heads of individual units are so powerful at the University, faculty often gravitate to one “silo,” instead of reaching out to their colleagues in other areas.

“One (way to overcome that) is to give a little more power to the provost,” Schultz said. “They always say, ‘We don’t have any carrots to do this.’ It’s okay for them to hold a little bit of tuition and general revenue money to foster interdisciplinarity.”

In an interview after the meeting, White, who is acting as spokeswoman for the regents during the search process, said she was intrigued to hear that there is a need for increased collaborative programs at the University — something that is often perceived to be one of the University’s strengths.

“I was really struck by the repeated concern about collaboration across the disciplines and making that more available,” White said. “The University of Michigan is known for its interdisciplinary studies and work and research, but there were still concerns that there may not be resources that are easy to get across the disciplines, and I think we really have to look at that and make sure that we take that to heart.”

Others added that, although the University is rapidly increasing its global opportunities for students and faculty, a future president needs to ensure that they are devoting sufficient attention to the Ann Arbor community and surrounding areas affected by economic hardship.

“We don’t want to abandon our commitment to the local as we’re going more global,” said Gloria Thomas, director of the Center for the Education of Women.

Later in the day, more members of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee gathered at the Modern Languages Building to hear from students about many of the same issues. Regents Mark Bernstein (D), Shauna Ryder Diggs (D) and Denise Ilitch (D) were also in attendance.

About 75 students, including many members of Central Student Government and large student organizations on campus, commented on many of the same issues that the faculty had addressed — as well as some others.

Student leaders presented their findings from a campus-wide survey that solicited feedback from the student body about what qualities they wanted to see in the next president as well as what issues should be prioritized during their administration.

The results indicated that students want the next president to focus on holding down tuition and related costs fostering an inclusive and diverse campus environment, and developing quality capital campaigns.

“The majority thought that cost of attendance should be the next president’s priority,” Kinesiology senior Jared Hunter, president of the University’s chapter of the National Panhellenic Council, said. In an interview after the forum, he added that annual tuition increases have made the University one of the most expensive public institutions in the nation.

“It is imperative that the president maintains academic prestige and expands experiential research,” Business senior Dalia Adler, chair of the University of Michigan’s Hillel governing board, said.

Public Policy junior Bobby Dishell, vice president of CSG, said the University needs to reprioritize student input on major renovation projects and that fundraising efforts should be more equitable — a barb apparently criticizing a perceived lack of student input on the Munger Residence and Stephen Ross’ donation to his namesake business school and the Athletic Department earlier in September.

One of the most passionate arguments came from LSA senior Tyrell Collier, president of the Black Student Union, who criticized the decline in minority enrollment at the University in the wake of Proposal 2 — which outlawed the use of affirmative action policies in 2006. Citing a Bloomberg Businessweek report from earlier this week, Collier said the University had failed to stanch the decline through alternative recruitment programs in districts with large numbers of underrepresented minorities.

“I know the policies that we have been trying after its pass have not been working,” Collier said in an interview after the event. “There has been a 30-percent drop within a seven-year span of black students, which is completely unacceptable.”

Collier’s sentiments were echoed by student speakers throughout the evening. Some said the minority communities, but particularly black students, felt as though they didn’t have a voice on campus and occasionally experience bias incidents from both peers and faculty. Other students also emphasized the socio-economic divide that exists at the University.

Several students also spoke about sustainability and climate change — something they’d like to see the next president committed to.

“The next president, as leader of the world-renowned academic institution, needs to make that sustainability is part of every student’s lifestyle,” LSA junior Becca Liebschutz said.

In an interview after the event, White said she was excited to hear some student perspectives that are often addressed at regents meetings and by the administration, but seldom by students in a public forum.

“What was different in this session, I thought, was kind of taking it to a new level, it’s this hope for integrating sustainability into the curriculum and making it more how we teach, how we train, how we educate, and that was something I had not heard before,” White said.

While no timeline has been set for selecting a new president, historically, most recent candidates have been picked in November or December of the year preceding a president’s retirement. Coleman will step down in July.

Those who were unable to attend a presidential search forum may email UMich.President@russellreynolds.com with thoughts on priorities and challenges for the University and nominations for the position.