“We don’t want the names of things to be changing as fashions change”: A conversation with President Schlissel

Monday, March 26, 2018 - 9:10pm

University President Schlissel answers questions about recent recommendations to rename C.C. Little, addressing sexual assault on campus and how the University is adapting to gun violence at the Fleming Administration Building Monday.

University President Schlissel answers questions about recent recommendations to rename C.C. Little, addressing sexual assault on campus and how the University is adapting to gun violence at the Fleming Administration Building Monday. Buy this photo
Darby Stipe/Daily

The Michigan Daily and University President Mark Schlissel met Monday afternoon to discuss the University of Michigan’s role in responding to national movements concerning sexual misconduct and gun violence. Schlissel also commented on matters concerning the University and Ann Arbor specifically, including his recent recommendation for the renaming of C.C. Little Science Building and West Quad Residence Hall’s Winchell House, the racist blackface Snapchat incident, the Lecturers’ Employee Organization bargaining efforts for higher wages and benefits and the Detroit Free Press’s investigation into the University’s reported investment of endowment funds into the companies of prominent University donors.

C.C. Little and Winchell House renaming

Monday morning, the University Board of Regents released their agenda for this Thursday’s meeting in the Michigan Union, which included two recommendations from Schlissel to remove the names from the C.C. Little Science Building and West Quad’s Winchell House. The announcement has come after months of student protests, dialogues with administrators and investigations into the University figures the buildings were named after by the President’s Advisory Committee on University History.

The administration came under fire for the names of the buildings after more research had been done and heavily publicized about Little and Winchell, and the social movements they supported through their work at the University. Little, a former president of the University, was a renowned eugenicist who supported the sterilization of people he deemed inferior such as minorities and people with disabilities and a very large supporter of the tobacco industry, despite his background in science.

Winchell, on the other hand, served as a professor and regent at the University in the late 1800s and published many academic pamphlets alleging white people were physically predetermined to be the dominant race due to brain size and other various metrics, a sentiment that is now called racist and has been proven to be incorrect by countless studies.

After the committee’s research and months of deliberation, the committee recommended last September that Winchell be renamed, and last January the investigation on Little followed suit.

In response to inquiries about why these announcements came so late after the committee had already submitted their recommendations, Schlissel said he spent those months gathering advice and seeking opinions from University figures and consulting previous examples of changing building names from other universities in order to make his decision.

“When I get things, I discuss them with my executive team and others whose advice I rely on,” Schlissel said. “I’ve discussed this with students that I’ve met on various occasions, alumni, just wanting to educate myself. It’s not something the University’s done before but other universities have done this, so I wanted to read up and look at and talk to people who have gone through similar thought processes at other universities before becoming comfortable recommending that we do something that we hadn’t done before.”

While many students see Schlissel’s recommendation as a gateway to dialogues about other buildings and honorary names on campus for people with problematic pasts, Schlissel made it clear he did not want this action to become the norm. He said these two cases provided a unique case for renaming University buildings.

“This sort of thing will be exceptionally rare,” Schlissel said. “These might be the only two cases where we ever do this. It’s not clear. It depends what comes forward and the bar should be set very high. We don’t want the names of things to be changing as fashions change.”

Sexual Assault and Misconduct

Moving on to the issues of sexual assault and misconduct, such as those that have come to the forefront of national conversations with movements such as #MeToo, #TimesUp and the recent Larry Nassar trials, Schlissel addressed the recent legislation passed by the Michigan Senate to extend the statute of limitations on cases in which sexual assault survivors are under the age of 16, increase Title IX resources to survivors and expand sexual assault prevention and education programs.

Many raised concerned about a request from the Michigan Association of State Universities, of which the University is a member, that came days before voting to delay the legislation. While the bill received support on both sides of the aisle, MASU argued it would have “profound impact.” Legislators like state Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, claimed the prolonging would “delay justice, or maybe the hope is to stop it entirely.”

Schlissel stated this request did not signal any opposition to the legislation, but was put forward in order to ensure all aspects of the legislation were considered before quick passage.

“The University doesn’t necessarily oppose any of that legislation, nor does the MASU,” Schlissel said. “There just wasn’t a thoughtful analysis done of that full package of legislation.”

When looking at the part of legislation that would increase the statute of limitations for reporting sexual assault or harassment, Schlissel argued this sort of proposal should be studied before coming to conclusions on possible benefits, due to its impact on trial proceedings.

“Amongst the things they included was an extreme lengthening of the statute of limitations which in effect would say that if you had an event that happened 25 years ago you could bring forward a claim tomorrow,” Schlissel said. “Before suggesting that such a law would help us, it should be analyzed and there just was almost no time. There was a day, a half a day of hearings, and then it was brought forward, voted on and approved.”

