Schlissel: ‘We spent a ton of time listening to students’

Monday, April 29, 2019 - 7:30pm

University President Mark Schlissel discusses various events and issues on campus with The Michigan Daily in the Fleming Administration Building Monday.

University President Mark Schlissel discusses various events and issues on campus with The Michigan Daily in the Fleming Administration Building Monday. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Each month, The Michigan Daily sits down with University President Mark Schlissel to discuss events and issues on campus. During this month’s interview, Schlissel touched on topics related to minority inclusion on campus, emergency preparedness, One University, carbon neutrality efforts and future goals.

The Michigan Daily: The development of the new Trotter Center on State Street was one of seven demands listed by #BBUM in 2013. While many students voiced their appreciation for the center, there was also criticism for the lack of fulfillment in regards to the other demands. In addition to BSU’s requests, La Casa also released a list of demands for the University in terms of hiring practices, spaces and more. What does the fact that certain student groups need to release demands to the University say about the overall campus climate? How does the University plan to continue meeting the needs of marginalized communities? Are any of the other demands from either BSU or La Casa being addressed? If so, how?

Mark Schlissel: I think the advocacy by student groups like BBUM, like La Casa is really important for the University. It helps us understand better how all different types of students are experiencing the campus. It helps us identify students that we can try to work together with to figure out the best way forward, and I think the new Trotter is a great example of that. So, students from BBUM, but also from many other groups, were part of discussions that led to the design of what turned out to be an absolutely spectacular project …. The BBUM demands preceded my arrival on campus but provoked what continue to be ongoing discussions between representatives of my office, the Vice President for Student Life Royster Harper, the Dean of the college Laura Blake Jones and others about how best to serve all different types of students on the campus.

Demands are particularly difficult; it’s not really an opening for discussion, it’s a demand. I think where things work the best is where students who feel strongly about things express their strength of feelings, then — as in the case of Trotter — are willing to work together to actualize a solution. We don’t have the capacity to do everything that every group demands of us, but we do have the capacity to meet with every group on an ongoing basis … We get the sentiment that students from historically marginalized groups find it easier to work with, learn from, engage with people that are more similar to them, and we do keep that in mind as we work on staffing issues and particularly in things that directly touch students. We’ve done a lot of work that’s ongoing to help diversify the faculty of the University in many, many different ways, and probably one of our biggest successes of the last few years has been so far the Go Blue Guarantee … the work is ongoing. I spend an awful amount of my time meeting with students … it’s really ongoing discussion, engagement and collaboration; that’s my strategy for how to move forward, and the advocacy makes a real difference.

TMD: The standard protocol for emergency preparedness on campus is the “run, hide, fight” strategy showcased and explained on the DPSS website. Following reports of an active shooter on campus this past March, some expressed concerns regarding students with disabilities, and their difficulties conducting the “run, hide, fight” protocol. Though the DPSS website asks students to contact them with questions regarding various circumstances, some students expressed concerns with their lack of knowledge of what to do if a situation arises and they are not able to fully utilize the “run, hide, fight” method. Considering these concerns, what will be done in the future to ensure students with disabilities are properly informed about what to do and will there be any additional changes to the current safety protocol to accommodate for these students?

MS: I think the physical safety of everyone on campus — there isn’t a more important responsibility that I have. If you don’t feel safe and if you’re not actually safe, you can’t learn, you can’t study, you can’t accomplish all the other things, so I think it’s really essential for the University. The students with disabilities are obviously uniquely challenged, depending on the disability, in how to respond to what we hope won’t happen but we know might happen in terms of an active shooter or other physical threat on campus. There are some disabled students that can run, hide or fight and there are many that can’t. The Department of Public Safety (and Security) has longitudinally, in an ongoing way, been working with the disability services office, and they’re introducing a new program this fall, … the Capable Guardian.

