Two weeks ago, University President Mark Schlissel used an evaluative survey sent to all governing faculty at the University of Michigan to ask whether they supported expanding the Go Blue Guarantee for the University’s Flint and Dearborn campuses. The survey question framed the program’s expansion as a trade-off with academic excellence and salary growth on the Ann Arbor campus. The question’s elitist connotations raised eyebrows, a bit of disbelief and understandable outrage among many campus groups.
Schlissel offered a tepid apology a few weeks later, though not in a full or public fashion. Perhaps he hoped to leave this issue behind him — yet another episode in a list of controversies that include being forced to remove his provost for sexual misconduct, overseeing a controversial COVID-19 response that many felt lacked transparency and receiving an unprecedented vote of no confidence from the 2020 Faculty Senate.
But this incident also reveals a deeper problem, both with President Schlissel and the current structure of the University: There remains a flagrant disregard for fulfilling the role of a public institution and serving the people of the state of Michigan.
President Schlissel was educated and spent his career at elite institutions, from Princeton University to Brown University to the University of California, Berkeley. Unlike his role at the University of Michigan, Schlissel’s leadership at these institutions did not carry the responsibility of developing regional, comprehensive campuses that support large numbers of working-class students. Schlissel’s lack of experience, and clear lack of interest, in the missions and strengths of these campuses has compromised his ability to lead.
In an era rightfully attuned to racial and class inequalities, Schlissel’s treatment of the Flint and Dearborn campuses undermines the institution’s commitment to justice and equity.
Sadly, President Schlissel seems ignorant of this — often willfully so. His administration misrepresented the goals of the One University campaign, claiming that it wants to “merge” the campuses. One University does not believe the mission of the Flint and Dearborn campuses is the same as the Ann Arbor campus. In fact, it is precisely the divergent missions of our campuses that make the University of Michigan stronger and positions us to make the greatest impact on the families and students of our state and nation.
The Flint and Dearborn campuses instruct half of the University of Michigan’s in-state students. Close to 40% of University of Michigan-Flint and University of Michigan-Dearborn students are lower-income and therefore Pell Grant eligible, while almost half of Ann Arbor’s students come from the top 10% of earners. This means the Flint and Dearborn campuses are the University’s work-horses of upward mobility. They are precious resources that — for over half a century — have built deep ties to two of the most dynamic and resilient communities in our state.
President Schlissel clearly does not see the three campuses in this light. He has fought tooth-and-nail against expanding programs like the Go Blue Guarantee. He has resisted extending other resources that would help many University of Michigan-Flint and University of Michigan-Dearborn students overcome the layered inequalities that they face on their educational journeys. And he has stood by as these campuses have cut music and foreign language programs due to financial pressures, taking away opportunities from these students.
His position has become increasingly untenable and out of step with the views of faculty, staff and students from across the University. It is also equally out of step with burgeoning support within our broader society for a more equitable higher education system.
At University of Michigan-Flint and University of Michigan-Dearborn, students, staff and faculty think of President Schlissel as their president too. They want him to succeed, and they want him to want them to succeed. This is why it has been so disappointing to watch him blatantly act like the chancellor of the Ann Arbor campus, rather than the president of all three campuses — only invoking his role as president to justify austerity on the Flint and Dearborn campuses in the name of a distant, better future.
A truly great university deserves a president who can use “both-and” thinking, not “either-or.” We can marshal our resources in a manner that cultivates and enhances Ann Arbor’s distinct research mission while supporting the crucial work taking place at the Flint and Dearborn campuses. We can work with and learn from one another to enhance the excellence of all of our students, faculty and staff. Indeed, if we are serious about rising to the challenge of creating a more equitable society, we must do these things.
To achieve these goals, we must change course. The University’s Board of Regents could move to hire a chancellor for the Ann Arbor campus, freeing the president to coordinate efforts across the campuses in ways that do not entail the current conflict of interest. Perhaps President Schlissel could even fill the role of Ann Arbor chancellor since he has proven that he is singularly invested in the success of that campus. Whether this comes to pass or not, it is clear that we need better leadership. Leadership worthy of that word must value and invest in the missions of our three campuses and build a university whose impact is greater than the sum of its parts.
This article was written on behalf of the One University Steering Committee.
Jacob Lederman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan-Flint and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Liz Rohan is a professor of composition and rhetoric at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at email@example.com.
Daille Held is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bennett Walling is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and can be reached at email@example.com.