Schlissel: “I just can’t add to the debate” on MSU responsibility in Nassar trial

Monday, January 22, 2018 - 4:32pm

The Daily sat down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel to get his take on sexual assault charges against ex-USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, ongoing negotiations with white supremacist Richard Spencer and protections for undocumented students on campus.

While he declined to comment on specific methods by which the Michigan State University administration, including the heavily criticized MSU President Lou Anna Simon, can work to take responsibility for the years of abuse Nassar inflicted upon his victims, Schlissel pivoted to how his administration is attempting to promote spaces in which survivors of sexual assault feel safe to speak out on campus.

Sexual Assault and Misconduct: The Larry Nassar Trial

Survivors of sexual assault and harassment continue to make waves around the country by coming forward with impact statements against Nassar, a University alum and former Michigan State University doctor, at his sentencing trial in Ingham County. Nassar pled guilty to seven counts of first degree sexual misconduct in Ingham County and three counts in Eaton County, including sexual assault and abuse of girls as young as six years old.

Schlissel provided his sympathy and respect for survivors, acknowledging the courage it takes for survivors to come forward with their testimonies.

“My heart goes out to what appear to be hundreds of victims of a corrupt physician who committed multiple illegal acts over an extended period of time,” he said. “The young women in particular who came forward to tell their stories, which were very personal and uniformly awful, in a public setting and the media, (are) brave people and my heart goes out to them and I hope that they can recover and heal from what sounds like the worst experience I could imagine.”

In terms of administrative decisions surrounding the Nassar case, MSU President Lou Anna Simon has received harsh criticism for the ways in which she handled allegations against Nassar. In a statement released last week, Simon told reporters she was first made aware of a Title IX investigation into a University sports medicine doctor in 2014.

“I told people to play it straight up, and I did not receive a copy of the report,” she said following Nassar’s hearing. “That’s the truth.” 

An investigation released last week by the Detroit News, however, found over the two decades before Nassar’s arrest, at least 14 MSU officials were notified of allegations, “with no fewer than eight women reporting his actions.” Calls for Simon’s resignation have come from a variety of sources, including state legislators, editorials from the State News and Lansing State Journal, as well as from MSU trustee Mitch Lyons, the first trustee to call for her resignation.

The Board of Trustees, however, announced Thursday would support Simon and would not recommend she step down from her position.

Though Schlissel often positions himself as the leader of one of the most powerful — and moneyed — political stakeholders in the state, when questioned on how MSU administration should go about taking responsibility or repairing harm done to students, he declined to comment.

“As for MSU and how it handled it, I don’t know more than I read about in the newspaper and generally when I don’t know more than everybody else I’m not really going to comment about it,” Schlissel said. “I just can’t add to the debate because I don’t have any special information.”

He clarified, however, sexual assault and misconduct have no place within the University of Michigan community. While the Nassar trials brought to light consideration of athletic teams, he said the issue extends to all students, faculty and community members.

“It’s not just athletic teams, here on this campus I’m responsible for 45,000 students … 1,000 of them are student-athletes,” Schlissel said. “All members of our community deserve a workplace free of harassment and misconduct.”

Specific actions the University has taken to combat sexual assault and harassment, Schlissel explained, include mechanisms for reporting misconduct and education programs for students, faculty and staff to raise awareness of harmful and abusive acts and lessen the frequency of these incidents.

Sexual Assault and Misconduct: The Whisper Network

In early January, The Daily reported on The Whisper Network, a database appearing throughout academic communities in which anonymous contributors share their stories of sexual harassment and assault in academia. Since December, over 2,000 individuals have contributed to the database, including 14 incidents self-reported by alleged University affiliates, some of which date back to the 1980s.

These allegations have mirrored conversations occurring across the nation and in Hollywood, specifically with movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp encouraging survivors to speak out against perpetrators. With allegations against well-known members of the public and media, including Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, James Franco, Al Franken and Michael Oreskes, dialogue surrounding the issue has continued to grow in academia and less publicized settings.

Schlissel stated the coming forward of survivors in communities across the nation and abroad, regardless of level of previous fame, allows for an increase in awareness and the encouragement for more survivors to continue telling their stories.

“The famous and non-famous stepping forward to tell their stories I think has a powerful effect, a positive, powerful effect,” Schlissel said. “If there’s a silver lining to the #MeToo moment that we’re living in, is the increased awareness and the very brave example set by people who’ve stepped up and spoken about episodes, have made others more likely to step forward and report which is a good thing, and has just raised everyone’s cautiousness about the mutual respect that everyone deserves when we treat one another.”

