The past several days have been a trying time for Ann Arbor. With the dire knish shortage and hours-long Pizza House wait times, students have been forced to subsist on overpriced calzones. Even worse, as University of Michigan students unravel the vast conspiracy against them, they have been driven into pangs of loneliness, finding solace only in clandestine private briefings.
All jokes aside, this moment is an inflection point for the University of Michigan. As the dust settles at the end of a disgraced administration, it’s high time we take stock of where our values have strayed as a university and determine what our objectives must be going forward. Our choice of a new president will guide the direction of the school for many years to come, so it’s paramount that we not only identify a strong leader but also — in the process — reassert our commitment to the University’s core values.
The first and most important area of improvement for the University is reviving a student-centric leadership approach. To restore trust after the multitude of recent scandals, the administration must take the time to truly listen to the student population and address their needs. After two years of an inconsistent pandemic response, many students yearn for the administration to make meaningful strides towards fully reopening and lifting all COVID-19 requirements.
While the administration boldly decided to keep the University open during the fall of 2020, betting that high caseloads wouldn’t translate to hospitalizations, the decisiveness of their response has noticeably tapered. Four semesters into the pandemic, while the University now has a 98% vaccination rate, testing is not always readily available and quarantine housing is abysmal. Luckily, the school has the monetary resources necessary to make rapid testing universal, which would allow the University to move towards lifting pandemic restrictions. A new administration needs to capitalize on existing infrastructure to bring the University back to the forefront of the fight against COVID-19.
Another key area for the new administration to focus on is reestablishing the school’s commitment to inclusiveness and equality of opportunity. Throughout former University President Mark Schlissel’s tenure, he sought to make the University more inclusive by making cultural identity a central tenet of campus discourse, requiring diversity training for students and expanding the administration’s role in shaping campus culture. Unfortunately, this plan to foster inclusiveness was misguided in its execution, failed to make major strides towards a truly diverse campus culture and at times trivialized real issues under the guise of revamped rhetoric. Despite the University’s $85 million investment in a diversity, equity and inclusion plan from 2016 to 2021, the headline achievements of the spending were rather modest, including an annual review of faculty DEI plans and funding to support future DEI research.
“Equity” is an incredibly complex concept and is not something that can be accomplished through brute force. Though the University boasts the largest DEI department of any American university, with more than 150 staff, a large bureaucracy does little to shape a diverse campus culture. If we truly want to move towards inclusivity, we must shift the campus conversation from segmenting individuals to treating everyone equally, regardless of race or class.
At a progressive school such as the University of Michigan, racial tension is far more commonly found in a lack of interaction between cultures than overt racism. While diversity training may teach students to practice antiracism through their actions, studying racial theory often has little practical application in bridging divides. In fact, the forced nature of diversity training can often cause it to backfire, teaching students to identify races as separate entities rather than a single component of the identities of otherwise similar individuals. By taking a more hands-off approach to DEI, the University has the opportunity to make far greater strides towards inclusivity, capitalizing on the tolerance of the student body to foster conversations about our similarities rather than our differences.
Though the issue of inclusivity is perhaps best solved with a hands-off approach, equalizing opportunity requires a far more proactive role from the administration. The University has long struggled with democratizing opportunity for all races, culminating in Supreme Court cases in 2003 and 2014 that barred the University from using race as the determining factor in admissions. While equalizing opportunity by race is an important issue, the University’s approach of considering race in admission compromises the meritocratic values of the University and fails to address deeper issues.
Because African American and Hispanic students are more likely to come from low-income households, they are often unable to afford to attend top colleges without significant financial aid. Though the University has made strides towards supporting low-income students through the Go Blue Guarantee, which provides free tuition for families with income below $65,000, we still retain our unenviable position among the most expensive public universities in the country. With a significantly higher operating budget and endowment than peers such as UC Berkeley and UCLA, the University is primed to drastically expand its financial aid program, providing opportunity to those of all economic backgrounds. By attacking the cost issue of the University, the administration will not only be able to make strides towards racial equity but will also be able to restore a true meritocratic approach to admissions, admitting and retaining the most talented students regardless of race or economic background.
While the Board of Regents will ultimately have the final say in determining our new president, the conversations we have as students will shape their decision and impact the agenda of whoever is chosen. There are many aspects of the University that clearly must be fixed, so it’s critical that we use this moment to correct course and work towards building a better campus life for everyone. By restoring the University’s core mission of cultivating an inclusive, meritocratic and student-centric focus, we can finally revive excellence and pride at the University.
Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.