Schlissel talks Spencer, LEO, upcoming challenges for University

Monday, April 23, 2018 - 11:40am

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Sarah Kunkel/Daily

As exams come to an end and a majority of students begin moving off campus for the summer, the Michigan Daily spoke with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel on Monday morning to hear his opinion on large issues he’s encountered over the past semester, such as the University’s previous negotiations with white supremacist Richard Spencer, the current status of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization's bargaining efforts and the University’s lobbying strategy for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival students and more.

The Daily also looked to the future, discussing Schlissel’s plans for the University over the summer and the beginning of next semester, including conversations around sexual misconduct and the upcoming 2019 budget announcement.

TMD: Last month, white supremacist Richard Spencer visited Michigan State University as part of his national college tour. However, his event resulted in a clash between protesters and police. After the incident, Spencer announced in a video he would halt his tour “at least for the foreseeable future.” Given the controversy surrounding Spencer, how do you see his recent announcement impacting the University’s negotiations for a possible speaking engagement?

Schlissel: We’re really not negotiating with Spencer. We didn’t invite him. He requested a venue on campus. Months ago, there was a little bit of back and forth proposing dates but the important thing is we weren’t committed to having this on campus and we would only have a event by Spencer if we could identify a place and a time where we think the safety risks could be controlled and if they couldn’t then we wouldn’t arrange a date … Of course, whenever he does appear somewhere, it’s an opportunity for us to learn about the event and the challenges that come with the event and how public safety in each of those incidences is maintained or not, and we learn from those things so that if, not just him, but other highly controversial folks come to Michigan in the future, we’ll be better prepared to make sure the event can be conducted safely.

TMD: And what would you say we did learn from this instance, especially with the protests and just ensuring public safety?

Schlissel: One of the key things is keeping opposing protest groups physically separated from one another. That seems to be quite important but our public safety people have done a very detailed post-event analysis in collaboration with folks at MSU and the lessons they’ve learned, they’re gonna hold on to and they’re not gonna necessarily discuss them publicly but they’ll use them in our efforts to keep the campus safe.

I think as an academic community, we do need to learn how to host events where people who are controversial speak. Spencer is a bad example. I don’t think he has things to say that people are going to learn from, but there are other examples of speakers that are enormously controversial because of their views and as an academic community, we have to learn to be tolerant and respectful of views and use our own speech rights to oppose them but do so in a way that doesn’t result in violence.

TMD: In the past, the University has voiced its support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival policy, stating “At the University of Michigan, we are very concerned about the status and safety of all students, including international students and those who may be undocumented.” At the University, Latinx students have become the fastest-growing population growing from 4.75 percent in 2012 to 6 percent in 2016. Though the University stands with DACA students while they are on campus, how is the administration working to advocate for these students after graduation? How, if at all, is the University continuing to protect these students even after they leave Ann Arbor?

Schlissel: I’m personally disappointed, although our advocacy continues, that Congress has not addressed DACA. There were a number of moments in the last six months where it looked like it was front burner, and it seems as if the Congress has retreated, and as we head up to the midterm elections next November, Congress’ taste for taking on controversial issues probably diminishes, which is typical, so our lobbying efforts continue … When students leave here they take with them their educations, they take with them their membership in the 550,000-member University of Michigan alumni world, which are important connections. The advice they get from our counselors while they’re here continues to serve them well after they’re done, and I think our broader community advocated around immigrant rights in general. So those are the things that we do that should be a continuing value to students that were educated here, but we don’t treat DACA students differently from anybody else in that we’re not providing lifelong legal and advising services for any components of our community, but the strength they derive from their education and the advice they get here should have a longer lifetime than just their period of time on campus.

TMD: How would you say your lobbying efforts have changed over the past month as conversations around DACA have started to die down?

Schlissel: I think that the intention of the Congresspeople that we’re talking to isn’t as intense as it used to be when this was a front-burner issue. I think it’s going to take continued advocacy from all directions. We’re parts of several different consortias of Universities. The (Association of American Universities) continues to push on this, the (Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities), the (American Council on Education), all of the big academic organizations push on this. Various industries are supportive of immigrant rights in general, so I think it’s going to take continued advocacy. The switch of public attention, the light switch of public attention, gets flipped, sometimes in unpredictable ways, so I think we have to be ready to seize the moment when events allow us to focus attention on this important issue.

