Schlissel hosts campus-wide assembly to discuss diversity
After hearing responses from audience members who filled Rackham Auditorium and crowded the lobby outside, University President Mark Schlissel told the room that diversity is a long-term ideal that can only be improved with the help of every member of the community.
Schlissel and other administrators hosted a community-wide assembly Tuesday morning to discuss diversity and inclusion on campus. The assembly was part of the week-long Diversity Summit, organized to engage faculty and staff in dialogue and brainstorm solutions to make campus more inclusive.
The assembly was emceed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Clarence Page, who told The Michigan Daily on Monday he hoped the forum would get people past their shyness in discussing race, gender and ethnicity in public.
“The University is one place where the very purpose of it is to learn about the universe, the world around you beyond the world you are accustomed to,” Page said. “I am glad the Michigan folks are doing it and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Despite a slight increase in the enrollment of underrepresented minority students in the 2015 freshman class, Schlissel and members of the campus community have said there is more to be done. Earlier in the semester, Schlissel introduced the HAIL scholarship program to attract low-income students by giving them resources and information on financial aid prior to applying for college. In October, he announced a second scholarship — called Wolverine Pathways — which mentors middle and high school students from Southfield and Ypsilanti and gives them a full ride to the University upon admission.
With these initiatives in mind, Schlissel and Page asked audience members to come to a microphone and talk about their goals for a more inclusive campus — with the year 2025 as a benchmark for evaluating potential successes.
“An interesting common theme, for me, which came out of several of the comments today, was the fact that improvement has to be led, but it can only come from the folks…in working groups, on admission committees,” Schlissel said. “It happens in the trenches as everyday acts of commitment, it doesn’t necessarily happen with folks sitting in front of a room making suggestions or setting rules.”
Emily Lawsin, a lecturer in the American Culture and Women’s Studies departments, said faculty diversity plays an important role in campus climate. She noted that one way to retain a diverse faculty is to offer faculty members of color incentives to stay on campus — adding that many of her co-workers of color have left the University because they were denied tenure and not given retention offers.
“I appreciated your comment earlier about retention, and how retention of students of color are very important,” she said. “Retention of faculty and staff of color is equally as important.”
Comparative Literature Prof. Silke-Maria Weineck, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, said Muslim students, in particular, must be included on campus.
“Since that has not been stressed in discussion so far, I would also just like to mark that there is one group that also needs to be included,” Weineck said. “It would be good by 2025 if we had religious inclusion as well.”
Rackham student Ashli Wilson said the University should be up front about diversity challenges from the very first interactions with new students. She said on her first day at the School of Education, Dean Deborah Ball was immediately open about the lack of diversity on campus.
Wilson said she appreciated Ball’s straightforward approach to talking about diversity, instead of waiting to discuss the issue later on.
“When we have these conversations immediately in our first interactions with students, I think it sets the tone for us to be able to do the rest of the things that we want them to learn and be receptive of,” Wilson said.
Jerrica Delaney, a program coordinator in the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, said she felt she would like to see significant progress in terms of inclusion starting as soon as next year, rather than by 2025. She noted that professors should receive training to better prepare them to facilitate healthy dialogues concerning race in the classroom.
“One thing I would like to see next year is a classroom setting where professors from adjunct all the way up to tenure are culturally competent to handle the battleground — the arrows and the darts that are thrown at students of color in their classrooms,” she said.
She additionally challenged the University to seek out students who may not fit the stereotype of what it means to be an underrepresented, but exceptional student, as defined by the HAIL Scholarship and Wolverine Pathways programs.
“While we seek out this cream of the crop in Southfield and Ypsilanti, don’t forget the rest of the crop, because there are outstanding and exceptional students that may not be at that GPA that can still offer many beautiful things to this University that they really do need,” Delaney said.
In an interview with the Daily on Tuesday afternoon after the assembly, Schlissel said Southfield and Ypsilanti are only the pilot locations for the Wolverine Pathways location. The University, he added, intends to expand the program into Detroit as soon as possible, provided that its methodology finds success in Southfield and Ypsilanti first.
University alum Hector Galvan, a program coordinator in the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, said his ideal climate would be for students of all identities to safe and comfortable on campus.
“I would very much like this place to feel like home,” Galvan said. “I didn’t feel like I fit in, and I didn’t feel like I was aptly represented here. What’s even worse — I feel like no one really cared.”
Schlissel said the summit marks a critical point in the University’s ongoing planning process to create a more diverse and inclusive campus.
“Up to this point, campus leaders, representatives from different units, chairs, deans, executive officers and individuals have been coming together to discuss how to refocus, but I think this is the first event during this process, and perhaps ever, where everybody in our community is given an equal opportunity to step up and tell us what you’re thinking,” Schlissel said to the assembly. “What kind of campus do you want us to have for our successors, and how do we get there?”
He further emphasized that the most effective plan will not come directly from the input of only the University’s executive officers, but from all members of the community.
“We need all of you to work with us,” he said. “We need to crowdsource the solutions to the challenges that we all share in an environment that we all love.”
This story has been udpated.