This is a program designed to train students how to help one another, not just in the setting of disability, but particularly for students with disabilities, and the mantra of this program, as opposed to “run, hide, fight,” is to “instruct, evacuate, shelter and defend.” … Every physically threatening circumstance is different than any other, so nobody in that circumstance is going to also have to use their own judgement. “Run, hide, fight” is general advice to keep in mind, and beyond that, you’re going to have to use your very best judgement to keep yourself safe, then we’re going to help you learn how to keep other people safe during such an episode.

We learned a lot during this very fortunately false alarm … we’ve learned about the challenges and importance of having a great communication system with lots of capacity … and I want to encourage everyone again to sign up to have text notification, to download the Michigan app and the DPSS app on your phone, and it will push notifications to you. As many different modalities as you can have, the better …. It’s very important we develop subcommunity-specific instructions for all communities — including the disabled student community — and this will involve training programs that help students learn how to best help each other.

TMD: The One University coalition — a group of students and faculty committed to equitable funding across the three University campuses — has worked to spread its message over the winter semester. As June approaches, the coalition will begin to press the state for more funding allocations from the government. Has the University reached out to the coalition at all and could some form of communication be possible in the future?

MS: We share a lot of the goals of this new group, particularly trying to work to get the state to reinvest and then invest more fairly in public, higher education across the state. So, myself and then the chancellors of Dearborn and Flint all went to Lansing. We appeared before the Senate Education (and Career Readiness) Committee. We explained all the reasons why we think it’s very important to provide the resources universities need to help allow students, regardless of their financial background, to attend the public university of their choice. There are 15 public universities in the state, the U-M brand is on three of them — us, Dearborn and Flint — and each of those three campuses is distinct.

We’re serving only partially overlapping communities of students. We have separate faculty. Ann Arbor has a tremendous focus on research, Flint and Dearborn have a tremendous focus on regional education, most of their students come from within an hour drive of their campus …. There are three different campuses using three different approaches to meeting the educational and research needs of the state. I do hear from people in the One Michigan group … what we discuss are issues of how can we best support each of the three campuses to meet their mission. But remember, when your parents pay for your tuition to go here, they expect your tuition to pay for your education here as opposed to the education of other students at Flint, for example. When the state gives us an allocation, they give a separate allocation to each of the three campuses. When the federal government reimburses the campuses for research costs, they’re reimbursing them for research costs that actually occur on the campus.

Although we share the Block ‘M,’ and we share a commitment to higher education in the state of Michigan, we do it three different ways … in some ways we’re one, and in many ways we’re a consortium.

TMD: So far, after announcing the development of your Carbon Commission in February, the Commission has participated in two town halls and you yourself answered questions at the special Carbon Neutrality public session, among other events, earlier this month. Following these events, have conversations shifted at all within the Carbon Neutrality Commission? How do you feel the meetings, so far, have gone? How will you continue to foster and support public input and strategy into the push for your carbon emission goals?

MS: The commission has a kind of 16-month lifespan with a charge of identifying how we’re going to achieve carbon neutrality, coming up with the different approaches we might take, prioritizing the list and suggesting a timeframe. Publicly, I’m committed to figuring out how to get Michigan carbon neutral. I want to do it as fast as possible. I think that our appreciation of how at-risk the Earth is and our future climate and all its implications — the evidence keeps getting stronger and stronger.

There’s no question about the necessity of where we need to go, and we need to figure out a way to do it while still having a University that can do research and teaching at the same time …. There are students on the commission, and there’s an advisory committee that advises to the commission on student issues, and one of my goals is to have students identify a handful of things that they themselves can take responsibility for and measure, so that it can contribute to that 100% number we’re trying to get to …. There are things I need to do and the Regents need to do … but there are also things that every individual that interacts with the campus has to take as their personal responsibility too. We want to get there as quick as possible …. I have not attended meetings of the commission other than the very first one and then the open forum I was at … we’re keeping close touch (with the committee), but we need to give them time and space to do their work.

