President Schlissel talks Detroit Center for Innovation, carbon neutrality goals

Monday, December 2, 2019 - 7:07pm

University President Mark Schlissel speaks on the Climate Coalition in an interview with The Daily in Fleming Administration Building Monday.

University President Mark Schlissel speaks on the Climate Coalition in an interview with The Daily in Fleming Administration Building Monday. Buy this photo
Olivia Cell/Daily

Each month, The Michigan Daily’s Administration Beat sits down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel to discuss important questions about University policy, commitments and challenges. Topics discussed at this month’s interview included the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, The Detroit Center for Innovation, the discrimination lawsuit filed against the University and more.

At the beginning of the meeting, The Daily also spoke with Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute and co-chair of the President’s Commission on Climate Neutrality, about the Commission’s first interim report that was released Monday morning. Haverkamp said the report includes input from over 90 individuals and highlights the first phase of the Commission’s work, which is focused on devising strategies to reach carbon neutrality and planning for potential obstacles in the future. Some of the goals include creating a Carbon Accounting Subgroup to estimate the amount of methane leakage in the University’s natural gas supply chain, hiring an external consulting firm to suggest ways to reach carbon neutrality and adding the Flint and Dearborn campuses to the objectives. 

The Michigan Daily: How will the carbon neutrality goals translate over to the Detroit Innovation Center?

Mark Schlissel: That’s a really interesting question. So since the Detroit Center is quite a new concept, and actually it hasn’t been fully designed, and there’s not a shovel in the ground, I don’t know. But yeah, there are opportunities to make that a model building. And the folks that are doing the development are thinking along those lines. Once we know what we’re going to do, we’ll announce it ... the buildings being built by outside developers that will be donated to the university. So although we have input into the building, we won’t have control of it until it’s complete and given to us as a gift.

TMD: One University as well as the Climate Action Coalition released a joint statement calling for carbon neutrality and financial equity across the University’s three campuses. How do you hope they respond to this progress report?

MS: Well I have both respect and empathy for the Climate Coalition. We’re pulling in the same direction. I think if there are disagreements, it’s simply how fast we can go and what we’re willing to say that we don’t yet know how to do. So one of the main requests is to make a commitment to be carbon neutral by a certain day. And as Jennifer just described, we’re still defining what carbon neutral means, what do we include. We just decided to include the Flint and Dearborn campuses, which hadn’t been the case before. We’ve decided to consider scope three emissions. In other words, things people use and commuting because of work that the university doesn’t own those sources.

TMD: Recently the Semester in Detroit program released a statement criticizing the University’s participation in the Detroit Innovation Center. They compared involvement to colonialism and even accused the University’s investment of indirectly supporting Dan Gilbert in tax evasion. How is this partnership with Gilbert not an instance of private interests utilizing the University at the expense of the general public? More broadly, how will the University recognize the concerns of local residents when implementing the center? 

MS: To be honest, I was really surprised and a little bit disappointed because Semester in Detroit is one of many spectacular things we do in the city that I’m very proud of. The leadership that spoke out were expressing their own beliefs. They don’t speak for the University — they speak for themselves, which is absolutely fine. The Detroit Center for Innovation is the most recent and significant scale thing we’re doing in Detroit, but there are hundreds of things we’re doing in Detroit. 

So we’re functioning at many different levels in the city doing research and teaching, which is what we do, but with the goal of helping the future prospects of the city of Detroit. The Center for Innovation is just the latest in this series of projects. It was brought to us as a proposal by the mayor’s office and one of our alums and donors Steve Ross and then joined by Dan Gilbert saying ‘Would the University be willing to anchor a Center for Innovation in Detroit if they build it?’ So the first thing to clear up, as I mentioned earlier, is the University is not building the buildings. They’re being built by developers and donors and will be gifted to the University. I recognize that Dan Gilbert has gotten adverse publicity around this issue of opportunity zones. The zone we’re building in has long been identified as a zone that needs development and qualifies as an opportunity zone. It wasn’t the one that got caught up in lobbying that was referenced in these articles about Dan Gilbert recently — and we’re not providing resources to him. What we would do is provide the teaching and research workforce to help provide advanced-level education that would provide a pipeline of employees for businesses in the city, particularly businesses infused with technology, something we’re very good at. 

