One year in, Schlissel says diversity plan moving ahead
University President Mark Schlissel and his administration have spent the last academic year working to roll out new policy initiatives regarding several campus issues — most notably athletics, diversity, alcohol abuse and Greek life. This week, The Michigan Daily reviews the events that got the ball rolling. Today, we consider Schlissel’s work to address campus diversity, namely through the gradual unveiling of his administration’s strategic campus plan to be released by the end of this year.
The overview: Diversity has long been a battle-tested issue at the University. Currently, minority enrollment lies at 11.53 percent — and in recent years, students have continually lobbied the University to make the campus more welcoming to minority students, both in terms of social climate and admissions.
The changes: University President Mark Schlissel has worked to address the school’s apparent lack of diversity by introducing a campus-wide strategic plan, which he will unveil at the end of this school year (also the end of his second year in office). Most recently, this has included launching the HAIL Scholarship, which offers full-ride tuition for high-achieving, low-income students. Initiatives through the Office of Student Life have also sought to heavily incorporate students in catalyzing culture shift at the University. An example of this recent inclusion was engaging students in discussion regarding the best place to relocate the Trotter Multicultural Center.
The context: Entering into his first year as president of the University, Schlissel was quick to prioritize addressing the issue of diversity and inclusion on campus. Doing so was a pillar of his inaugural address on Sept. 7 of last year.
“The University of Michigan must be a diverse and democratic community: open and accessible,” Schlissel said. “As members of this community we will always seek out, encourage and value all voices.”
One year before Schlissel’s arrival, the Black Student Union launched its #BBUM movement on Twitter. The “Being Black at the University of Michigan” hashtag, which Black students used to share their experiences on campus, went viral and sparked similar social media reactions on other college campuses.
Two months later, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2014, the BSU held protests on the steps of Hill Auditorium, where they listed seven demands they wanted the University address in seven days.
The BSU asked for an increased budget, affordable housing on central campus, for the Trotter Multicultural Center to be moved to Central Campus, a Race and Ethnicity class requirement, emergency scholarships, exposure of Bentley Historical Library documents on race at the University and 10 Black enrollment.
In a January interview on the anniversary of the #BBUM protests, then-Engineering senior Robert Greenfield — who was BSU’s treasurer at the time — said the movement’s momentum had slowed significantly.
“University administration is made of the highest and best servants of our University, and the BSU is very appreciative of how they have collaborated with us,” he said. “However, as of now, it is the overall sentiment of the BSU that progress is not being made, and as an executive board, we’re questioning the administration’s willingness due to how fast things are progressing.”
Arguably, the #BBUM campaign played a pivotal role in amplifying the discussion about campus diversity, providing momentum for change that continued to roll forward as Schlissel took office.
In September 2014 — just weeks into Schlissel’s first semester at the University — with #BBUM and subsequent conversations in recent memory, the administration issued a “Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Report” report with 13 recommendations for how to increase diversity on campus and improve campus climate.
The recommendations, generated by a committee through the Office of the Provost, included the creation of a committee to research the level of inclusion among faculty members, a plan to partner with schools to increase minority enrollment, a public campaign by the provost in support of diversity and a call for the creation of the “strategic plan for diversity.”
In a September 2015 interview with the Daily, Schlissel said the fully developed plan will likely be released by the end of this school year. The final result will come from the collective feedback of individual evaluations from each of the University’s schools and colleges as well as from each administrative office.
Last February, Schlissel announced several enterprises in the works focusing on diversity and inclusion on campus — many of which were recommended by University Provost Martha Pollack’s committee in September. These included partnering with predominantly underrepresented school districts, creating a task force dedicated to hiring and promoting minority staff as well as a diversity summit to take place in the fall.
“The plan has to work towards the goal of making the University community look like the public it serves,” Schlissel said in February. “It sounds simplistic: There aren't numerical quotas — that's not either legal or desirable — there's a shared ambition and we're trying to release the creativity of all of our different units.”
February’s announcement marked the plan’s formal introduction. Seven months later, its formal deadline was set; less than seven months from now will mark the beginning of strategy implementation that will likely influence climate, culture and general practices for years to come.
“It's not the kind of thing I'm convinced where we have a three-year plan and then we're done,” Schlissel said in September. “I am convinced that my successors are going to be working on this because of how far society has to go to be truly inclusive and diverse society; the kind that matches our ideals.”
The first leg of Schlissel’s plan launched Sept. 2 when Schlissel announced the High Achieving Involved Leader Scholarship.
The scholarship program is currently being piloted for two years by the University with aims to attract academically strong students from low-income families — applying to students from urban, rural or suburban neighborhoods. The program offers four years of free tuition to the University, and is valued at $60,000.
“As a public university, we want to make sure that we remain accessible and affordable to talented students in the state,” Schlissel said. “No matter where they are in the state, no matter what community they grow up in, what high school they went to, what their parents do, what their circumstances are.”
