In exclusive interview, UM president talks immigration, Poverty Solutions and socioeconomic diversity at the University

Tuesday, January 31, 2017 - 4:30pm

On Tuesday afternoon, Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan, met with The Michigan Daily to address issues surrounding the University’s response to changes in national immigration policies, as well as its Poverty Solutions initiative and socioeconomic diversity on campus.

Changes in Immigration Policies and Statement

On Saturday, Schlissel released a statement proclaiming the University’s refusal to disclose students’ immigration information in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order banning the immigration of people from Muslim-majority countries.

The statement notes that the University has been a longtime advocate of international enrollment — the policy around students’ immigration statuses has been in place for months — and that it is “committed to protecting the rights and opportunities currently available” to community members.

Tuesday, Schlissel said he felt it was necessary to remind the community of the University’s stance, given the national political climate and concerned students on campus.

“These are very important basic long-held principles of the University, and I think it was an important moment to … reaffirm our values and reassure your fellow students of our longstanding policy,” he said.

He added a primary reason for the statement was to draw attention to the importance of international community members: faculty and staff, he clarified, will be afforded the same protections as international students.

“The reason I really wanted to speak up with clarity is I don’t necessarily think many people appreciate how international — not just our university — but all the great universities are,” he said. “We have students from over 100 countries around the globe. The idea of excluding a significant fraction of the world as being potential members of our community, I think would hurt us.”  

The statement notes that information on immigration status will be kept private unless “required to (comply with enforcement agencies) by law.”

Schlissel said he could not speak to the possible ways in which this information could be required or the University’s possible compliance.

“Like the whole nation, we’re following very carefully things that are changing quite quickly, they change by the hour sometimes,” he said. “We have a staff keeping very close watch so that we know what the situation is and we can best advise members of our community.”

Schlissel was not able to comment regarding a specific plan for students with refugee status, as a widely circulated student petition calls for. University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen provided a general statement later Tuesday evening noting a newly-organized immigration working group would be better suited to respond to such issues. 

"The group had its first meeting last week, and we will update the community when more information becomes available," she wrote in an email. 

Schlissel noted the University’s affiliation with national organizations — like the Association of American Universities, which former University president Mary Sue Coleman now heads — to share approaches to addressing such problems. Coleman issued a statement Saturday urging the Trump administration to suspend the executive order. 

"We recognize the importance of a strong visa process to our nation’s security," she said. "However, the administration’s new order barring the entry or return of individuals from certain countries is already causing damage and should end as quickly as possible."

Poverty Solutions

Poverty Solutions, a multidisciplinary program that uses research to aid low-income families, was announced in October. In early January, a Facebook Live event was held in which panelists discussed the initiative.

In response to the University’s financial support of the project, Schlissel explained that all University contributions are consistent with its research goals.

“We only spend money on the University’s mission; it’s not as if we’re spending money directly on impoverished people in their everyday lives,” he said. “What we’re spending money on is supporting our researchers and our students who are doing research and teaching in this area.”

Schlissel acknowledged it is important to understand that, in doing this research, people’s lives are affected. He said without community engagement, it would not be right for the University to enter these areas and make assumptions about what people may or may not need.  

Schlissel said one of the most positive aspects of this program is partnering with community groups and working with citizens in impoverished communities to try to apply and test ideas. He said the modest amount of money given to the program allows for this engagement with the community.

“What has me very excited about this initiative is it involves very close partnerships between experts in many different schools and colleges here, students, and then community groups that actually have the knowledge and their hands around the problem in a very real and local way,” he said.

Socioeconomic Diversity

Though Schlissel is in the process of implementing several Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives, a report from the Equality of Opportunity Project gave the University an incredibly low ranking in terms of socioeconomic diversity and mobility.

The New York Times’ Upshot noted the report’s finding that 66 percent of students at the University come from the top 20 percent of the income distribution, while only 3.6 percent come from the bottom 20 percent.

Schlissel said he was disappointed in these numbers, but not surprised.

“We’ve identified this as a problem in recent years,” he said. “It’s not trending in the right direction and we’re serious about reversing it.”

Schlissel pointed to the success of the HAIL Scholars Program, now in its second year, which brought more than 250 low-income, largely first-generation students into last year’s freshman class.

The University also helped establish the American Talent Initiative, a program involving several higher education institutions that are working to increase the number of talented, low-income students.  

“We’re making a commitment to bring to our campus top students from lower socioeconomic groups,” he said. “We’ve set rough target goals nationally to increase this number by a couple hundred thousand per year … students from lower socioeconomic communities are very talented, but they’re not applying to the same schools, or school at all sometimes, as similarly talented students in wealthier areas. They’re aiming low. The goal of this talent initiative is to identify that talent and help them aim high.”