What the University’s next 200 years could bring

Monday, September 11, 2017 - 7:42pm

The University of Michigan turned 200 in August.

The University of Michigan turned 200 in August. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

 

It has now been mere months over 200 years since the University of Michigan's inception.

Two hundred years worth of innovation, academic renown and multidisciplinary excellence, as a nationwide example and world leader, and of student activists, up-and-coming politicians, surgeons, CEOs, intellectuals and altruists. Two hundred years of those who have studied history and those who have helped make it.

So as administrators, faculty, staff, alumni and students celebrate the University’s Bicentennial, they also reflect on what will come in the next 200, particularly in terms of the University’s educational advances, outside-of-the-classroom opportunities and the community that makes up the University.

As an academic innovator:

University President Mark Schlissel has stressed the importance of academic innovation throughout his tenure. Schlissel’s Academic Innovation Initiative from fall 2016 has expanded from simpler massive online open courses in the Office of Digital Education to ultimately include more educational resources and a teach-out series on significant contemporary topics, just a few ways in which academics at the University are moving forward.

“The initiative will formally help us consider how U of M will lead the way through the information age,” Schlissel said last September.

James Hilton, vice provost for academic innovation, said there are several schools of thought regarding where the University will go with its educational programs next, particularly with an ever-changing technological landscape allowing for a number of possibilities.

“One of the things we’ve been talking a lot about in academic innovation is using this third century as a moment to stop and think about — particularly at the great public research university — where do we see education going forward?” Hilton said. “There is an opportunity to imagine again what an education at a great public research university should be for this century, this economy, this technology, this set of societal issues.”

Tools like eCoachGradecraft and hybrid-learning environments, Hilton stressed, are being improved to personalize learning; there are now also 112 massive open online courses that are in production and 6 million global learners engaged with those courses, numbers that grow on a daily basis.

“To the extent that we’re successful in diversifying the pool of students that come here, we also want to diversify the paths that they get to pursue when they get here,” Hilton said.

Hilton’s ideal version of the University is one where students are on campus more often throughout their lives, for shorter periods of time.

“I actually foresee a future of Michigan that is a future where we think about education really as a global and lifelong relationship,” Hilton said. “You’re never going to stop being in a relationship with educational institutions, you’re constantly going to be retraining, reimagining.”

Improving the richness and diversity of experiences students have and demonstrate later on in life has to be improved, Hilton said.

“We have to look at different ways of delivering learning experiences,” Hilton said. “We have to look at new ways of certifying those kind of experiences. We have to embrace in a critical and informed way the role that data and evidence can play in shaping how we design learning experiences.”

Campus Planner Sue Gott too believes there is a necessity to adjust learning and teaching environments as learning styles, technology and social norms change in order to remain globally competitive.

“Helping to expose life styles to students who may not have had certain opportunities or experiences so that we can help them go out in the world and be great leaders tomorrow, I think, makes this a revolving door for excellence in strengthening the incredibly brilliant students that arrive here to add greater dimensions to who they are and what they want to accomplish when they leave,” Gott said.

Gott foresees the campus remaining central to the future of the University,  albeit a campus which is ever-evolving. 

“I think campuses are certainly going to continue to need to exist and we may ebb and flow a bit to continue to respond to world changes," Gott said. "But I see it as being critical to the transformation of young people into responsible citizens by enriching and diversifying their experiences and creating those growth opportunities." 

Diversifying academic experiences is something LSA senior Anushka Sarkar, Central Student Government president, said should be more of a priority moving forward.

“One thing that I think about a lot is, how do we make a liberal arts education — at least in some component — more accessible to everyone, even those who are not in a liberal-arts school?” Sarkar posited. “I think there’s a pretty good argument to be made that, in order to be the best citizen that you can be, the best Wolverine that you can be, and to have a well-rounded education, it’s important that you understand cultural context and that you at least leave college with a more open mind than you came in with when you started, and the R&E requirement is an excellent way to move you in that direction.”

On the flip side, Sarkar also emphasized the importance of cross-disciplinary integration of courses in terms of quantitative skills.

“As we move further into a data-driven global market, where it’s critical that students — especially student leaders who are going to future career professionals and leaders elsewhere — be able to understand data and to have a quantitative background,” Sarkar said. “I think it’s important that we integrate that into non-STEM degree programs.”

As a world-renowned research institution:

S. Jack Hu, vice president for research, said last February one of his primary goals for the Office of Research is to continue to field new ways for undergraduate involvement in faculty projects.

