Schlissel: "I try not to have a personal opinion" on potential C.C. Little renaming, awaiting further review

University President Mark Schlissel discusses the changes he hopes to see around the university in the coming months in the Fleming Administrative Building Tuesday.

University President Mark Schlissel discusses the changes he hopes to see around the university in the coming months in the Fleming Administrative Building Tuesday. Buy this photo
Sarah Kunkel/Daily


Tuesday, October 31, 2017 - 7:49pm

Considering the protests on campus that followed the speech from Charles Murray last month and student concerns over a possible visit from Richard Spencer, The Daily sat down with University President Mark Schlissel to address these issues, the progress the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan has made over the past year and the renaming of the C.C. Little building.

Watch the full interview here:

The Michigan Daily: Since our last meeting with you, the one-year anniversary for the DEI plan has passed. How do you think the progress has been going and how has its execution really been performed over the past year?

President Mark Schlissel: I think the best way of answering that is to highlight next week’s summit. So we have a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion summit with multiple events through the week, which will include Rob Sellers and myself releasing our report on the first year, which has both a summary and then a whole bunch of individual reports from all the schools and colleges that lays out each of their objectives and reports on progress over the first year. If I had to say in general, I think the initiative is off to a good start, but there’s a huge amount of work to be done and there are some things that are immediate and short term, and there are other things that we start now and we are going to have to be continued for a long time and there’s still other things that we learn about and decide there are better ways to do the things that we already started doing. So it’s very much a living and continuously renewing plan.

Some of the things I’m most excited about is we’ve got a number of pipeline programs up and running, including Wolverine Pathways that works with students in seventh through 12th grade and it’s after school, on the weekend and (in) summertime and, at the end, if they do well, and they get into the University, we promise them a generous scholarship at the end. And we’ve launched the Go Blue Guarantee in January, which is designed to promise socioeconomic diversity on campus, and when you get socioeconomic diversity you also get geographic diversity and all different kinds of diversity come along with that, so those things are going well. The schools and colleges are working on their local plans to work on the climate locally and in each of our schools to gauge how well we appreciate and address issues of difference between humans. There’s an inventory work that has been done — diversity inventory work has been done in the dorms, so there’s a lot of activity. Another big thing that we’ll talk about at the summit was one of our major goals of the first year, which was a campus climate survey. We’ll be releasing the results in the coming days. … It asks the question: How are we doing? What is it like to be a student, or a faculty or a staff member here at the University and it’s disappointing but not surprising I guess is that different people experience this campus very differently based on where they’re coming from. So I think those results are very important to show us where to focus our efforts, to establish a baseline we can use to track whether we are improving the campus climate. The end goal is to have each individual here — no matter where they come from — have equal opportunity and a similar quality of experience, feel like they’re being equitably treated and being a full member of this large and diverse community. So we’re going to roll out that and speak during the diversity summit on what we’re learning or what we’ve learned from the climate survey. There will also be a fantastic keynote address by perhaps one of the most famous senior scholars in this area, a professor from Stanford named Claude Steele, who came up with a theory that has lots of support about something he calls “stereotype threat.” In effect, people internalize what the stereotypes are for their identity and that internalization affects their behavior and can self-perpetuate that identity, sometimes unfairly. So it’ll be a great talk; I encourage people to go.

It’s been a lot of effort — we’ve maintained the engagement and interest across all the schools and colleges, a lot of good initial things are happening and there’s a long way to go.

TMD: As you mentioned campus climate and the fact that different students have different experiences here, is there anything else specifically that you would say needs further specific attention as far as the DEI plan or anything that hasn’t been up to your standards or expectations?

Schlissel: I wish that all the things we’re working on could go faster. I wish that we could more quickly get to an environment where the quality of everyone’s experience is quite similar to everyone else’s experience. I wish that we wouldn’t be derailed by these episodic episodes of racism and other kinds of hurtful, insulting messages in our environment. I wish that our campus demographic could improve more quickly — in other words, get a more representative mix of students in our society. I think we’re making progress in all these areas but I share the frustration effort from many students and also faculty and staff that it’s just too slow. Change isn’t fast enough.