One thing we’re involved in now is working collaboratively with community groups, particularly in the neighborhoods near this site, explaining what we envision, hearing their thoughts and ideas, discussing ways the community may become involved in some of this project, whether the facilities we build can be made available to the community for all kinds of purposes and to do it collaboratively. So I’m not quite sure where the criticism came from, to be honest.

TMD: Given the recent student protests in response to your comment about peer-to-peer cross examination, some have said the University’s policy is skewed towards individuals from higher socioeconomic status backgrounds because those individuals would be able to hire lawyers. Would you agree? Why or why not? 

MS: This is definitely a challenging area. And I’m not sure we’re getting it right. I’m sure we’re trying to get it right, but as directed by some court decisions, we do have to provide the ability of a person who’s been accused of misconduct to be able to question their accuser in some kind of hearing that’s been mandated by a court. So we follow the law. Then the challenge is: How do you set up a hearing that is as respectful to this individuals involved, sensitive to the risks of retraumatizing a complainant, but yet satisfies what the court is demanding we do? So one way to do it would be to allow advocates for students to do the questioning. Another way to do it is to have the students themselves do it. 

The reason that we’ve decided on an interim basis to try having students themselves do it is because we thought that might be less traumatizing than having an advocate, because an advocate in some instances is likely to be a lawyer, and lawyers are really, really good at being really, really tough on witnesses. And one of the reasons many people don’t take these complaints to the police is they don’t want to be up on a witness stand and have a lawyer representing a respondent go through their sexual history in a public session. That’s a very difficult thing. 

The way we’ve set this up, the questioning is occurring in real time, but from a remote location. And there’s a hearing officer that’s a retired judge who understands how to manage questioning and the testimony. And we’ve been doing this for almost a year. 

Our policies on all student disciplinary proceedings allow you to have an advocate with you. And often that advocate is mom and dad, or a friend or a sibling or grandma. But you can bring a lawyer. And what we’re concerned about is that if one person has a lawyer and the other person has a family member or friend, that may not be a fair circumstance. So if we do go to a situation where advocates are allowed to question individuals, we would think very seriously about having to provide lawyers for everybody. But we’d have to hire a lot of lawyers and now we’re becoming a court taking on all those expenses. 

TMD: The University has been encouraging students to go out and vote through initiatives like the Big Ten Voting Challenge and Turn Up Turnout. U of M’s student voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections tripled compared to the 2014 election. 2020’s election is a big one, especially with one of the presidential debates being held on campus. What accommodations is the University planning on making for student voters and will classes be cancelled on election day to promote everyone to vote?

MS: So we don’t cancel classes, we have to add a day some other time. And we have considered this with several of the recent elections such as most recently, we worked with one of the previous CSG administrations to look at this. And we need a certain number of class days. So although the idea of cancelling class, making it easier to vote, is a reasonable idea, what we would have done to do that is taken away one of the days of the four-day weekend, the Fall Break weekend. And it turned out, overwhelmingly, that students did not want to lose a day of fun. And we need the same number of each day of the week. So, for instance, if we give up a Tuesday, we need a Tuesday. So it would have been quite perfect to give up one day of the four-day weekend and, maybe not surprisingly, people weren’t interested enough to give up a day of vacation to have a day to vote.

When you’re in the real world and you have a job, or you’re a graduate or a medical student or something, you’re not going to get a day off to the year, you will get a flexible schedule during that day. But the polls are open at seven in the morning until seven or eight at eight in the evening. And during those hours, it’s part of your civic responsibility to vote. I don’t know anybody that’s in class from seven in the morning to the evening. It is a pain, you’re busy. You’re not busier than me and I go to vote. You may be as busy as me. I don’t want to be insulting, but… you make the time to vote. So I don’t think that’s really an excuse for not voting. 