TMD: The Lecturers’ Employee Union has been bargaining with the University since last October for increased wages and benefits. Recently, LEO has held an open bargaining session, which drew the support of around 350 union members and allies as well as the demonstration outside University Provost Martin Philbert’s office in the Fleming Administration Building. LEO proposed a strike but it was postponed after the University seemed to “move in the right direction.” Although their contract has already expired, what would be the administration’s response to the potential picketing?

Schlissel: Our lecturers are critical members of our academic community. They do a fraction, but a significant fraction, of the teaching here. They’re our academic colleagues so they’re highly valued members of the community and they deserved to be compensated and have non-financial aspects of their time at the University that treat them well and fairly and respectfully. That’s the goal of the negotiation … I’m quite comfortable that at the end of these negotiations, both the lecturers themselves and the general public who feels an ownership stake in the University look at the lecturers and feel as though they’ve been treated really fairly … I’m very pleased that they did not call a strike during their contract so that would have been illegal anyway. If they’re under contract, they can’t strike but I’m glad they chose not to because it would have been very disruptive to the final weeks of the semester so I think that was a sign of good faith on the union’s part and we continue to bargain in good faith.

TMD: Moving forward with more recent events like the unionizing of Harvard’s teaching and research assistants, how do you see this event of unionizing an academic group like that?

Schlissel: In an academic community, (unionizing) is more complicated because our faculty, our students are really professional colleagues so it sort of makes contractual a relationship that is normally a professional one so graduate students, to me, are sort of the future replacements of me and all the professors here at the University and we should be mentoring and focusing on their education and professional development. If the students themselves feel that requires a union, legally that’s their right and I’m sure there are advantages and I know for a fact there are complexities involved.

TMD: With spring commencement approaching, some students have voiced concern on the costs required to attend the ceremony. Extra purchases such as caps, gowns, family travel fees, photos, and even extra tickets for those who buy off of other students who aren’t using their allocated tickets are all factors into rising costs of graduation. What work has the University done to help offset this cost or provide assistance to students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and cannot afford purchases that play a role in such an important day?

Schlissel: With regard to tickets, I think it’s fantastic that we have this biggest venue in North America, and if it isn’t snowing or raining, it’s a fantastic place for graduation. Every student gets 10 free tickets. All you have to do is ask. The fact that some students with excess tickets decide to sell their free tickets to their classmates? … I think that’s an interesting practice and I don’t favor it. Within a couple of days before the actual event, students that need more tickets can come and ask for them, and we usually are able to satisfy that. Then with regard to caps and gowns, the dean of the college as well as the individual schools, actually on a one-at-a-time basis, helps students who come forward and say ‘hey look I just can’t (afford) this.’ I know that CSG is involved in supporting students around graduation time with garb and photography and things of that nature, so there are a lot of ad hoc things we do to mitigate the challenges of folks who don’t have that financial flexibility. It’s probably a bridge too far to think about how to subsidize travel for people, I think that’s pretty challenging.

TMD: You mentioned CSG helping with graduation photos — what would you say on that idea on working for offsetting costs with CSG? How much does the University work with them?

Schlissel: I’m always respectful if CSG steps up and tries to do things, but think about where CSG’s resources come from. They come from the same place my resources come from, so it’s all the same pot of money. I’m very respectful that CSG prioritizes this and spends some of their resources that way. But they’re all student-generated resources.

TMD: As exams come to an end and a majority of students move off campus for the summer, many initiatives from the University have been announced during the summer months. What will the University be working on in terms of new initiatives over the summer while most students aren’t on campus? What are you looking forward to working on over the summer and the beginning of next semester? Any new programs or issues you plan on focusing on?

Schlissel: We’re continuing year round with existing and new initiatives based on when the time is right. Academically, for example, we continue our focus on sexual misconduct and how to make the environment safer when students are here and when they’re not here. Very early in May, we have a Center for the Prevention of Injury, a multidisciplinary center driven out of the Medical School, and they’re convening a national meeting with experts around sexual misconduct and how to diminish sexual violence, and obviously that’s timely and will be good for us because we’ll get to benefit from lots of outside opinion. In a coordinated fashion right after that we’re holding a Michigan meeting, run through the Rackham, focusing again on gender-based violence, so that’ll occur during the summertime and we’re looking forward to how we can use the information that comes out of that to make the campus safer … Summer months are the time also where faculty take a deep breath and try to either get some time away or focus on their research in a more intensive way than they can during the fall and winter semesters. The other thing I’m working on is the University’s budget is being put together now for next year. So the Regents will consider and vote in the June Regents meeting on the FY19 Budget. So that’s a lot of work and will be impactful and will involve setting tuition and priorities for the year ahead.