TMD: Specifically to that point, there was Tabbye Chavous, the director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity, who was quoted back in February saying that "this Fall will likely have an appreciable difference on our faculty (in terms of diversity)." How are things on that front?

Schlissel: I don’t have faculty numbers. The DEI office, I’m sure, does. But programs are up and running in each of the schools and colleges that are designed to purposefully increase the diversity of the faculty, to use legal means, but to purposefully look for scholars that enhance the study of or the environment for diversity and inclusion on campus.

One of the programs that I think is the most robust is happening in our largest college, in LSA, there’s a postdoc program. Postdocs are potential faculty members who have already finished their Ph.D. They’re not quite ready necessarily for an independent faculty position but they come and work at the University for a year or two, they do a little bit of teaching, they continue working on their scholarship, and if their career progresses, we have an assistant professor’s position waiting for them. LSA began a program as part of their diversity plan to set aside quite a number of these postdoctoral slots for scholars that would help us either with the study of diversity or in building a more diverse and equitable community. They’re making good progress on that, so that’s an example, but I don’t have the numbers to share with you.

There’s a lot of information in this and I’m still absorbing the information. We’ll have plenty of time at the diversity summit to actually discuss and answer questions about the information, and then the data will be made available so that individuals can look at the data and draw some of their own conclusions.

TMD: One of the things we wanted to address was your support for undocumented and immigrant students, specifically at the Regents meeting earlier this month. What has come out of the immigration working group? Has there been any progress on requests from students, such as liaisons, or financial aid? Where are we with that?

Schlissel: This immigration working group continues to function. It interacts with both individuals and then organizations representing groups of individuals. It has received a bunch of requests most recently from students in support of our DACA students, and a number of these things have been put into place. It’s mainly making sure that our entire community that is subject to these changes in immigration rules and regulations knows where to turn for information and knows where to turn when they need help. So we continue to improve our ways of making it easier for people to reach out and to know who to reach out to. But the important thing from the University perspective is we wouldn’t be Michigan without being a magnet for people from all around the world — and at all levels: faculty, staff and students. For students, we’re committed to all the students that are here, helping them achieve their life ambition. As a lifelong educator, the notion that somebody wants to make their life and their family’s lives better by getting educated — there’s nothing more worthy of support than that. We’re at the stage now, though, where also our professional organizations are lobbying Congress to come up with a more definitive solution to the DACA situation. So the DACA was a set of regulations that, you saw from recent events, could be overturned. The government changes, you overturn the regulations. The hope is to turn the DACA situation into a law — an act of Congress — that will give long-term assurance and stability to young people that are in the DACA category.

The other thing that really weighs on me is 20 percent of the Michigan faculty was born outside the United States. Just think of the advantage that our University and our country has by being a magnet for talent from all around the world. Why would we want to give that up? Why wouldn’t we want talented, hardworking people to come here and join our country and contribute to our shared wealth? So that’s why the immigration issue is really important for the University.

TMD: Shifting gears toward C.C. Little. So there’s an advisory committee for its renaming. What progress has been made in that committee, what have the main considerations been, and what does the timeline look like?

Schlissel: As you know because you published this, there has been a formal request, very well documented, made by a group of students with some faculty help — or maybe for my faculty colleagues I should say faculty with some student help — making a request that we consider removing the name. C.C. Little, of course, is a former president of the University and it’s a big deal. A year ago, we had a committee that has existed for a while called the President’s Advisory Committee on University History go through a discussion to advise us about what are the criteria we should use when these kind of questions come up. So that was before we ever got the C.C. Little question or Winchell — another former faculty member who has a hall named after them — where the question has also been raised over whether that naming is appropriate. So this committee spent a number of months saying what are the criteria we should use to judge these cases, how do we even think about a request to change a name? They came up with a bunch of recommended principles — those are posted up on my website for the whole community to see. And they’re a very valuable guide for how we deal with the proposal that was raised with C.C. Little. So what I did when I got the request for the Little naming was first look at the overall request to make sure it seems serious to me and detailed enough to forward to the committee and I thought it was and the committee agreed. The committee has been working on this request now for a few months. What they’ve been trying to do is apply their criteria to this particular question.

