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On Thursday, more than 100 members of the University of Michigan community were invited to the Robertson Auditorium at the Ross School of Business to hear University President Mark Schlissel reflect on the current year and priorities and initiatives for the future. The event was also live streamed for other interested viewers.
The speech comes two days after Schlissel announced he would be stepping down from his role as President in June 2023, a year earlier than previously planned.
Schlissel said the reason he announced his resignation so early was to mitigate the uncertainties the University community has been feeling over the past 18 months during the pandemic and ensure a seamless transition.
“During this pandemic we’ve endured more than our fair share of changes that happened overnight, and we’ve heard the words uncertain and unprecedented so frequently that very quickly they were deemed overused,” Schlissel said. “I announced my decision Tuesday to step down as president at the end of 2023 in an effort to avoid uncertainty, and to be in keeping with the precedent that the best transitions occur at the right time, and are thoughtful and deliberate.”
Schlissel said he discussed his decision to step down with the Regents and plans to help with the search for a new president in any way he can.
Paul Brown (D), Board of Regents vice chair, said during his remarks to the audience that he appreciated Schlissel’s leadership during the pandemic.
“Our options as leaders of this institution were often choosing between lousy and horrible,” Brown said. “Our own constituencies often were exactly split on which of these unsatisfactory options we should choose. It’s enough to keep a new regent up at night, and I did have many sleepless nights, (but) there was one reason I was ever able to get any sleep, and that was because of all of you, especially President Mark Schlissel.”
In September, the Detroit Free Press reported increased “tensions” between Schlissel and the Regents due to Schlissel’s handling of former University Provost Martin Philbert’s sexual misconduct at the University. The strained relationship was also in part due to the collapse of the Detroit Center for Innovation, a newly proposed University project in downtown Detroit, according to the Free Press.
Despite some pushback especially from faculty on reopening campus for fall, Schlissel said progress has been made in regards to vaccination and an almost completely in-residence fall semester. As of Thursday, 96% of students, 96% of faculty and 87% of staff are fully vaccinated according to the U-M COVID-19 Dashboard.
Despite the pandemic, Schlissel said research at the University has continued to increase over the past year. He highlighted how research is converted to industry and real-world situations, mentioning the 23 startups and 502 inventions recorded at the University during the past year, “a level comparable to our very best years.” He said the University is second in the country for start up formation, behind the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology.
The conversation then shifted towards talks about the University’s sustainability plan. In March, the Board of Regents unanimously voted to disinvest in fossil fuels and commit to a net-zero carbon endowment by 2050. The vote came after years of activism from groups such as the Climate Action Movement, who advocated for the previously-reluctant University to divest from fossil fuels.
CAM also pressured the University to take steps to achieve carbon neutrality. In response, Schlissel established the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality in February 2019, which published their final report in March. The report includes 50 recommendations for the University to achieve net zero carbon emissions by the year 2040.
Schlissel said the University is further committed to sustainability and is working toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in renewable energy sources.
“We’re working to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from direct on-campus sources, reduce emissions from purchasing electricity to net zero and establish innovative goals for emissions from indirect sources like commuting University travel and food procurement,” Schlissel said.
The University did not completely divest from fossil fuels — they will only no longer invest in the largest producers of greenhouse gases. These companies are defined as the top 100 publicly traded coal, oil and gas companies in the world. Following the vote, CAM said the continued ability for UM to invest in ‘natural gas’ is “utterly unacceptable.”
Schlissel said the University is also investing in sustainable infrastructure and plans to install the University’s first geothermal heating and cooling system in the Bob and Betty Beyster building. These plans come from the PCCN report.
Schlissel also noted the University’s several artistic achievements over the past year, including the establishment of the Comprehensive Arts Initiative, a program that aims to make the arts a bigger part of the Michigan student experience.
“A fundamental notion behind our initiative is the idea that the arts are as essential to a university as they are to life itself,” Schlissel said. “(They are important in) making us excellent, complete and comprehensive; teaching us new ways to visualize, imagine and understand; and taking us far beyond the instrumental value to a place where we can, as this university has always aspired to do, answer the most profound questions applied.”
Schlissel directed the rest of his speech towards the University’s diversity, equity and inclusion goals and initiatives. Schlissel said the University had successfully incorporated DEI into everyday life on campus and thanked both students and faculty for making that possible.
“One of the goals of our strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion was to ensure that our highest values are built into our decision-making and the work that we do in units all across the campus,” Schlissel said. “The leaders here with us today and many many more in the community have helped us achieve this goal, DEI is forged into our teaching and learning, research, patient care, budgeting, hiring student recruitment and campus events.”
The five year DEI strategic plan was created in response to calls for greater minority inclusion and enrollment on campus. The plan launched in 2016 immediately following a series of racially charged incidents, where racist, alt-right posters targetting Black, Muslim and LGBTQ+ individuals were displayed on campus. Shortly after, hundreds of students protested the posters and the University’s “inadequate” response.
LSA senior and director of Arab Xpressions Latifa Cheaito said she attended the event after receiving an email invitation for student leaders on campus. Cheaito said it was informative to know the University’s goals for the year, especially pertaining to the environment and sustainability.
“That was very informational,” Cheaito said. “We (got to learn) a lot about the plans (the) University has for the coming years, about the environmental impacts that the University has.”
Schlissel also addressed the Provost’s office’s anti-racism initiatives, created after protests for racial justice in the summer of 2020. The Office of the Vice President for Research and the National Center for Institutional Diversity awarded $500,000 to eight anti-racist research teams across the Ann Arbor campus to explore racial inequalities and achieve a greater sense of equality and justice on campus.
Schlissel ended the speech by thanking all members of the University community for the University’s accomplishments over the past year.
“The initiatives and issues I discussed today are made possible by the breadth and depth of academic excellence at U of M, combined with our public ethos, (and) your commitment to challenging and enriching our future and making our world better,” Schlissel said. “We’re a university whose work matters. And in the years to come I pledge to you that our important work will continue together with my full support, deepest gratitude and eternal admiration.”
Daily Staff Reporter George Weykamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of the Bob and Better Beyster building and the fact that the Board of Regents has committed to a net-zero endowment by 2050.