University president responds to month of various diversity, inclusion issues on campus

Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - 6:59pm

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University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel sat down Tuesday with The Michigan Daily to respond to a series of incidents around campus climate that have occurred this month, stressing the importance of listening to student voices. 

Over the past few weeks, a wide range of incidents have sparked discussions about climate  — including anti-Black, anti-Muslim and anti LGBTQ fliers discovered on campus, outcry over a pro-Palestinian demonstration on the Diag during a Jewish holiday and controversy over a new preferred pronoun option for students on Wolverine Access. Multiple protests in response have also occurred, with students consistently calling on the administration, and Schlissel specifically, to respond to each incident.

These incidents have also happened amid the leadup to the release of the University’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion plan, launched Thursday, which aims to create an inclusive and equitable campus climate, develop a diverse community, and support inclusive scholarship and teaching. The plan, crafted over a year of town halls, feedback forums and other community planning efforts, comprises 49 unit-specific initiatives developed by colleges and administrative, athletic or other departments within the University. It is intended to unfold over the next five years.

In the interview, Schlissel told The Michigan Daily that overall, he plans to respond to student activism directed at him as he deems necessary. He said he hopes to build a more “enveloping” campus community.

“As much as I’d like to be omnipresent, there’s only one of me,” he said. “I do feel an obligation when major things happen on campus to be present as a leader to speak for our values.”

Fliers and criticism over DEI plan

On Sept. 26, multiple anti-Black fliers were discovered across campus, prompting large student protests. A planned debate over the merits of the Black Lives Matter movement later that week also sparked outcry. More fliers — which were anti-Black, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ — were found last Monday. Protests over the incidents drew over 600, a notably larger number than individuals who attended University-sponsored events earlier in the month around campus climate. The University released a statement condemning the first set of fliers early on the same day they were discovered, Schlissel also hosted a speakout for students a week later to discuss the incidents.

During the protests, many students highlighted issues with the DEI plan, charging that it was too focused on the future, and called for administrators to be more responsive to student concerns. Activists called for action from Schlissel both at protests and on social media using the hashtag #schlisselwya, or, “Schlissel, where you at?” noting that the president was not present at early protests or University events. 

In response to the criticism about the plan, Schlissel noted Tuesday that nearly 1,000 campus community members attended portions of last week’s rollout. He said administrators will attempt to reach more subsets of students and faculty.

“A couple of hundred people showed up at the community meeting, but we’ve got 43,000 students on campus,” Schlissel said in reference to a speakout he held last week response to student protests. “One of the things that’s important to me is that we attract a broad community of students, not just students of color...perhaps this time [students] weren’t called out by race or religion but nonetheless if we allow this kind of bigotry to happen, one day it’ll affect everybody.”

The University has committed to investing $85 million total into DEI over the next five years, in part in response to student concerns over resources allocated to diversity. The source of that money, Schlissel said Tuesday, will range — the effort includes several pilot programs, especially for initiatives around diverse enrollment such as the HAIL scholar program, which are dependent on private donors and philanthropic efforts. Schlissel emphasized the flexibility of the newer initiatives like those.

“Our hope is a significant portion of the $85 million will come from philanthropy.” he said. “We’ll look at the data after three years and see if (HAIL and Wolverine Pathways) succeeded increasing the socioeconomic diversity of students. If it has, I think it would be a great thing to continue and expand. If it hasn’t, we’ll look for other smart ideas for how to achieve the same goals ”  

SAFE demonstration

Last week, a demonstration on the Diag by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, a student group that advocates for Palestinian rights, faced pushback from some Jewish students because it occurred on a Jewish holiday. The demonstration featured a mock wall on the Diag, which SAFE members intended to represent the Israeli wall and checkpoints that seperate the West Bank and Israel. 

A large group of Jewish students circulated a petition asking for a response from Schlissel over the past week, charging that because the demonstration occurred on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, when many Jewish students are off campus, they were excluded from the conversation.

In response to the petition, Schlissel said Tuesday that because the demonstration was a political criticism of the state of Israel and not mocking Jewish students in particular, he did not feel it warranted a response in the same vein as the anti-Black and anti-LGBT posters. 

“(SAFE) did what we want advocacy groups to do, and to me, they were advocating a political point of view,” he said. “I’m Jewish and this wasn’t an insult to me personally...although I learned it was offensive to a fraction of Jewish students, not 100 percent, but a significant fraction. I’m empathetic to that.”

However, Schlissel said he has personally replied to the petition addressed to him, and will also meet with Jewish student groups later this month.

Preferred pronouns

The University recently announced a new option on Wolverine Access which allows students to state their preferred pronoun to instructors. Some students, though, have taken issues with the preferred pronoun option as a constraint on free speech. Earlier this month, LSA sophomore Grant Strobl, chairman of the national Young Americans for Freedom organizations, launched a campaign calling on students to use the option to put in titles like “His Majesty” as a protest, which has drawn significant pushback online and on social media.

Schlissel said he heard about Strobl’s public opposition to the preferred pronoun option, but noted faculty are not forced to call anyone by the pronoun they state on Wolverine Access. He said the option was designed to allow non-gender conforming students ease in telling professors what they wish to be called, but is not binding.

“I can’t tell a professor what to say in front of a classroom,” he said. “I would guess most of our faculty are the kinds of folks that would like to be respectful of others in their classroom...we’ll see what happens over the course of the semester.”