TMD: Further, at the special public session early April, a question was asked regarding a letter sent to you with approximately 300 signatures from University faculty members. Additionally, on March 15, 10 community members — including students and minors — were arrested following a sit-in at the Fleming Administrative Building. Students inside said this was evidence the administration would rather arrest students than listen to them. How would you respond to the letter and those who say the administration would rather arrest them than hear them out? How will you move forward following this letter and the events of March?

MS: We have responded to the letter. We wrote back to the people who wrote it …. The faculty, interestingly, made almost exactly the same points as the student advocates were making …. With regards to the sit-in that took place in the office here, as you can imagine, we spent a ton of time listening to students, even when they’re screaming at us. The students who came in and occupied our offices were here for hours and hours and hours, basically from the time the walkout on the Diag broke up until folks marched over here. The vast majority of students were here for a number of hours, then left, and then there were a core of students that were in the office — I was out of town — they were making a list of demands and said they wouldn’t leave until we did the things, so it wasn’t a matter of listening.

We heard them. We heard them plenty. It was a matter of doing what they demanded we do. And as you can imagine, it’s a very last resort — nobody wants to remove a student from a building, but the building closes at 5 o’clock, and in a campus of this size with millions of square feet of space  and tens of thousands of students, I can’t imagine how to keep the campus safe and organized for everybody … if they’re allowed to sleep in buildings overnight ... After several hours of talking to students, listening to what they wanted to say … we explained to them the consequences of staying a building when it was closed ... There are a huge number of opportunities to listen to students. It wasn’t about listening.

TMD: Looking back on the semester, what do you feel the University succeeded in accomplishing? Where did you see any shortcomings? Do you have any plans in the works for improving those areas in the future?

MS: In many, many ways, the University is doing spectacularly well ... We are in the midst of redoing the Union in a very modernizing but sort of historic way. We’re rebuilding a new Central Campus Recreation Building, we’re thinking about lots of other enhancements to student life, particularly on North Campus with the North Campus residence halls … I do think that figuring out how to increase the overall sustainability of our campus and, in particular, (doing) everything we can for the shared global problem of climate change is a top and unfulfilled priority. This is something we haven’t made nearly enough progress in. We have figured out how to get to that 25 percent decrease that President Coleman had promised, and we’ll get there around 2021 — so, several years early.

But now that we know how to get there, as we have spoken about at length, we want to figure out how to go the rest of the way and how to really, as quickly as possible, get to neutrality. In terms of things I’m particularly pleased about the academic year is we’ve got a year’s worth of experience now with the Go Blue Guarantee, and we’re getting lots more applications and accepting many more students from communities that haven’t typically sent kids here and from different parts of the socioeconomic spectrum. (Trying) to make the campus more and more representative of the public that we serve, and that’s actually going well ... In the years ahead, and in addition to those student life things, we’re building a new building for robotics up on the North Campus, that will be exciting for engineers and others. We are considering how to better integrate the arts into the rest of what the campus does. We’ve got this fantastic School of Music, Theatre and Dance, Art & Design, Architecture and Urban Planning — very creative areas — and it’s a distinguishing characteristic of Michigan. We’re thinking about ways to better integrate the arts across all the other disciplines and find ways maybe to help teach creativity in the same way it is taught to artists ... We’re also thinking of ways to take advantage of the convening power of the arts — the power of the arts to bring people together, to make some progress on our campus climate issues.

The arts have a way of opening up conversations, like a play or a challenging piece of music or anything that represents culture (that) is provocative, and we want to try to provoke people to have difficult conversations and to learn from each other by using the convening power of the arts ... We’re also thinking of more we can be doing in collaboration with neighborhoods and the city of Detroit ... We think it’s an area where we can both do good research and teaching and also help people at the same time and try to work on social mobility ... We now own the Rackham building, which is right across from the DIA (Detroit Institute of Arts) in Detroit … and that will eventually become our home base in Detroit ... Finally, the last thing I’m pushing on is more ways for our faculty to engage outside of the University to help people take advantage of the expertise our faculty has, but also better understand what the University does ... We will be working on those things in the years ahead.