Schlissel went on to reference the trials of Larry Nassar, a former MSU and USA gymnastics doctor, and around 250 survivors who came forward with proof of endemic sexual abuse. 

“In the current moment people are empowered to come forward about events, some that happened yesterday and some that happened decades ago,” Schlissel said. “That’s a good thing. It’s complicated and difficult to figure out how to look backwards 20 or 25 years in time if one individual were to come forward, not 200, but one, to say so-and-so mistreated me in 1989. Well, how do you have witnesses and what happens to memory over the course of decades?”

At the last Board of Regents meeting, Schlissel announced the University will be hiring an outside firm to conduct a thorough review of the University’s sexual assault policies. According to a January report from the Office of Institutional Equity, there has been a 40 percent increase in sexual misconduct reports from 2016 to 2017, and out of the 218 reports officially filed with OIE, only 136 were deemed inside “the scope of the policy,” and only eight resulted in a student being found in violation of current University laws.

While the firm has not been selected at this time, Schlissel said the external review will use the current moment in the aftermath of the Nassar trials and social movements against sexual misconduct to examine existing rules that could be improved and strike a balance between promoting good policies and cultural change.

“What I want to do is use that moment to take a careful and close look at how we do things, and I’m confident we do things well, but there are always ways to think we can do things better,” Schlissel said.

Schlissel also responded to Michigan State University’s hiring of an external review firm in 2017, which found MSU’s sexual assault policies to “reflect a strong and genuine commitment to combating sexual misconduct,” despite Title IX complaints against the university for its treatment of the Nassar case and lack of response to survivors’ reports. He said the firm will focus on staff and faculty after receiving guidance on responding to student sexual assault from consultants such as the Department of Education, the Office of Civil Rights and new administrations.

LEO Bargaining Efforts

Schlissel also discussed the bargaining efforts between the Lecturers’ Employee Organization and the University in regard to lecturers’ demands for increased wages and benefits. Negotiations for the two groups began back in October, and lecturers hope to see progress from the University by April 20, which is when lecturer contracts are set to expire. The current minimum salary for a full-time lecturer is $34,500 in Ann Arbor, $28,300 in Dearborn and $27,300 in Flint. LEO has also organized large crowds at Board of Regents meetings to further emphasize their agenda.

The University offered an initial response to LEO’s demands, which entailed a $1,000 increase to the starting salary in 2019, a $750 increase in 2020 and a $500 increase in 2021 and a 1.5 percent annual raise for Ann Arbor lecturers, but not Dearborn or Flint lecturers. However, LEO referred to the proposal as “insulting,” and announced a possible strike if the University does not adequately respond to their requests.

Schlissel explained he wanted all employees at the University, regardless of union affiliation, to feel appreciated and respected for the work they do on campus.

“I want an outcome where all of our employees, whether they’re represented by a union or whether they’re not, think that they’re valued in the workplace,” Schlissel said. “Our lecturers are certainly important to the mission of the University as are our faculty and our staff, and the facilities operations and the nurses, everyone is valuable, and we want everyone to end up feeling like they’re being treated fairly.”

However, while Schlissel did offer supportive sentiments to LEO, he distanced himself from any bargaining efforts. He also noted the University’s negotiations with LEO were taking place in private settings.

“As president, I don’t step in and comment on an act of negotiation,” Schlissel said. “What both sides do is they put the things they think are important on the table, and then they negotiate about them. The University doesn't take the approach of negotiation in public, we negotiate in face-to-face sessions with the union and its representatives.”

Endowment Controversy

Last month, the Detroit Free Press published an investigative report claiming the University was directing funds from the endowment back into the companies and properties of the University’s largest private donors and members of the Investment Advisory Committee. Among other findings, the Free Press claimed there has been a decline in direct oversight by the Board of Regents on private investments.

Schlissel vehemently denied the Free Press’s claims through an op-ed in the Free Press and the creation of a website for the sole purpose of correcting points made in the Free Press investigation. However, in an open-records lawsuit with the University, a state judge ruled in favor of the Free Press and their previously denied FOIA request, ordering the compensation methods for Chief Investment Officer Erik Lundberg to be released.

When asked about the initial request denial by University lawyers, who argued revealing compensation methods would divulge “trade secrets” that are crucial to the University’s investment practices, Schlissel stated the University hasn’t yet formally responded to the judge’s opinions. He also said information on the total compensation of Lundberg has been released to the public and the formula in question shows how the University incentivizes its investment employees.

“What’s being argued about is the formula that’s being used to figure out whether he’s performing at a high level or an exceptional level or a modest level and that consists of a bunch of indices that we compare the performance of the endowment to,” Schlissel said. “We like our endowment to perform at the very top of similarly sized endowments and we try to incentivize that with a degree of incentive pay.”

