As you consider joining the ranks of the leaders and the best, I can’t, in good conscience, allow you to make the decision to come to the University of Michigan without taking the time to share this with you. As someone who chose to come to the University, I know how exciting it is to envision yourself here. Scrolling through the websites and social media accounts, you’ll see game days, students in our esteemed research labs and photos of multicultural student groups on the Diag. However, what you won’t see is a university fulfilling its stated mission.
I decided to come to the University after attending Hawken School, a small private high school in Ohio. Most of the students who attended the school, like me, were white and entered the school unaware of the systems of oppression that affected the people of color in our community. Hawken took responsibility for developing our understanding of race, vulnerability and of every citizen’s responsibility to be an active member of society and an ally in the fight against issues they don’t directly experience. As a result of the institution’s efforts, I felt compelled to find a college where I could further develop my understanding and leadership on broader societal justice.
I decided to attend the University because I wanted to learn how to tackle these issues of privilege and racism at an institution whose mission is “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 I’ve been attending the University for two years, there certainly have been moments where I have learned about race, being a global citizen and what real leadership looks like. Student-led initiatives like the Musical Theatre Department’s Color Cabaret create an environment of vulnerable, open and genuine discussion on race in society while simultaneously celebrating the diverse background of the student body. You may think this is because the administration at the University takes broad and resolute action to support the mission of the institution and foster diversity, equity and inclusiveness. However, in times like these, when we need leadership the most, the University is teaching us that leaders wait until it is comfortable to get behind an issue, while the best stand silently by, afraid to upset the status quo.
After over 300 hundred people accessed an email template that I created to send a message to University President Mark Schlissel from the student body, Schlissel offered an obligatory message that amounted to a general acknowledgment of work to be done against racism and violence, but failed to highlight any concrete accomplishments or cite any new efforts by the University to fulfill its institutional obligation. In 2016, The Michigan Daily reported on the proposed Diversity, Equity and Inclusion goals Schlissel mentions in his recent statement, saying “DEI will continue as a major focus of the institution throughout my presidency, beyond our initial five-year Strategic Plan.” Sabrina Bilimoria, who graduated in 2016 and was a Michigan in Color editor at The Daily, criticized the DEI plan which required more mental and emotional labor from marginalized students. She wrote, “There’s such a lack of understanding from Schlissel and many, many administrators as to a common way to talk to students without tokenizing them and asking minority students to do all the work.” Four years later, the University continues to put the burden on minority students to educate their white peers on race and allyship by remaining absent in the discussion. It is not Black people’s responsibility to teach white people how to understand race. Understanding race is a fundamental component of citizenship and if the University actually intends to fulfill its mission, one driven by creating leaders and citizens, it should take steps to develop and lead these discussions to truly further intellectual diversity, equity and the teaching of racial justice for the entire student body.
Other universities across the country have already taken action to support Black students and the Black communities within their sphere of influence: The Manhattan School of Music pledged that “all performances will feature work by African American creators or those from the African diaspora,” while the University of California stated that, “As part of our commitment to find solutions to address these issues, the University of California will take immediate action to re-examine our own practices and ensure we implement the recommendations of the Presidential Task Force on Universitywide Policing that we established two years ago.” The University of Michigan, however, appears to be focusing more on continuing inadequate commitments than reexamining what these commitments fail to achieve and how to progress towards racial justice. Why are only two pieces of music guaranteed to Black American Music in the two-hour annual Collage event? Why aren’t the University of Michigan-Dearborn and University of Michigan-Flint campuses, with a significantly higher percentage of Black students than the Ann Arbor campus, given the same support by the University? The statement, “The University of Michigan has a critical role to play and obligation to lead the kind of changes in our society that we all want to see,” doesn’t actually outline working changes or recognize the institutional failures we currently have as a university. The University clearly has a critical role to play, however we can’t fill this critical role if the president and administrators refuse to address the current shortcomings of their actions. A statement is empty if it doesn’t commit to concrete action and while the statements from University leadership are eloquent, they are inadequate.
A university that truly wants to develop the leaders and best would not hesitate to leap into the uncomfortable and preemptively challenge the status quo. A university that genuinely wants to lead would use its platform as an institution, purchaser, supplier and employer to take action against police brutality and systemic racism. A university administration that cares about its mission more than its brand wouldn’t need students to do its work for them.
I understand that I have a lot to learn as an ally. Every day, I discover more about white privilege, how to support and amplify the voices of my Black peers and how to ensure that my actions genuinely support my words. Unfortunately, I will have to depend on myself and my peers, not the University. For those of you considering the University, I hope you take the time to look beyond words to the actions of the institution you’re considering. I wanted to write this to those of you considering the University as a place to develop as a leader and a citizen so that you could be fully informed before you made that choice.
Andrew Gerace is a rising junior in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.