Schlissel on 'U' achieving carbon neutrality: We're going to try to strike the right balance

Tuesday, September 24, 2019 - 8:41pm

University President Mark Schlissel discusses the President's Commission for Carbon Neutrality at Flemming Tuesday afternoon.

University President Mark Schlissel discusses the President's Commission for Carbon Neutrality at Flemming Tuesday afternoon. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

 

Each month, The Michigan Daily’s Administration Beat sits down with University President Mark Schlissel to discuss important questions about University policy, commitments and challenges. Topics discussed at the interview included the search for a new Vice President of Student Life, the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, Title IX policy and more. This transcript has been abbreviated and reordered for reader clarity. 

Search for new VP of Student Life

The Michigan Daily: Given the recent announcement that Vice President E. Royster Harper will be retiring, what will the process to select a new VP of student life look like? 

President Mark Schlissel: In the next week, we’ll have an announcement, but we’re putting together a search committee that will have on the committee faculty, staff and several students — not just one student. There will be undergrad and either graduate or professional students on it, there will be some student affairs people, there will be some regular professors, I think a dean might be the chairperson of the search committee. So it will be a broad group that represents many of the different constituencies that depend upon the success of this person, the new VP… We can’t expect someone that we hire brand new to be as talented at this job as Vice President Harper, who had been in this position for 19 years as Vice President of Student Life, and before that she was dean of the college. So she’s not really replaceable. We’ll try our best and we’ll get somebody good, but on day zero they’re not going to be Royster Harper.

TMD: How long does the process take? 

MS: It takes several months. The first thing we do is come up with a good job description, then we advertise, then we try to build up lots of applicants. At the same time, we’re doing this outreach where we’re talking to groups and trying to get a sense of everyone’s expectations and what we really should be looking for. It takes a while and it’s worth the time and investment. VP Harper is going to step away in mid-January. It’d be great if we had a new person then, but we also might appoint an interim person to tide us over while we finish doing a good search. 

U-M President's Commission on Carbon Neutrality

TMD: Following the Washtenaw County Climate Strike last March, demonstrators staged a sit-in in the Fleming Administration Building to demand a one-hour meeting with the administration about climate change concerns and the University’s plan to reach carbon neutrality. 10 demonstrators were arrested or remaining in the building past 8 p.m., including two minors, and were given trespassing citations. In June, six of the demonstrators appeared in court for the first time and plead not guilty to all charges, and a pre-trial date was set for September 13. What do you expect the Commission on Carbon Neutrality to accomplish in the upcoming semester? The commission’s goal is to provide recommendations to the University on how to achieve carbon neutrality through the collaboration of students and faculty.

MS: They’ve been working all through the summer. They’ve divided up the big task of figuring out how and how quickly we can go carbon neutral into a bunch of smaller tasks … They’ve also put out a request for students who want to come and work for the commission for pay, doing research in support of the mission … The biggest thing I’m nervous about in our ability to go carbon neutral is how we heat the campus. We use steam to heat the campus, and the only efficient way so far to make steam is to burn a fossil fuel or to have a nuclear power plant, we don’t have a nuclear power plant. So we want to understand what the condition and the cost is if we were to say we want to change the way we heat and cool the campus: would it cost us $100 million, would it cost us $1 billion? So we have a consultant coming in to help us with that … So, when we build new buildings, for example, this new hospital tower that we announced the other day, which is a big deal. You know, we haven’t built a hospital of that magnitude in 40 years or 50 years. It’s almost a billion dollar hospital, it’ll have the most advanced care in the world right here in Ann Arbor. And we’re gonna build it to LEED Gold at least. We can diminish our carbon footprint by building to higher standards of energy efficiency. It costs more money, so it’ll slow down some of our ambitions, but we’re going to try to strike the right balance between continuing to be a great place to go to school and a research university and a great health system, and then being proper stewards of the environment. So, in the short term, I can’t envision a way to get out of fossil fuel use entirely, but longer term I think we have to, and the challenge is, how long it’s going to take and what the options are to get there … 

The University’s endowment is really critical for our ability to do the research and teaching and maintain the accessibility and affordability of a university education. The Go Blue Guarantee, which is the thing I’m proudest of, wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have endowment earning money to help fund it. So, we don’t want to constrain investments that are being made by the people that run the endowment. I think it is fair and it’s true that in the long run, our society is going to have to get away from fossil fuels, so they’ll become bad investments, and they’re going to have to move towards renewables and they’ll become better investments. And I’m sure that our investment portfolio will reflect that as time changes. What’s complicated in the real world is some of the same companies that you’d call fossil fuel companies are also ones doing research and development and implementing renewable energy because they realize that they’re going to go out of business one day unless they can transform their business to be more environmentally friendly. So if you try to starve a company that’s investing in the research to move away from fossil fuels, you’re not really doing much good. 