“I’m very supportive of undergraduate research,” Hu said. “Everywhere I travel, people talk about their research experience, how undergraduate research really enabled them to be independent thinkers, define problems, solve problems, drawing a conclusion or writing a report.”

However, Hilton believes establishing more availability for students in research should be a priority.

“Research universities provide more and more opportunities at the undergraduate level for students to get involved in research and scholarship,” Hilton said. “Research universities — we go where the world hasn’t been yet, and figuring out how to make that a larger part of the educational experiences students have, I think, is key. That’s very hard to replicate.”

Business senior Erin Johnson, former president of optiMize, an organization geared toward addressing social and environmental challenges, agreed. She wrote in an email interview that students need to have more spaces in which to apply their academic experiences.

“The University has done an incredible job of ensuring that every student has exposure to at least some liberal-arts classes, which are the classes most critical to changing the way we think,” Johnson wrote. “But students often struggle to know how to transfer their knowledge and skills outside the classroom. For me, participating in optiMize helped me find direction and apply what I was learning to make an impact on the global challenges I care about most. The University has the potential to provide opportunities like this for every student.”

As a diverse community:

October marks the one-year anniversary of Schlissel’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan, a spanning all 19 colleges and 49 individual units on campus to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment. With a five-year plan laid out, Schlissel and the University’s officers dedicated to diversity hope to increase equity and improve a lack of professional development and training toward diversity.

“We cannot live up to our full potential as a University unless everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute and to benefit,” Schlissel said last October.

The University introduced the DEI last year in part, in response to student activism on campus. One such demonstration was #BBUM — as minority enrollment has continually dropped following the affirmative action ban in the state, along with a canceled "ratchet-themed" fraternity party, Black students started a viral campaign depicting their experiences, which were often negative, at Michigan. The hashtag eventually spread to other universities across the country. 

However, many believe there is a long way to go, particularly after incidents such as racist and anti-Semitic posters being displayed on campus and racist graffiti at various locations on and around the University. The most recent class profile of undergraduates at the University also only included 5 percent Black students and 6 percent Latinx, a decrease from previous decades. Student protests and organization statements have vocally criticized the initiative and the administration’s ability to respond to these issues. Enrollment levels of underrepresented minorities remain, for the large part, below pre-2006 levels, when Michigan voters passed the Proposal 2 ban on affirmative action. In 1996, Black students made up an all-time high of 9 percent of the student body; enrollment in the last few years has hovered around 4.6 percent

A report last year by the Equality of Opportunity Project also ranked the University last in socioeconomic diversity and mobility among elite public colleges. 

Sarkar discussed several institutional issues which have contributed to shortcomings with the University’s strategic plan.

“So much of the DEI strategic plans rests on successes before the University-level education,” Sarkar said. “A lot the issues that we see in representation in disparities of experience here begin in primary school, begin way before you get to the University of Michigan. One of the many reasons the University looks the way it does is because those issues are not addressed early enough.”

Sarkar said she hopes the University can get involved in funding elementary schools, middle schools and high schools, especially in underfunded school districts across the state, to increase campus-wide diversity.

“It’s hard to recruit students who are students in underfunded school districts when, one, they don’t see the University of Michigan as a welcoming campus, they hear all about these bias incidents, they hear about what it’s like to be a student of color or what it’s like to be low-income here, two … they’re being told that the University of Michigan is not accessible to them and, three, the University of Michigan has an incredible platform to lobby for state education funding,” Sarkar said.

Over the past four decades, funding from the state of Michigan has continuously decreased with a notable 15 percent cut to higher education funding in 2011. Since 2012, higher education funding has increasedly incrementally, but still remains below pre-2011 levels. 

In recent years, the University has implemented financial aid assessment with acceptance letters in attempt to increase accessibility. In June, the Board of Regents announced the Go Blue Guarantee, which will grant free tutition to in-state undergraduate students whose family incomes are less than $65,000. 

Johnson, however, wrote she’s hopeful about students stepping up to the plate with the University’s diversity efforts, something that could ultimately establish more trust throughout campus.

“Regarding both racial diversity and socioeconomic diversity, the numbers are not where they need to be,” Johnson wrote. “But there are opportunities for us as students to step up right now, especially around inclusion and belonging. As a student organization leader, I can be intentional about welcoming underrepresented students into our community, making sure our leadership teams are diverse, and creating lots of opportunities to collaborate toward common goals with people who have different perspectives, identities, and skills.”

