In Conversation: Schlissel considers issues of academic freedom, racial equity on campus

Wednesday, October 31, 2018 - 8:25pm

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Danyel Tharakan/Daily

In a monthly interview with The Michigan Daily, Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan, outlined the University’s stance on the recent denial of letters of recommendation for students planning to study abroad in Israel and the Sixth Circuit Court verdict against the University’s sexual misconduct policies. He also touched on the lack of concrete deadlines for their recent carbon neutrality goal announcement and the need for greater investment in diversity, in addition to current University initiatives and more.

Academic Freedoms

Two University faculty members have rescinded offers to write letters of recommendation for students to study abroad in Israel as part of a boycott against Israel in support of the Palestinian people. American Culture Associate Professor John Cheney-Lippold, one of the academics who denied writing a letter, has faced punishment from the University including the cancellation of sabbatical eligibilit, frozen credits for two years and no pay raise for the year. The affair has sparked conversation on campus about free speech and the responsibilities of faculty members.

Schlissel said he doesn’t view the problem through the lens of freedom of expression, noting all faculty members are free to express their thoughts and opinions through other avenues such as teach-ins, editorial pieces, academic writing and speeches. He said personal political beliefs cannot come before faculty commitments to students.

“To me, it’s not free speech,” Schlissel said. “It's a shared commitment to help students pursue their ambitions.”

Schlissel recalled his own tenure as a full-time professor, during which he wrote “hundreds” of recommendation letters. He noted he denied requests for letters regularly, stating there are a number of legitimate reasons for denying a letter such as not knowing the student well enough, but said personal political disagreement is not one of them.

Schlissel emphasized faculty responsibility and said the administration hopes faculty members share values that prioritize students and their various academic endeavors.

“We also want the faculty to share this consensus that it's about the student,” Schlissel said. “It's not about (the professors). It's not a platform for their speech and their politics. It's about our obligation to support students. And it can't be imposed as a rule; it has to be imposed by values.”

The University also announced the creation of a panel to review current University policy and provide recommendations for amending it. The panel is composed of senior faculty members and chaired by former University President James Duderstadt, and will make decisions on how to amend University policy on political expression and instructor obligations. Other professors criticized the panel, however, for a lack of diversity in faculty levels.  

Sixth Circuit Court Decision

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit denied the University's request to rehear their case regarding the ruling that mandates an in-person cross-examination from the accused in sexual misconduct hearings. The implications of this result could complicate the process followed for sexual misconduct claims.

Schlissel said the sexual misconduct process needs to be redesigned to align better with this new ruling. According to Schlissel, a large part of this process will involve supporting students.

“We have to be consistent with the law,” Schlissel said. “The council’s office and student affairs and then some faculty advisers with expertise are looking at our existing policy, (with) the goal of making sure that we do everything possible to support people who are coming through the process and want to bring forward a claim of misconduct.”

Schlissel acknowledged a hearing like the proposed is sensitive to both parties involved and crafting the hearing to be supportive is the goal.

“We’re trying to design a way to do that so the questions are fair and reasonable to minimize the deterrent of coming forward,” Schlissel said. “Confronting your accuser and vice versa is very emotionally challenging and we want to minimize the extent to which that becomes a barrier to reporting. One way we’ll do that is structuring the hearing in a way that is as supportive as possible to both parties.”

The University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center and Office of Student Affairs will continue to be sources of support for the students going through this process. The Special Victims Unit, which is part of the Division of Public Safety and Security, will also continue to assist with criminal cases. Schlissel said the redesign will hopefully be available in the next few weeks. This new process will have to be explained to those coming forward.

“We’ll have to make sure that when people come forward they understand what the process will be,” Schlissel said. “It’s always up to the individual whether to bring forward a case. The idea is to work within the confines of the law but provide a sufficiently sensitive and support environment that people feel comfortable bringing forward requests for help.”

Carbon Neutrality

Students have recently shown a markedly greater concern about climate change on campus than in recent years, and the U-M Climate Action Movement has urged the University to set goals for carbon neutrality in a similar manner to other Big 10 universities. The University has yet to set a concrete goal.

Schlissel stated the administration intends to set a goal in the near future and noted the University has already pledged to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2025, a goal that Schlissel is confident will be completed early.

Schlissel said he felt it would be useless to set a date for carbon neutrality when the University doesn’t have a plan to achieve it. The administration is currently in the process of gathering information and devising a clear plan for carbon neutrality with a realistic timetable.

