For University President Mark Schlissel’s final fireside chat of the semester, several students had the opportunity Thursday afternoon to engage with the president on a wide variety of campus issues, from student debt to the University’s sexual assault investigation policy.
E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, was also present for the event, which was held in the Pond Room of the Michigan Union. Harper took notes throughout the meeting, which serves as a monthly platform for students to raise topics of concern to the president.
When asked about his next steps following the Diversity Summit held last month to improve diversity, equity and inclusion on campus, Schlissel said the University is very far from its end goal: building a campus community that is reflective of the society which it intends to serve.
“We’ve made some progress this year, but it’s going to be forever,” he said. “We’re going to be working on this as long as I’m president. It’s not going to be over in three years or something, so we have a long way to go.”
However, Schlissel did outline specific programs that have already been initiated in the past year to improve the diversity of the student body, including the HAIL Scholars Program and the Wolverine Pathways program. HAIL provides full scholarships to students from low-income areas; Wolverine Pathways is a pipeline program targeted at middle and high school students in two metro Detroit area school districts that would also yield four-year tuition scholarships.
Harper also spoke about the University’s Comprehensive Studies Program, which offers students from under-resourced high schools, underrepresented minorities and first-generation students extra resources to succeed.
“If you’ve always done well it sort of dons on you late that you might need some additional support,” Harper said. “We think part of the Michigan challenge is to try to normalize help-seeking behavior.”
Sexual assault investigation procedures
LSA senior Kendal Rosalik, who said she is a survivor of sexual misconduct, was one of the students who received an e-mail from University Title XI Coordinator Anthony Whalesby and the Office of Student Conflict Resolution when the draft sexual misconduct policy was distributed to students. The e-mail asked students to share their experiences, make suggestions and attend policy roundtables.
“I was a little bit alarmed by the fact that there was not a survivor-specific roundtable after asking me to share my experiences in an e-mail that looked like a generic e-mail,” Rosalik said. “There was no indication of what the content of that e-mail was going to be and no indication that the content of that e-mail was going to be contacting me because I was a survivor that reported.”
Rosalik said she wrote a 10-page paper offering her thoughts on the policy and offered to meet with both OSCR and the Title IX coordinator’s office, but never received a response. She voiced specific concern with the lack of transparency the policy provides in the investigation of reports of sexual assault on campus.
In an interview after the event, she noted that the University’s investigation process — during which a University-assigned investigator separately gathers information from both the survivor and perpetrator of alleged assault — lacks transparency because it is not clear how the investigator implements current policy to decide which party to trust.
She said the ineffectiveness of this process is illustrated by data from the University’s campus climate survey, noting that just under 4 percent of all victims of sexual assault at the University were reported to someone at the University for the 2013-2014 academic year. Additionally, she said, only four alleged perpetrators were found guilty of sexual assault on campus, with two cases pending.
“We can do the work, students and activists, to make this a better policy, but there’s not a lot that we can do around the transparency of that policy,” Rosalik said. “What would you suggest we do to make that a more transparent process for survivors?”
Schlissel said he was surprised there was no survivor-specific mode of outreach concerning the drafting of the sexual assault policy, and apologized for the insensitivity of the e-mail she received. He further acknowledged the challenge of investigative transparency, and said the University is open to suggestions for improvement in that regard.
Divestment from fossil fuels
The question of divestment from fossil fuels also sparked debate at Thursday’s event. One LSA sophomore brought up the fact that the University currently invests $1 billion in fossil fuel-related industries. One student asked whether there exists a point when the consequences of investing in fossil fuels would outweigh any benefits. A proposal to support the formation of a committee to consider fossil fuel divestment was passed by the University’s Senate Assembly last month.
Schlissel responded that the University is dedicated to sustainability and efforts to curb climate change, citing the University’s Graham Sustainability Institute, extensive sustainability research, environmental science course offerings and philanthropic efforts targeted at environmental causes.
He additionally reaffirmed the University’s commitment to reducing environmental harm by reminding the audience of the University’s recent $80 million investment in a natural gas-driven turbine or co-generation turbine, which makes electricity and steam at high efficiency and is expected to decrease the University’s carbon footprint by 20 percent.
On the topic of divestment, Schlissel said he is against divesting due to its anticipated ineffectiveness in actually diverting the energy market from fossil fuels.
“If you could convince me that the University of Michigan shifting its investment portfolio away from fossil fuel companies would actually hasten our transition to renewables, then I’d think about it,” Schlissel said. “But I think that the strongest arguments that have been made so far is that it’s an important symbolic action because burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment.”
Schlissel said he would rather see students lobby the Michigan state legislature instead of the University on the topic of fossil fuel divestment. At the University level, he said, divestment is “mostly symbolic action.”
“If it diminishes the performance of our endowment and our ability to pay for all the things here that we want to pay for and it doesn’t hasten our conversion away from fossil fuels, it doesn’t make sense to me,” he added.
The student responded that divesting in fossil fuel industries would not only be a symbolic gesture, but also an initial step in igniting a culture shift toward reducing environmental harm. He also said the University could influence donors not to have their money invested in the fossil fuel industry.
During the chat, a Medical School student who said she carries a significant amount of student debt voiced concern with the University’s average amount of debt within the medical student population. She said the current number is skewed because a large portion of medical students have no debt, while a large portion of others have a significant amount of debt.
She also noted that continuing to raise tuition poses a unique threat to medical students, as it is virtually impossible to transfer medical schools.
Schlissel responded that the University’s main focus is and remains on undergraduate student debt and less so graduate and professional students, least of all medical and law students.
“It’s not that it’s unimportant, but when you’re training for a profession, it’s a different type of thinking than receiving an undergraduate basic education,” Schlissel said.
“The reason why you can accumulate that much debt is because the people loaning you the money appreciate the fact that there’s no unemployment among physicians,” he added. “You will pay it back.”
University grading policies
About halfway through the event, Schlissel posed a question to those in attendance: “Does Michigan seem the same or more competitive among students than you thought it would be?”
Students’ reactions were mixed, with the general consensus that, in classes graded on a curve, peer competition and high tension are more evident.
Schlissel then asked students if they thought an absolute grading system, as opposed to a curve, would be a more effective form of evaluation.
One medical student, arguing in favor of an absolute grading system, said curves are detrimental to students whose grades fall below the average — and are subsequently curved down.
Similarly, other respondents were mostly in favor of absolute grading, identifying a curve as a significant source of stress and competition. Schlissel acknowledged both the positives and negatives to the curved grading system.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated the body that voted on a resolution to support University divestment from coal and oil. The body was the Senate Assembly, not SACUA.