Ahead of Tuesday’s diversity summit, University President Mark Schlissel attended Monday’s Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs meeting to discuss the impending school-wide diversity plan and the importance of balancing rhetoric with substantive action.
Monday marked Schlissel’s first time at SACUA since appearing there last November. During that visit, Schlissel spoke candidly about the University’s athletics program — a conversation that drew both praise and criticism.
On Monday, Schlissel said gathering input from as many people as possible will give the University’s diversity plan the greatest likelihood for success. However, he also acknowledged that it will take time to complete and implement.
“The thing I like about this process is that it’s the most bottom-up thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “It would be an easier and faster process if we took a group like this, sat in a room 10 times and issued a plan for the University of Michigan. Strangely enough, that’s too easy.”
While encouraging patience during the long-term planning process, Schlissel also pointed to diversity initiatives the University has already implemented.
He pointed to the HAIL scholarship and the new Wolverine Pathways program, as well as the increased numbers of underrepresented minorities in this year’s freshman class, as evidence of tangible improvement. Schlissel noted the administration’s talk about increased diversity must continue to be supported by “concrete actions” like these.
“Any time that we devote a significant amount of time to talking, then we really do have to prove to people that talking leads to substance,” he said.
Following the discussion on diversity, SACUA chair Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of comparative literature, asked for Schlissel’s thoughts on Tim Wolfe — the University of Missouri system president who resigned Monday amid allegations of mishandling incidents of racism on the school’s campus.
“I don’t really understand enough about the circumstances in Missouri to have an opinion on it, I’ve only been following it for the last couple of days,” Schlissel said. “What was interesting was at the end of the series of events that led to his resignation, there were some pretty forceful student protests.”
Weineck also asked for Schlissel’s thoughts on the University issuing a formal apology to H. Chandler Davis, a former University professor.
In 1954, the University suspended and terminated Davis and Mark Nickerson, a tenured faculty member, for their refusal to provide testimony to a group from the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities — as a result of both professors having had communist leanings. For similar reasons, the University suspended but later reinstated another professor, Clement Markert.
Davis, a former communist, spent six months in federal prison for contempt. Nickerson and Markert were identified by the committee as potential subversives because of their former communist sympathies, but avoided federal prison by citing their Fifth Amendment rights.
In 1990, the University’s Senate Assembly passed a resolution regarding the 1954 incident, which stated the faculty “deeply regret the failure of the University community to protect the fundamental values of intellectual freedom at that time.” The resolution also established an Annual Senate Lecture on Academic and on Intellectual Freedom, “The University of Michigan Senate’s Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.”
In response, Schlissel questioned whether it is fair to condemn decisions made more than 60 years ago.
“How do you feel about holding people accountable for events that happened 60 years ago, using much more modern viewpoints?” he asked. “It’s really easy to look back and say ‘Gee, these people must really have been out of their minds to fall in line with McCarthyism here at the University of Michigan.’ ”
He acknowledged that some of his hesitation stems from his perspective as the University’s president.
“I’m very sensitive, now that I’m the guy in this seat, to somebody 50 or 60 years from now looking back on the orthodoxy of today and saying ‘How on earth could that guy Schlissel not realize that?’ ” he said.
Biology Prof. John Lehman, a SACUA member, pointed to the United States’ 1988 decision to apologize for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as an example of the importance of apologizing for an event, even if it comes years after the fact.
“It’s not that governments haven’t taken steps to rectify or receive reconciliation for things like the Japanese internment,” Lehman said. “I think the government was right to turn around and say ‘this was a mistake and we should be aware of this so we don’t make the same mistake again.’ ”
Schlissel said he would weigh the idea of issuing an apology to Davis with his executive team and the University’s Board of Regents.