Dear President Ono,
Welcome to the University of Michigan! My friends at the University of British Columbia tell me great things about your tenure there. I hope your approach embodies this university’s mission “to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.”
As you begin your term, I feel it is important to bring to your attention the growing number of emails from the U-M leadership — including your predecessor — that take a specific stance not only on sensitive political and social issues of the day, but on issues for which there is no consensus among the diverse members of the U-M community of students, faculty and staff.
On behalf of community members, including myself, that feel marginalized because our personal beliefs do not align with those of the U-M leadership, I respectfully ask that you enact communication policies that either abstain from sending such partisan emails or at least include all sides and opinions on controversial topics. As a Chaldean-American and a first-generation college student, I believe that such actions will foster a diverse and inclusive environment at the University, which I feel has been noticeably absent during the past four years.
You, and other members of your administration, function as stewards for the University, which is, at the end of the day, a public institution. I humbly ask how partisan emails from the administration that opine on social issues — ranging from the Dobbs v. Jackson case to overturning Roe v. Wade to the Russian-Ukrainian and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts abroad — represent the diverse perspectives of the entire community. It is also not clear how such emails expressing the personal beliefs of U-M stewards differ from other university employees who misuse funds and resources for their own benefit while harming the institution’s stakeholders.
I appreciate the difficult nature of navigating hot-button topics, and I do not envy your job in that regard. While partisan emails to U-M stakeholders may temporarily appease some groups, I fear that appeasing a subset of our community is detrimental to long-term community value because it widens the divide between those on both sides of each issue.
For example, on June 24, 2022, Interim President Mary Sue Coleman sent an email weighing in on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, which sent decisions over abortion rights back to the states. Her electronic missive (emphasis added) stated: “I strongly support access to abortion services, and I will do everything in my power as president to ensure we continue to provide this critically important care. Our campus is more than half women; we care about our own communities as well as those we serve through clinical care and education. I am deeply concerned about how prohibiting abortion would affect U-M’s medical teaching, our research, and our service to communities in need.”
That email was written from a first-person perspective, which clearly represents her personal beliefs rather than those of a steward of the University’s general education mission. A mission that serves the University’s diverse stakeholders, including those that may take exception — which may include a portion of the “more than half of women” that Coleman cites — with the statement that abortions “provide this critically important care” to all members of our community, including future U-M stakeholders. For instance, how should devout Catholic students or pro-life members of our community feel when reading an email that sets the tone for the campus environment?
The University of Michigan’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan includes strategies for creating an inclusive and equitable campus climate. It states that the University has designed campus-wide action items to “encourage a culture of belonging in which every member of our community can grow and thrive.” How does espousing personal views from the sacred platform upon which you and others lead convey a sense of inclusion? How does it encourage diversity of thought when the views of the disaffected group are ignored or implicitly demonized?
In addition to sending partisan emails, the failure to send emails addressing other partisan issues also reduces a sense of inclusion to many on campus. The selective absence of emails on some topics provides a signal to our community that such issues are not noteworthy — especially when juxtaposed with emails on topics that the administration clearly believes are noteworthy. For example, our country lost 13 brave military service members on Aug. 26, 2021, when a Taliban suicide bomber detonated an explosive device at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Former President Mark Schlissel and Francine Lafontaine, Interim Dean of the Ross School of Business — where I am a student — noticeably abstained from similarly acknowledging this atrocity and the direct impact it may have on members of the campus community — with many connections to the armed forces on campus, this reminded many of unwelcome memories of loved ones in harms way. Their deafening silence was very disheartening, considering the large presence of active and former military members on our campus — including several dozen students at the Business School. The University offered no message of empathy or solidarity despite promoting the fact that it ranks among the best colleges and universities for military veterans.
The current campus-wide communications policy at the University with respect to partisan social and political issues has the potential to decrease long-term educational opportunities for learning and discovery: sending a message to U-M stakeholders that thinking for oneself is neither appreciated nor tolerated if it does not align with the personal views of U-M leaders. Four years ago, I enrolled at the University excited to learn how to think, not what to think.
The University should be an exciting place that arms its student body with data, rather than personal opinions and emotionally-charged rhetoric. Perhaps the most important data are derived from listening to and sharing with others our diverse stories and experiences. I believe that providing an environment for all individuals to explore and share information is essential, so that we can shape and mold our own beliefs about our dynamic and complex world.
To get the ball rolling in the direction of listening to and sharing diverse viewpoints, I welcome any opportunity to meet with you so that I may better understand your perspectives and experiences on the issue of partisan communications as well as any others that you are willing and able to share. I look forward to hearing from you. Go Blue!
Editors’ note: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Dean of Ross School of Business in August 2021; the office was occupied by Interim Dean Francine LaFontaine, not the current dean, Sharon Matusik.
Paul Sesi is a senior in the School of Business and can be reached at email@example.com