TMD: Given that demonstrators were arrested during a sit in, how does the University plan to handle student protestors moving forward?

MS: I think student protest is really important. If you look back at the history of change here at the University, I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s often provoked by students who get passionate about issues. And that really focuses our attention and we ask hard questions of ourselves as leaders and stewards of the University to say, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ And the student voice has been critical in many of the big things that have happened at the University, and I expect it to continue, particularly in the domain of the environment. You know, we’ve talked in the past about arrest. The last thing in the world I want to do is arrest somebody who is expressing themselves, but we have a responsibility for health and safety around the campus, and with 45,000 students and hundreds of buildings, there have to be rules about when people are allowed to stay overnight.

TMD: Additionally, many community members on campus participated in the Global Climate Strike to raise awareness about the importance of climate change. One of the calls to action included the University divesting completely from utilizing fossil fuels. How would you describe the University’s relationship with fossil fuel companies? Do you envision the University ever moving away from using fossil fuels? 

MS: In the short term, we don’t have an alternative to head the buildings in this Michigan environment that doesn’t use fossil fuels. I think that an important goal is to figure out how to do that, because ultimately, we do use a lot of fossil fuels to keep our big physical plant, our buildings, our dormitories, to keep them warm in the wintertime. So, I can envision a future where we don’t use fossil fuels to heat our buildings, but in the short term we don’t have that option. But there are other ways to greatly diminish the amount of fossil fuels that we do use.

Title IX

TMD: Recently, the ACLU released an open letter to University administrators about the investigative resolution pathway of the interim Title IX policy claiming it was unjust to have students conduct their own cross-examination of other students. The University does not allow students to have a personal advisor, such as an attorney, conduct cross-examinations due to concerns that not all students will be able to afford counsel. Since the University recognizes lack of affordable counsel as an issue, are there efforts in place to divert resources to helping students obtain access to personal advisors? 

MS: If the question is, ‘Are we considering ways to hire attorneys to represent students?’— no, and one of the main reasons is that the cost is dramatic. A local attorney here that we’re familiar with for example charges $450 an hour, and that money will have to come from somewhere — it’ll come from financial aid or it’ll come from our energy and environment work so no … Broadly, there is little going on here that’s more important than making this a safe environment so people can learn. It doesn’t do much good to have a wonderful University if people just don’t feel safe and comfortable when they’re here, you just can’t learn that way, so it remains a priority … Subjecting students to cross examination has the potential to re-traumatize students that have been through difficult circumstances, and we fear it will make students less likely to report or ask for help, and those are both things we don’t want to do. Well, the judge disagreed. The judge, when they balanced things, said that the due process rights of the accused require that there be some opportunity to try to judge who’s telling the truth when it’s a he-said-she-said kind of circumstance, it’s just people’s testimony of what happened when the door was closed. So, we have to obey the law … 

For (the) new umbrella policy that will be implemented/released soon, they’re in the process of making it … The idea is, instead of using different language and having different expectations of how people treat each other based on whether they’re a professor or student, nobody should be subjected to sexual misconduct no matter what your role is here at the University … The other thing we did with the Title IX office is it used to report to the chief administrator of the university, and we shifted it. It now goes right to the provost, and the provost is in charge of all the resources for the campus, so we’ll make sure that office gets adequately resourced and these cases done more quickly. That’s one of our shortcomings, is it just takes too long from a complaint to a final result, and the length of time is really very difficult for people going through the process. We’re going to invest more resources, supervise it in a different way … we’re going to try to get better at it because it is really important.” 

TMD: Given the backlash against the interim Title IX policy, when can we expect the University to release the umbrella policy for students, faculty and staff with separate procedures for students and employees?

MS: Instead of using different language and having different expectations of how people treat each other based on whether they’re a professor or student, nobody should be subjected to sexual misconduct...The idea was recommended by a consultant who’s an expert who used to work in the Obama administration in the Office of Civil Rights. As we come up with a uniform set of definitions and a uniform set of expectations, then the adjudications can be different for the different categories.