At the University — and at campuses across the country — reporting rates remain low for survivors of assault. A survey administered by the American Association of Universities at the University found 76.8 percent of survivors did not report the crime. 63 percent of those students said they did not report their experience of unwanted sexual penetration because they believed “it would not be taken seriously by campus officials.”

Schlissel noted the importance of ensuring all students, faculty and staff are made aware of resources available for survivors. Reports of sexual misconduct have risen in the two years since the University's release of a new sexual misconduct policy in April 2016 — many University officials attribute this to increased reporting and the policy's broader scope. 

“People who do feel as if they’ve been the victim of harassment or misconduct or they’ve witnessed others, should feel comfortable coming forward and we should protect their place in the workplace and their anonymity when they do come forward,” Schlissel said.

DACA

After a three-day government shutdown, which ended on Monday, Democrats and Republicans appear to be resuming talks on immigration and the status of dreamers, or undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, known as “Dreamers.” With the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program at the middle of the shutdown, the future of the program seems to hang in the balance moving forward as some Republican members of the House of Representatives have continued to push against allowing undocumented immigrants who have lived in the country for many years to stay.

Schlissel has been a staunch public supporter of DACA. He has made individual and collective statements with the Big Ten Conference urging President Trump and Republican leaders in Congress to continue the program. In the interview, he said one action he continues to take is continuing to send written statements to Capitol Hill.

“First of all, we continue to lobby so just the other day, I sent a letter along with the presidents of MSU and Wayne State to all of our congressional delegations, urging them to continue to put pressure on folks that are negotiating either the current continuing resolution or next year’s budgets and the way it gets tied together with issues around immigration,” Schlissel said.

As for actions at the University, Schlissel reiterated from previous statements the University would not voluntarily release information on students’ immigration status. According to fall 2017 enrollment data from the Office of the Registrar, 7,052 at the University were classified as “non-resident aliens.” However, whether or not these students are undocumented or not is not a metric the University tracks, according to Schlissel.

“The privacy rights that we afford to all (students) exist without regard for immigration status,” he said. “We don’t track or keeps lists of students based on immigration status. We protect your privacy and only reveal information under court order or a legal mandate. We have a working group that continues to meet of faculty, students, staff and administrators to track very carefully issues that are going on and reach out to the student community and hear what’s on your mind.”

Despite some push back from certain members of Congress, Schlissel said he believes DACA to be a bipartisan issue that should not still be on the chopping block when considering the government budget.

“The frustration around DACA is it’s one of those issues that has very significant support in many parts of the political spectrum so I truly don’t understand why we haven’t been able to deal with this part of our immigration challenges at least,” Schlissel said.

Free Speech and Richard Spencer

As tensions simmer regarding the possible visit of white supremacist Richard Spencer, President Schlissel sent out a letter at the beginning of the semester to the University community publicizing a series of campus-wide “events and activities to examine the intersection of free speech and inclusion.” The series, which is called “Speech and Inclusion: Recognizing Conflict and Building Tools for Engagement,” intends to encourage positive dialogues as controversial issues arise among all members at the University.

Schlissel touched on the necessity for the series, and pointed out that it is in the University’s best interest to have meaningful, intergroup conversations because they allow members of the community to understand issues from another individual’s viewpoint.

“There is very little that is more important to the short and long-term success of the University than establishing an environment where everybody feels free to discuss their ideas openly and learn from differences between one another,” he said. “We accomplish very little if we just put people in a room who think the same way and they reinforce one another’s thoughts.”

However, some voices on campus have criticized the initiative for not properly addressing issues of white supremacy and its negative impact on free speech. One of these students is LSA senior Hoai An Pham, who is also a member of the Stop Spencer group on campus. In an earlier email interview, Pham wrote she felt the series oversimplified the power dynamics of racism and white supremacy that are present in society.

“Diverse perspectives are of course necessary in order to gain a full understanding of any issue,” Pham wrote. “However, these conversations are not effective and can lead to false equivalences if power structures and dynamics are not acknowledged.”

Schlissel countered by explaining while not all viewpoints are agreeable, it can be detrimental to pick which individuals are able to express themselves and which ones are not.

“It’s very important, even when views are reprehensible, that they’re not (barred from) the same speech rights that you and I enjoy,” he said. “The big danger is that when we start defining who is allowed to speak and who isn’t, those making those definitions may not make choices in the future that we agree with.”

