Derek Wolfe: Presidential Promises

By Derek Wolfe, Columnist
Published January 26, 2014

Only days into knowing that Dr. Mark Schlissel will become the University’s 14th president, it’s admittedly difficult to find any significant criticisms of the Board of Regents’ selection — making writing this column a much more challenging task.

Before even taking the podium to deliver his opening remarks during the regents’ special meeting Friday in the Union, Schlissel’s résumé spoke for itself. He’s an M.D. and Ph.D. with more than 100 research papers to his name. He is currently the provost at Brown University, but before that spent more than a decade at the University of California, Berkeley in various positions, including dean of biological sciences. By all accounts, he is a scholar — an impressive one at that — who is clearly qualified for the job and should be taken seriously in this respect.

But career accomplishments aside, Schlissel’s initial words to the media, administrators, faculty and those watching online exuded a sense of warmth, openness and intelligence.

“My motivation as an academic leader stems from a personal belief that understanding and discovery can change the world and that education is the key to achieving social equity and economic progress,” he said.

Regent Mark Bernstein (D–Ann Arbor) also recounted a moment in the interviewing process, during which Schlissel was asked what makes a great university president.

Schlissel answered by saying, “You have to love and be amazed by students. You have to love and be amazed by faculty. You have to love and be amazed by research and discovery.”

Sure, this is all academic rhetoric. But his tone demonstrated to me a true passion for academia as a whole, for faculty and for students — he did spend almost eight years in graduate school, after all. Really, he came off as someone with whom you’d want to get lunch, which is perhaps the greatest compliment of all.

However, it was also obvious he’s not a “Michigan Man” and has much to learn about Ann Arbor and the University — he referred to the restaurant at which he ate during a secret tour as “the wonderful deli in town.” Yes, he’s talking about Zingerman’s. Oh, how innocent.

That being said, he acknowledges his lack of knowledge about the University, and his preparedness to listen is admirable. As he said, “The best ideas come from the people who do the teaching and the learning, so that’s why I need to do some listening first.”

We can only hope he will follow through on this promise to listen to students. But while it’s encouraging to see someone who wants to embrace the University before implementing his own goals, it can only last so long before significant action is required.

For example, the #BBUM campaign is only the tip of the iceberg of the significant diversity issues on campus. And while the University attempted to address concerns through an e-mail sent by Provost Martha Pollack to the University community on Jan. 16, they are issues that won’t be reconciled by the time Schlissel takes office.

It was promising to hear Schlissel speak on the importance of diversity during the press conference. He said, “You can’t achieve excellence as an academic institution without being diverse because we live in a world where people can look at the same set of facts and interpret them differently from each other.”

Given this standard he has set, it should be expected that he understands the ongoing diversity issues on campus and subsequently makes a concerted effort to actually address them early in his presidency — something beyond the “we’re listening” comments we’ve grown so accustomed to. And if he fails to do so, he should be held accountable.

His skills in handling the Victors for Michigan campaign will also prove critical to the well-being of students, given the goal of raising $1 billion for financial aid purposes. Unlike current University President Mary Sue Coleman, who was the president of the University of Iowa before coming to the University, Schlissel has never held a position that requires significant fundraising duties beyond filling out grants for research projects or possibly minor initiatives when he was a dean. He must find a way to be committed to providing students with an affordable education, despite his lack of experience.

In all, even with these concerns, Schlissel made a fantastic first impression in appealing to both faculty and students. It appears that he is ready to tackle the challenge of running one of the United States’ premier institutions despite being a somewhat surprising selection — a topic that Michael Proppe, president of Central Student Government, spoke about.

“He was not one of the names we’d heard floating around, so people are really excited to engage with him and get to know him,” Proppe said.

But with his term beginning July 1, that gives us plenty of time to learn more about him as well. And we can start with figuring out how to pronounce his name.

Derek Wolfe can be reached at dewolfe@umich.edu