For example, one of the more interesting and challenging criteria is: You can imagine there are many ideas that in today’s context seem ridiculous, that they’re so out of step with our current values and the current social norms in our society that they make no sense. However, when you’re thinking about a naming, you have to actually go back in time to when the naming happened, and then figure out in the context of those times, how do you judge that person? Were they typical of their era, or were they a terrible outlier that, regardless what the era was, you wouldn’t want to associate yourself with their values? That’s a very hard thing to do because I’m sure 100 years from now there are going to be things that we all do and think and care about today that our society a century from now is going to think about really differently. That’s happened all throughout our history, there’s no reason to think it’s not going to keep happening. So when we think about something as permanent as removing a name that was supposed to be permanent, we’ve got to look at it from many different perspectives. So, this group is in the midst of coming up with their recommendation and writing a report. The report will come to me along with the recommendation. I’ll read it and think about it very hard. If the recommendation calls for a removal of the name and if I agree with that recommendation, then ultimately we have to take it to the Board of Regents, because they’re the ones that have the authority to add a name, so they’re the ones that have the authority to take away the name. This case may require more of a discussion than just a report from the history committee. It might convene some open community discussions so we can hear more directly from people because there’s not unanimity of opinion about this. Even though there are many students that feel very strongly about this, there are others who feel pretty strongly that naming should be permanent. I want to — before we make a serious decision about this or before I recommend to the Regents that they make a serious decision like this — that we’ve given it all the appropriate thoughts. I’m open to removing the name, it’s just I want to do this in a very thoughtful way consistent with the rubric that was developed by our history committee, the criteria.

TMD: Has the committee given you any specific time frames of when they might be —

Schlissel: No, but they tell me they're working on their report now. So they've done their thinking, and reading, and researching, and consulting, and now they're at the stage of working on their report. But I would imagine this would become a very active issue and a more open discussion on campus very early in the new year.

TMD: Do you have any personal opinion that you'd be willing to share?

Schlissel: You know, it's really interesting — I try not to have a personal opinion until I feel like I've understood something well enough that it's a worthwhile opinion. You know what I mean? So, as a gut instinct, when I read the arguments made by the group of students and faculty that brought it forward, I'd say, “There's something really serious we should be thinking about.” But, this isn't a decision that you have to make today. In other words, it isn't a time-sensitive decision that if we don't decide this this week, the world's going to suffer. We should be thoughtful about this. So, I make a commitment to myself to try to keep an open mind until I've read through, and thought about, and then discussed with smart people all the information that's available. So, I don't have an opinion, other than the fact that it's something that definitely merits consideration.

TMD: How have you been trying to address the students with the most vocal concerns who have been hosting these protests and rallies outside the building?

Schlissel: In a way, I encourage them, because so long as the students have done their study, and made sure that they're convinced that what they're asking for is the right thing to do, then I'm proud of their advocacy. I don't think necessarily the University would have come up with this idea on its own to revisit the name of a building named after one of my predecessors, so that student advocacy is essential. It wouldn't happen without it. So even when students get angry at me — or disappointed, I don't know, “angry” isn't fair — I remind myself this is the way change happens. You know, people make their views and things they care about a priority of the institution by demonstrating how much they care about it and I'm proud of that.

TMD: A recent report in The Atlantic cited Midwestern institutions' effects on the regional economic decline based on their inability to maintain levels of federal research funding. As the University of Michigan, a world-renowned research institution, how is the University going to navigate gaps in federal funding and how does it look to contribute to regional growth?