One University

TMD: In May, the Board of Regents did not change the budget model to reflect the coalition’s goal to change the way Michigan state legislature and the University of Michigan administration allocates funding among the three University campuses. Though the University has expressed support for maintaining the independence of the three campus budgets, 1U [A coalition advocating for equal treatment in resources to students and faculty at each campus] is continuing to expand by reaching out to community groups with similar missions. How does the University plan to work with 1U over the upcoming year? Do you foresee a resolution in the near future?

MS: Ann Arbor is a dramatically different university than Flint or Dearborn. Ann Arbor does $1.5 billion of research, Dearborn probably does about $15 million of research. Ann Arbor has 3,000 faculty, Dearborn has about 400-450 faculty. Students here in Ann Arbor come from every state in the United States and 68 countries around the world in our freshman class. Dearborn, I’d say, 90-plus percent come within an hour’s drive of the campus. So they’re very different communities serving partially overlapping but distinct purposes. Each of the campuses charges a different tuition, they’re responsible for their own financial aid policies, they get different money directly from the state. We don’t get a pot of money and the state says ‘divide it up among three campuses’— each campus gets a direct allocation. The faculty we recruit are being recruited from different pools: the Ann Arbor faculty is very research-intensive, the Dearborn and Flint faculty are way more teaching oriented. 97 percent of students in Flint get financial aid. Here [in Ann Arbor] it’s 50 percent. But the schools distribute that aid in different strategic aid. One of the reasons we launched the Go Blue Guarantee is there are too few students from the lower 20 percent or so of the socioeconomic strata in our state in Ann Arbor. In Flint and Dearborn, it almost exactly matches the demographic of the state. So what we’re trying to do here is use financial aid to promote socioeconomic diversity. In Flint and Dearborn, they’re trying to use financial aid to push harder on academic excellence, to give merit-based scholarships to attract more and more talented students. So we have different environments, different purposes and different strategies, but we want each of the universities to be as good as they can be in what they do.

ICE on Campus

TMD: Earlier in the year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection attempted to book a room at the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s library. While they were not successful in obtaining the room due to the school’s policy, the incident led to broader conversations about Border Patrol and ICE’s place on college campuses. While the University does not explicitly identify itself as a sanctuary campus, you signed a “statement of support for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program and our undocumented immigrant students.” How should undocumented and DACA students expect the University to respond if ICE does ever end up on campus? 

MS: We have to treat all groups the same. So what I read in your question, because I wasn’t familiar with the actual episode, was that ultimately that they didn’t rent a room because the rules said they couldn’t, so there’s no issue there … With that said, we are incredibly protective of students’ identities and private information. We don’t keep lists anywhere that anyone could ask for because we don’t have them. I couldn’t tell you how many DACA students there are on campus and I think that’s a good thing because if I could, then somebody might use a Freedom of Information Act or a subpoena to try and get that list … The reason we wouldn’t declare ourselves a sanctuary campus is because I think it’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull. We’re such a prominent large place, that my goal is to keep people safe so they can learn and graduate and get a college degree and be successful, and we’re going to do what we can within the law to make sure that one student at a time, everyone has that opportunity. If I thought declaring ourselves something would be a positive thing, I’d consider it. I’m more concerned that drawing attention to the University by making a declaration of something that doesn’t really make us any different than what we are right now of wanting to protect everybody who is here on campus and only making information available to outside agencies when we are legally required to do it. Those are all the things we would be doing.

Goals for the Upcoming Semester

TMD: Looking forward to the upcoming semester, what goals or initiatives do you hope to implement? What are some projects you are especially excited to see in the upcoming year?  

MS: I’d probably say the most important things we’re doing … is really making sure that University remains accessible to people who are talented, no matter where they come from, and that anybody who wants to make their lives better by working hard and likes to study … can see themselves at the University … I’m pretty excited about the potential of hosting a presidential debate … The challenge will be doing it in a way that is minimally disruptive to the semester. If we do this it would be down on the South Campus — we’d use the athletic facilities … but for a few days that the attention of the world’s media would be here and we’ll be able to think and talk about the implications of this largely contested election … One of the things that are really important to me is to generate a really high turnout of student voters, and not to say who a person should vote for but to recognize that legally if you’re a citizen and allowed to vote it is an incredibly important responsibility.