We’ve been putting some valid call pressure but we’ve been lobbying the state, the Secretary of State to figure out how to get more voting booths, more voting units in the Union, which will be open again, thank goodness, and at the other polling place on campus, so that the lines move more quickly. 

TMD: Additionally, would you consider automatically registering students to vote when they register as a student at the University? Why or why not? 

MS: So that’s a really interesting idea. I’d have to think and talk to others about that. Automatically registering someone to vote a condition of being a student at a public university. That might be a little heavy handed. And one of the cool things about our democracy is you get to choose whether to participate. There isn’t a law that says you must vote. There is a you know, constitution that says you have the privilege of voting. And turning that into a requirement by linking it to your ability to get educated just feels heavy handed to me, I’d want to think about it more. My goal alternatively is to make it as easy as possible for people to register and that as easy as possible for people to vote, but you still have to take personal responsibility.

TMD: In 2017, after months of bargaining sessions and sit-ins, the Graduate Employees’ Organization and the University reached a contract agreement that agreed to GEO’s demands for pay caps on mental health services, the creation of DEI Graduate Student Assistant Positions and protections for international graduate students. However, this contract will expire this coming May. Last Wednesday, the GEO’s bargaining team began contract negotiations with the University for their upcoming contract and hosted a rally on the Diag in anticipation of this process. Some of their demands include expanded transgender healthcare coverage, opening more gender neutral restrooms and reducing pay inequality between graduate students on the University’s three campuses. How does the University plan to respond to GEO’s demands? 

MS: Unions are great. They changed the United States, they created the middle class, they protected all kinds of people through our nation’s history from being taken advantage of. Without a doubt, they’re a public good. What unions do with employers is they negotiate. So demands aren’t negotiation — they say ’you must do this.’ The idea is to spend time understanding each others’ goals and figuring out which ones are the most important, since no one ever gets everything they want in a negotiation, and then you sit down and work. And it’s hard work. And they’ll meet a couple of times a week for many months trying to figure out what’s a win-win. There are some things GEO is going to want that they just aren’t going to get. There are other things they want that are reasonable and they will get them. There are things the University wants and won’t get and vice-versa. So couching it as demands before negotiations have even started to me isn’t a healthy approach. 

Our graduate students are the lifeblood of the place. They do a huge fraction of the research that happens at this great research university. So they’re our partners, they’re professionals in training. We want them to feel valued and fairly compensated for their teaching efforts and that coming to Michigan has been a fantastic thing for them. 

There has been quite an extension of benefits around the treatment of transgendered individuals where we might even be best in class now. So I’d be interested to hear what else and what’s next on the list of things that are important and we’ll consider them in context. 

TMD: In December of 2016, a discrimination lawsuit was filed against the University under the Michigan Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act for claims of racial discrimination in terms of promotions and raises. What are your thoughts on the lawsuit taking place today? 

MS: So you know, it’s really tough to comment on an active lawsuit that’s in progress. The University, when it does something wrong, we take pride at recognizing and rectifying it. We settled many, many lawsuits when we think that the claimant has a reasonable claim, and we should have done things differently or better. In this instance, the case, it’s going to trial. We don’t think that’s the case. So we’ll litigate to protect the University against claims that we just don’t think are fair or correct.

TMD: As the court day for the 2016 lawsuit takes place, in what ways has the University shifted its hiring practices to establish more equity?  

MS: So we’re always looking for ways to attract as broadly representative a pool of potential employees as we can and then identify the most talented person for the job. Part of our efforts around DE&I are making sure that the community of potential employees recognizes that we’re interested in considering that regardless of what their background is, and that we’re working hard to establish an environment a workplace environment is school environment where everybody feels they have an equal chance to be successful… I think that our focus and the publicity around our commitment to DEI has produced more diversity amongst our staff, certainly, amongst some demographics in the student community, and we still struggle with others. And I think our campus, although I’m hard pressed to say that we’ve solved our problems around inclusion, we’ve put them on the front burner or people are talking about them. And I’m optimistic if we stick with this, in the long run we will make progress and will have a campus environment where a greater fraction of people here feel as if they’re the owners that there is valuable here as anybody else.