Schlissel: We often think of the University as being important, because it's a great place to get educated. People compete to get in, you know, you get out, you're proud of your degree but that's only one of the ways that the University is important to the state and to the region. One of the other ways is by research. We are the second-largest research institution in the United States, we're the largest public research university, just measured by the number of dollars that we can spend on research. We're at over $1.4 billion of research, which is just an amazing thing to me — approaching $1 billion of that is federal sources of support. We publish thousands and thousands of journals and we patent hundreds and hundreds of ideas. We spin off companies, we collaborate with the private sector on research problems. Right now, for example, we're a very important collaborator with many of the auto companies around autonomously self-driving cars, autonomous mobility, so we have a huge economic impact through the research that we do. On average, the University spins off one brand-new startup company a month, year after year. The revenues that the University generates from its intellectual property that gets patented ends up getting put back in to promote the next generation of discovery, so it's a big activity of the University that's part of our core mission. If you notice The Atlantic article, it either doesn't or barely mentions Michigan. It mentions many of the Midwestern universities, and thankfully for us, we're in a little bit of a different category. It's not that we're not operating in the same milieu as other universities, because the federal government has flattened its support for research, but we're enormously competitive, and we keep getting a larger fraction of a shrinking pie, and we continue to do well, and we do well not just with federal research funding, but research foundations — private disease foundations, for example — with philanthropists that want to support research in a disease, or research in a technology, with many alternative sources. We do research and collaboration with companies and the companies pay for the research. So lots of different diverse ways to support our research expenditures. So it's not that we're not challenged — everyone's challenged — but Michigan continues to do great.

TMD: And I know I've spoken with Jack Hu about this — not only has funding really been an issue, but just a general appreciation or priority for research, especially now in our current political climate.

Schlissel: Yeah, this is a longer term worry, because if you look through history, societies progress and economies grow fueled by research. And unless you're respectful and receptive to the output of that research, we won't grow and do as well as quickly. So it is a challenging time.

TMD: You mentioned Wolverine Pathways — the oldest class is now applying to colleges, so what results are you seeing? Are you seeing anything unexpected?

Schlissel: Oh, it's too early to say, right? They're just applying. Our goal for the program is that every one of the kids that makes it through Wolverine Pathways applies to college. And we hope that they have a good enough experience that they apply to Michigan. I know they're not all going to get in, because Michigan's hard to get into — we're not changing our standards. But we want to get more students from disadvantaged backgrounds ready to go to college, and recognizing it takes a number of years — so we start the program in seventh grade, there's a pipeline building — but I'm hopeful that a lot of them apply to the University of Michigan, and that we end up accepting many of them and that many of them decide to come here. We're hoping to grow the fraction of the class that is first generation students — in other words, students that come from families where parents didn't go to college — because the opportunity to change a family's trajectory by having someone educated is just enormous. And we have disproportionately modest numbers of first generation students, and we want those to grow.

TMD: As far as the implementation of the Go Blue Guarantee — there's the $65,000 cutoff line at the state median, but what's being done to help families just above that line, and also lower income families in general with navigating costs of living in Ann Arbor?

Schlissel: So the Go Blue Guarantee is targeted at students who come from families, as you said, at or below the median in the state. The median's actually about $63,500, and we pegged this at about $65,000, and what that means is a student coming from a family at or below the median will receive at least as much financial aid as full tuition. If you come from a family making half of that much money, you'll get much more aid. So, it's really a minimum aid threshold for families at or below this $65,000 cutoff. However, students that come from families with incomes all the way up to $180,000 a year get some financial aid based on their circumstances. Sometimes it's quite large. So, if you come from a family with multiple kids in college, for example, then you get more aid because you have less disposable income. So, there's a federal financial aid form that students fill out — a FAFSA — that many people are trying to improve, it's a very long, challenging, complicated form, but we give aid based on need to all students who apply to Michigan. Inside the state, two thirds of our students are getting financial aid, so there's lots of students getting financial aid based on their own family circumstances. The Go Blue Guarantee basically tells people in advance, “You're going to get at least full tuition scholarship, maybe more, if you come from a family at or below the median income.” So it's a way to help people be less scared of applying to the University, because imagine what it's like if you're parents, you have a talented kid, you know that they're ambitious, but you're afraid you can't afford to send them to school because you read all this time about how tuition is so expensive, it keeps going up, what are we gonna do? And to be able to tell that family, if they're an average family, that all the kid has to do is worry about getting in, and we'll give them the equivalent of free tuition plus whatever else a calculated formula says they would need, I think that would improve the level of ambition and get us more talented kids from less wealthy families. That's the hope.