In addition, Schlissel said while this formula is a subject of debate, the University is not looking to reveal information regarding its specificity so as to avoid giving insight on University strategies to other schools in competition with the University.

“We don’t want to reveal things to the general public that might result in other entities out-competing us,” Schlissel said. “The detailed formula which is unique to the University of Michigan, we’d rather not have MSU and Ohio State know, for competitive reasons.”

Schlissel also commented on the Free Press claim that the Investment Advisory Committee, a group of alumni and economic advisers who help the University make investments with their endowment funds, has been investing funds in the firms of individual IAC members. Reportedly confirmed by the IAC’s charter, the Free Press reported disclosures for investments in a committee member’s firm are not available to the public.

Schissel refuted this claim, stating all of the University’s investments are public and, after attending half of the IAC’s meetings, he is certain the IAC does not spend its time discussing small investments into individual firms but rather large economic trends and sectors in which investments should be made. He said the IAC weighs a large number of economic variables and their focus is not on which firm belonging to which committee member the University should be invested in next.

“The group is designed to have leaders in each of these different investment areas talk about stuff (like) what’s going to happen to interest rates and what’s going to happen if we have actually provoked a trade war, where should we be shifting our money around,” Schlissel said. “I don’t recall ever talking about a specific investment as compared to talking about different sectors or types of investments.”

Blackface Snapchat and Administration Response

Two weeks ago, LSA sophomore Lauren Fokken posted a Snapchat of her and a friend wearing black face masks with the caption “#blacklivesmatter.” The photo was screenshotted and circulated online, eliciting strong reactions from members of the University community. Many deemed the photo racist and accused it of causing emotional harm to impacted communities on campus. Schlissel acknowledged he has seen Fokken’s Snapchat screenshot and called it an “enormous mistake” but said it should be “called what it is” in response to student’s labeling the act as racist.

Schlissel also said he was at a loss for ideas on how to prevent students from posting these racist messages in the future, claiming he couldn’t stop someone from publishing a tweet online that some may deem offensive.

In terms of measurable action taken by the University after the fact, Schlissel said the University’s various departments responded to the best of their abilities and it was “handled about as well as it could.”

“The Bias Response Team evaluated the event, DPSS (Division of Public Safety and Security) … Helped us identify, it was easy, who the people were because they were in the pictures and there was immediate outreach to them,” Schlissel said. “It’s being treated as an OSCR (Office of Student Conflict Resolution) violation of the Student Code of Conduct. I think the way it will resolve is with some type of restorative justice but that really depends upon the people who brought forward the complaint and then the willingness of the students themselves who committed (this) really pretty terrible and offensive snap, whether they’re in a place where they can learn from this and be remediated.”

Citing the West Quad graffiti and anti-Latinx painting of the rock from earlier this year, Schlissel said his role in participating in restorative justice falls in following the existing structures to punish students who violate University procedures.

“Nobody should think, at this stage, that I’m accepting racist acts,” Schlissel said. “This is unacceptable, and I think there’s broad agreement and no one should be surprised. My job is to make sure that we have structures established and the right set of rules to make sure when bad events do happen, we can investigate them, attempt to figure out who’s responsible and then, once we’ve done that, find the appropriate punishment, be it restorative justice or, on the other extreme, sanctions against the people who are responsible.”

Gun Control Debates

Moving onto an issue of national attention, Schlissel discussed gun control and whether or not any additional policies were enacted on campus in response to the deadly shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Since the tragedy in Parkland, students across the country have participated in walkouts, and many individuals at the University have voiced their concern about campus safety as well. Last Saturday, over 4,000 people joined a protest at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor to stand in solidarity with other nationwide March for Our Lives protests.

Schlissel explained while no reforms have been added since the shooting, the University does enforce a gun ban on campus — even though the state of Michigan is an open-carry state. He also acknowledged that while his generation was unable to establish substantial change in regards to gun control, he was impressed by the new efforts of various student leaders who have taken action.

“(Gun violence) an enormous concern,” Schlissel said. “I can tell you I really admire though the students themselves because my generation has not been successful with this issue … Now, there is a new approach being led by some really very eloquent and bold high school students who are very personally affected and hopefully, that will make a difference, where the leadership provided by adults hasn’t really done it yet, so I’m optimistic.”

Given the previous school shootings on college campuses such as Virginia Tech, University of Alabama Hospital, and Central Michigan University, Schlissel talked about the University’s focus on learning from previous tragedies resulting from gun violence in order to ensure a more safe campus environment.

“We try to be vigilant, and we try to continuously learn from episodes that happen at other places so that our own procedures remain as good as they can possibly be,” Schlissel said.

Watch the full 30-minute interview with University President Schlissel below.