“I don't know how we're going to get there yet. So what good does it do for me to put out a statement that says I'm going to do something on a certain day if I don’t know how I'm going to do it?” Schlissel said. “We want to do it in a way that other organizations can follow what we do and become carbon neutral themselves.”

Above all, Schlissel expressed his desire for the University to be a model for other institutions to achieve carbon neutrality. He said he wants the plan to be thorough and effective so that its methods can be learned and applied to other situations.

"We're in a very good position to be one of the leaders in addressing this enormous societal challenge,” Schlissel said.

“F” Report Card on Racial Equity

According to a report released by the University of Southern California, the University received an “F” on racial equity, specifically in the representation of Black students on campus.

According to new enrollment data, the number of freshmen who identify as underrepresented minorities on campus increased from 13.9 percent in 2017 to 14.8 in 2018. The number of Black students decreased marginally in 2017 but increased to about 4.5 percent in 2018.

Schlissel said while he hasn’t read the report, he agrees the University could be doing better to attract a diverse student population.

“I think we need to do a ton better on the campus environment as well as the campus demographic around many underrepresented and marginalized groups,” Schlissel said. “Right now we’re at about 4.5 percent (of Black students) and we’re working hard to increase that, but we’re not meeting with enough success.”

About a decade ago, the University had nearly double the percentage of Black students. In that time, Proposal 2 has affected the admissions process to the University. Proposal 2, which was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court in 2014, deemed the consideration of race in college admissions processes unconstitutional. Schlissel said this decision contributed to the decrease in racial diversity representation on campus.

“What happened between then and now is Proposal 2, which makes law around how we’re allowed to do admissions work and took away one of the tools we had to try to work on diversity on campus,” Schlissel said. “We follow the law so now we have to go back and be more creative, try new things to work on attracting more students from different communities to the University of Michigan.”

Schlissel added he is optimistic about what programs like the Go Blue Guarantee and Wolverine Pathways have the potential to do in terms of the diversity at the University. 

“It’s (Wolverine Pathways) focused geographically on communities that don’t send proportionate numbers of students to Michigan,” Schlissel said. “The first graduates of that program are now here on campus. First cohort had 89 students; I believe 80 of them have gone on to a college or university. That’s a huge success. That’s great. It’s still small numbers, but we want to build that up.”

Another aspect of this issue is the campus climate for students from various backgrounds, which is where the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives were brought into play, Schlissel said.

“That’s what we’re working on … with DEI programs to try and help people understand differences better and tolerate differences better and appreciate what the experience is like when you’re the only person in a class who looks like you,” Schlissel said. “We’re working on better training for our faculty and our GSIs so they can manage classrooms more sensitively.”

Victors for Michigan Student Impact

At his Leadership Breakfast earlier this month, Schlissel announced the Victors for Michigan fundraising campaign had reached $5 billion — a nationwide record for public universities. The Victors for Michigan campaign launched in 2013 and since then, more than 382,000 donors have contributed to the University

Though some of the donations are mandated to be used for specific projects and initiatives, Schlissel explained most of the funds are placed in the $11.8 billion endowment and continue to incur interest. The endowment has seen its fair share of controversy in recent months, with a Detroit Free Press investigation claiming the University has invested more than $4 billion of the endowment into the enterprises of the University’s largest donors including Stephen Ross, Sam Zell and Sandy Robertson.

From the recent Victors for Michigan announcement, Schlissel said $1.1 billion has been funneled to student support.

“With this $1.1 billion, a fraction of which is endowment, literally thousands of students will have their cost of attendance heavily subsidized because of the success of the fundraising campaign,” Schlissel said. “And not just for a year or two or three, forever. That’s the thing about endowment. It’s forever and that’s why we’re so zealous about guarding the endowment.”

In addition to student scholarships, Schlissel emphasized the benefit Michigan Medicine, buildings renovations, education initiatives and more will see from the fundraising campaign.

“The $5 billion is lots of other things too — biomedical research, new modes of education, a lot of the new buildings that have happened and the renovated buildings on campus, the Opportunity Hub that’s going in at LSA. Almost all of these things wouldn’t happen without the generosity of the donors,” Schlissel said. “A billion and a half of the donors are supporting the health system. We have this fantastic academic medical center that provides literally cutting edge intense medical care, no matter what your illness is. A lot of that is supported by research and supported by philanthropy.”