TMD: One of the last topics we wanted to discuss was this idea of free speech on campus and balancing this with issues of racism as well as other concerns. So, there's obviously been a lot of discussion regarding Charles Murray's appearance earlier this semester — what would you change, if at all, anything regarding the handling of the event, and how would you address student responses to protest his speech?

Schlissel: Yeah, you know, I think it's a really challenging area. So, you can't be a university if you're not a marketplace for ideas, if you're not open to ideas. I don't trust anybody to tell me what ideas I'm allowed to listen to, and I don't think you should trust anybody else to tell you who's allowed to talk to you. I think it's almost a sacred American right, right? It's the First Amendment. As a public institution, we're legally bound to the First Amendment, so we really don't have the option to filter speakers based on the content of what they want to talk about. We have to treat everyone the same, it's the law. However, I'm also obligated to provide for the physical safety of the campus. So, we can't allow an event to occur where there's a high likelihood of physical violence. Can't do it. Because a person's physical safety is a chief responsibility of me as a leader and all the folks that work here. So, when someone comes forward — either a group invites somebody, or somebody tries to rent one of our spaces — which, we are open to the public, you could rent Hill Auditorium if you had $1,500 — when that happens, the only filter we really put on this is whether we can assure safety. Otherwise we're getting into the category of saying, “Whose ideas should society allow to be there in that marketplace of ideas?” And that scares me a lot. Because although I would agree with the majority sentiment of students that some of these folks who have been making their way around the country giving controversial talks, I don't want to hear them. But I don't want to deny somebody else who might want to hear them, because I'm afraid that they would then turn around and deny me the right to hear somebody I wanted to talk about. And, you know, this world and this country changes a lot, and elections change things, culture changes, so I think it's very important that we maintain a consistent approach to not be the censors of speech but rather the assurers of safety.

TMD: With the possibility now — obviously we learned this morning Richard Spencer has requested to come speak at the University — so are there specific criteria that you go by to ensure this measure of safety that you've been talking about?

Schlissel: Certainly, without addressing the content of what he wants to talk about — which, I have no idea what he talks about — what I do know is the protests that follow him when he goes to speak. What we do is we look for a time and a place, if possible, that assures, as much as possible, safety, and as little disruption to the business of the University as possible. So, for example, even though we adhere to these free speech principles, we don't have to allow somebody to come give a talk on the Diag at 11 in the morning when you're in class with a loudspeaker. I'm not going to allow that, because it prevents you from concentrating in class. So we're allowed to place limitations on the time and the place and the manner of speech so it's not disruptive, and again, as I said, the physical safety aspect. So, what the University will do is it will speak to the representatives of the person who wants to come and speak, and try to find a way that they can speak in a time and a place and a manner where we can assure the safety of the community. And, if we can get to that point, then anybody would be able to come and speak. If we can't get to that point, where we can assure the non-disruptive nature and the safety of our community, then the person won't get to speak. So that's the balance. And we're not there yet. We don't know what's going on yet, other than the fact that we're content neutral when it comes to speakers.

TMD: So there are often limitations on how the University can respond, but in the case of Charles Murray, and lots of other events, there have been strong student responses. Do you have any personal opinions on those?

Schlissel: Yeah, we have a huge amount of tolerance for students protesting speakers. I think, as we were saying earlier, protest is a sort of American tradition, it's the way the world changes. I think protest is fine as long as it doesn't prevent a speaker from speaking. We have a statement on student responsibilities when it comes to speakers and artistic expression. We'll tolerate an awful lot of protests, but we won't tolerate a situation where someone's prevented from speaking. We give a series of warnings. Ultimately, people that don't obey multiple warnings end up as part of a student disciplinary proceeding because they violated part of our community rules. But that's not the first thing we do — that's the last thing we do. The first thing we do is we try to accommodate people who wish to protest, but do so in a way that doesn't disrupt others' ability to hear a speaker if they wish.