Schlissel also acknowledged the complexity of issues regarding free speech, and confessed even though he had no desire to listen to Spencer, he could not legally refuse Spencer’s right to say what he pleases and believes. Last week, Michigan State University agreed to provide Spencer a venue to speak on their campus as part of a legal battle with Spencer's lawyer Kyle Bristow. The University originally denied Spencer space to speak due to security concerns.

“It’s important mostly when it’s really, really hard,” he said. “Like the episode we are going through now. I have no interest in providing a platform or hearing, personally, white supremacist views. I have enough of an idea about the content of what of some of these folk want to say, and I find it abhorrent and the overwhelming majority of our community feels the same way. We just don’t have a legal way to tell someone that they’re not allowed to open their mouth.”

Schlissel also discussed the role of faculty on campus with regards to bringing up controversial topics, such as white supremacy and Spencer, while simultaneously balancing their own course syllabi. As some of the only individuals on campus that have direct contact with the student body on a daily basis, Schlissel emphasized the importance of the relationship between the two groups when addressing these matters.

“The one group of people here that interact basically every day with every student are our faculty,” he said. “So if we want to reach the student community it works a lot better than me sending out an email to have faculty in their classrooms focusing on these important issues.”

He explained while the administration does not entirely control what is discussed in the classroom, faculty members and graduate student instructors are offered resources that help them navigate complex issues.

“In a University setting we really don’t tell professors what to do or teach in their classroom, but we do provide them with tools and with groups where they can discuss with their peers what the most effective responses to these episodes may be,” Schlissel said.

Schlissel also said some of these issues are easier to fit into certain classes than others. He talked about how even though schools on campus have different ways that they discuss topics like diversity and inclusion, he trusts the efforts of the faculty and staff to encourage students to become well-rounded.

“All of our senior leaders have made an effort to learn from one another’s experiences in their different schools and figure out how to make issues of diversity and inclusion part of their curriculum,” Schlissel said. “Whether it’s in the form of a race and ethnicity requirement like LSA or in the form of units that get woven into introductory engineering courses, I think the faculty and students are in the process of working out how to do that. I think there is a recognition across the breadth of the campus that that kind of educational experience is part of what it takes to be an educated, high functioning, strong-valued person in society.”

Affordability

The Go Blue Guarantee, a full-tuition financial aid package that secures four years of paid tuition for in-state students whose families make under $65,000 a year, has been a selling point for the University’s efforts to attract students from low-income areas in Michigan, according to Schlissel. According to data provided by University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald, 1,700 students currently enrolled at the University qualify for the program and began receiving their package at the beginning of this year when the program officially launched.

However, data from a 2017 report by the Equality of Opportunity Project places the median family income of students at the University at $154,000 — the highest out of 27 “highly selective” public colleges. With this current disconnect between low-income students benefiting from newer financial aid plans such as the Go Blue Guarantee and the high-income students already at the University, Schlissel acknowledged while financial aid funds are seeing larger proportions of the annual budget, the University has not done as well as it could have in making a degree from the University of Michigan seem reasonable for low-income students.

“We’ve been investing increasingly in need-based financial aid for more than a decade,” he said. “The average increase in the financial aid budget each year is approaching 10 percent per year. It’s that fastest growing thing in our budget and it bespeaks a commitment to the importance of socioeconomic diversity at the University and a recognition that we have not been successful or as successful as we should be.”

Another issue many students at the University struggle with is the high cost of additional expenses apart from tuition. Housing, for example, is continuing to become a very large price tag for students, with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting Ann Arbor’s median rate for rent as having increased 14 percent from 2010 to 2015. According to this report, the rate now sits at approximately $1,075 per month and the amount of high-density housing areas, including large apartment buildings, also rose by 32 percent.

Schlissel emphasized the Go Blue Guarantee is a base scholarship awarded automatically assuming a family meets the requirements. From there, he said, students can receive further aid to cover costs that may keep a student from attending the University.

“The most important thing about this campaign is to make sure every student in the state of Michigan who aspires to this level of educational opportunity feels free to apply without the worry that if they apply, they’d be disappointed because they couldn’t afford it,” Schlissel said. “That’s the idea and the word “free” is very powerful … The proof will be in the pudding and I think it’s going to take a number of years because we do have a long way to go.”

Watch the full 25-minute interview with President Schlissel below.

Correction appended: The headline of this article has been changed to better reflect the interview