The University has yet to release the demographics of the 6,269 students in the 2015 freshman class. However, enrollment data from 2015 shows 3.84 percent of the newly admitted student body was Black. This brings the total percentage of Black students enrolled at the University to 4.63 percent — slightly lower than in the previous five years.
In his September interview with the Daily, Schlissel said the University would “start to see modest incremental changes in the direction of diversity now,” based on changes made to the admissions and financial aid procedures in the last year.
Prior to Schlissel’s arrival, the administration had put in place the Center for Educational Outreach, which came out of a 2007 Diversity Blueprints Committee. The CEO offers more than a dozen programs aimed to both increase the University’s presence in underserved communities and offer academic aid to those students.
The center aided 4,558 students in 2014 from third grade through high school in 124 schools in the state of Michigan. Schlissel’s proposed plans to increase partnerships with underrepresented schools is a start to solving the low minority enrollment numbers, as there currently is no concrete data on how well similar programs already in place — such as the CEO program — affect minority enrollment.
So far, of the seven demands the BSU laid out for the University to address, four have been addressed. The administration has nearly doubled the BSU’s funding — from $37,000 in 2014 to $60,000 this year. BSU members have been encouraged by some of the administration’s efforts in areas such as providing emergency funds to students, as well as the revising the Race and Ethnicity requirements so that Intergroup Relations courses will count toward it.
However, BSU members say there is more to be done — especially in areas such as increasing minority enrollment and moving the Trotter Center closer to campus.
In response to #BBUM, Pollack promised in January 2014 to improve the building. At the time, Pollack and Harper listed the Trotter Center’s relocation among their top three priorities to be addressed immediately. The other two were improving campus climate and increasing minority enrollment.
The University has agreed to ultimately move the Trotter Center closer to campus. The Office of Student Life hosted a number of student focus groups at the current location in September to discuss four potential options.
E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, said in a September interview with the Daily that wherever the new location may be, it will be finished by 2017.
LSA senior Arnold Reed, the 2014-2015 BSU speaker, said though the BSU has not worked very closely with Schlissel, the organization has been pleased with the administration’s efforts thus far and is looking forward to increased collaboration in the future.
“The gap between administration and students is narrowing over time, which I’m appreciative of,” Reed said. “I hope to continue working with them in years to come.”
Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity, inclusion and academic affairs, said, overall, students are happy with the steps Schlissel has taken over the past year. Sellers served as chair of Pollack’s committee on diversity and inclusion.
“The number of students that I talk to have been excited about where we are and where we’re going,” Sellers said. “The fact that he has been very public and upfront with regards to this being an important part of his presidency. Also the fact that he has laid forth a diversity strategic planning process that will engage the entire University towards thinking about and developing and recommitting to a strategy that will not only create a more diverse campus, but one that’s equitable for all students, faculty and staff and allow us to utilize the various kinds of experiences that a diverse campus brings.”
A priority for Sellers and Schlissel is to improve the Diversity Matters website as a place for students to share experiences and foster discussion online. They hope the new version of the website will help connect students with pre-existing online resources while also creating new platforms for interaction.
Moving forward: Reed said he was happy Schlissel has a plan, but said he cannot be sure of how much of an impact it will make at this point.
“A plan is a great place to start, but a plan is definitely just a plan until action is put behind it,” Reed said. “I’m going to be very interested to see how that action is put behind it and how students are going to be playing a role in that narrative. I think that it’s a good thing for him to be talking about it and rallying behind it, but I just want to see what becomes of it in the years to come. We’re definitely holding administration to that plan.”
Something everyone seems to agree upon is that diversity issues cannot be solved within one year’s time. Sellers is pleased with how much Schlissel has accomplished over the past year as well as his approach to addressing diversity. He said while Schlissel can lead the efforts to improve campus diversity, it’s up to members of the University community to put an effort into creating change.
“It’s important for folks to understand that he has made a great deal of progress in the eight months, in terms of his commitment, both publicly and privately, more so than one could even begin to imagine,” Sellers said. “He has a serious view of this, so he doesn’t see this as a box to check off his checklist in terms of issues to address, but he sees it as a long-term commitment.”
Sellers continued highlighting the importance of Schlissel’s long-term outlook.
“That long-term commitment means that it’s not going to be solved in a semester. The issues that face this University, or frankly face higher education in our society, cannot be fixed in a semester,” Sellers said. “I would, quite frankly, be afraid if that was his approach. That just tells me that he’s serious about it because he sees this as a long-term effort that the University as a whole must engage in to have real transformation, and to have real, sustained achievement.”
Reed also noted the ongoing process of promoting diversity as well as his confidence in Schlissel to take on the job.
“There’s things that we can always improve. This is something that you can’t just work on once — it’s a continual process,” Reed said. “I’m excited to see what comes of it. He’s still pretty new at this point and he’s growing into his role. I’m just really excited to see where he can take these issues. He’s a very strategic thinker and he’s very methodical in his movements, and I think that we’ll be able to see a lot of cool things being done this upcoming year.”