Student life:

Ultimately, moving forward, Gott said her priorities at the University sit with student life, in the face of online learning options. 

“The place that is really important to focus on is student life in general,” Gott said. “I’m often asked if, in 50 years, campuses will still exist. If there are classes that can be streamed, will it replace the need to come to a campus?”

To her, an active-learning side of instruction and informal learning in a residential situation allow students to make adaptations and, ultimately, make the University more sustainable as an institution.

“We are collectively wanting to be stewards of the campus to create an environment that is conducive to those informal learning and informal engagement opportunities that stretch students beyond what they are formally either enrolled in with their school or enrolled in with classes to broaden their ability to go out in the world,” Gott said.

LSA senior Max Rothman, however, worries that not enough resources are dedicated to mental health and wellness. Rothman, the director of Wolverine Support Network, noted how crucial an improvement in these resources is, particularly on North Campus.

“I think a lot of times, we focus on Central Campus, and of course the majority of our students are here, but we have plenty on North that are younger that could really utilize those resources even more,” Rothman said. “There seems to be this consistent problem with CAPS and getting into someone in a reasonable timeframe, so that’s something as a nation we need to work on. We’re adding more CAPS counselors, which is amazing and we’re getting closer to that gold standard of one to 1,100 students, and I think the more we do to put the spotlight on how important that is and how much it affects our students, the more we’ll be able to make progress.”

Rothman said more attention to the campus and these resources would translate to eliminating misconceptions of mental illness.

“One thing that we face — not just Michigan, but as a country — is still this surrounding stigma that we have and I think we’re not at a point yet where we’re totally accepting of mental health illnesses and that dynamic that students have with it,” Rothman said.

Gott agreed in terms of increasing development.

“Continuing to develop North Campus is a pretty high priority as a physical planner because it’s an area where we have land for development, and the more that develops there, the more we have community by having more people there,” she said. “We have so many traditions as an institution but not many yet on North Campus, where the legacy of the University is recognized in part by the heritage of North Campus as an important component.”

Finding a way to change a “culture of removal” between the University’s campuses will take collaborative effort, Sarkar said.

“There’s a culture of seeing both campuses as separate,” Sarkar said. “And that’s something that’s really hard to take on, because changing a culture is difficult, especially if that culture has been here for the better half of 200 years.”

Along similar lines of altering University culture comes conversations surrounding Michigan Greek Life. In September 2015, Schlissel discussed alcohol and sexual abuse in Greek Life in the very first gathering of the chapters on campus, talking about how party culture can "devalue" the reputation of the University, particularly following the destruction of a ski resort room earlier that year and a viral "I'm Schmacked" video glorifying scenes of binge drinking and parties. The meeting was a contentious one; loud coughing in the room prompted then-LSA senior Alex Krupiak, Interfraternity Council president to say he felt embarrassed by his fellow Greek Life members. 

“Think for a second about how much your chapter means to you,” Krupiak said. “I know it means a hell of a lot to me … But when students sit here and blatantly disrespect the leaders of our University and fellow students like myself and the three behind me, it’s flat-out embarrassing to say I’m a member of Greek life today.”

Schlissel's strong comments on party culture within Greek Life rankled some members as well. 

“The value of their degrees are gonna go down because the reputation of the University of Michigan...(is) going to be the ‘Shmacked’ videos," Schlissel said. "So it’s really up to you what the value of your education is going to be, what the reputation of this institution’s going to be. The value of their degrees are gonna go down because the reputation of the University of Michigan won’t be the excitement in the Big House or our teams doing well under our fantastic new coach,”

Greek Life remains a large part of the campus community; however, Schlissel and other University administrators continue to work to curtail incidents surrounding this facet of campus and improve other areas. 

Beyond:

To James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation, the University is building a sustainable realm of academia. In an email interview, DeVaney highlighted four areas for progress: creating an open model for pre-college learning and preparation, creating a personalized and inclusive model for residential learning, creating a flexible and networked model for global and lifelong learning, and creating a participatory model for public engagement.

“All told, we will create a future where everyone can participate in and contribute to a community bound together by a commitment to the discovery of what’s next,” DeVaney wrote.

Gott echoed DeVaney, ultimately noting the significance of the bicentennial year as one to learn from and grow in any number of ways.

“The Bicentennial gives us an opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of the past, to treasure this moment and also look forward with a continued sense of stewardship and to continue making decisions that will continue to position the University to meet the challenges over the next 200 years,” Gott said.