Op-ed: Schlissel's trust gap

Wednesday, July 26, 2017 - 11:45am

Pop quiz time! Has minority enrollment dropped, plateaued or risen since the beginning of Schlissel’s presidency? In a totally unscientific sampling of my housemates, each one chose one of the first two options. I would hazard to guess that this holds true for the rest of the University of Michigan. In fact, the University of Michigan actually raised minority enrollment almost 20 percent in 2015. This increased enrollment was most noticeable among Black students; it jumped 24 percent in from 2014 to 2015. Needless to say, the University has done a poor job communicating their progress. This disconnect between the policy’s perceived and actual success has stifled the administration’s efforts. Many of the University’s strategies to increase diversity require a degree of cooperation from the student body; that won’t happen if students continue to doubt the University’s commitment.

Most political scientists agree that an individual’s persuasive potential is mediated by two variables: whether people believe you’re knowledgeable and have the same goals as them. In other words, a public official's most valuable commodity is trust. If you aren’t trusted by those whom you seek to represent, then you won’t be able to persuade them that your policies are effective ones. And, frankly, a lot of students are distrustful of Schlissel. Part of it is probably rooted in Schlissel’s social identity.  No offense to white-bureaucrat-type-guys — I’ll probably be one someday — but they don’t have the best track record managing diversity. Furthermore, Schlissel entered the University as a total outsider to our community; he was previously provost and biology professor at Brown University. None of this shouts a dedication to students of color or other marginalized groups. Lastly, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan had an uphill battle from the start due to languishing minority enrollment under former University President Mary Sue Coleman's administration. There should have been a cleaner, more direct and immediate break from the previous paradigm.

Further complicating Schlissel’s efforts are that he’s made a number of unforced errors. Last spring, when anti-Semitic and anti-Black emails were sent out to the student body, Schlissel said the following to protesters:  

“The most important thing you can do right now is stand together and call out this bullshit.  We’ll keep working together on this, because I really do need your help and I can’t promise you the world’s going to be better tomorrow or next week. I wish I could … I'm just as powerless as you to stop people from doing these things.”

On the whole, I think that’s fair statement with one glaring flaw. The last sentence. In particular, the word “powerless.” That’s what the student body remembered. I’m not here to relitigate whether or not that’s fair. That’s what people remember, so that’s what matters. University students are intelligent, understanding people. Imagine if our President had instead published an op-ed in The Michigan Daily which reaffirmed his opposition to bigotry in plain, human terms and highlighted steps the University would take to prevent anything similar from happening again. He could have held an open forum and invited community leaders to brainstorm possible solutions. Or at the very least issued a mea culpa, addressing his mistake and apologizing. Unfortunately, none of that happened. The crisis simmered, and credibility was permanently damaged.

There are, however, institutions on campus which are properly transparent and open with students. One small example of this done well was last spring when the Ford School of Public Policy was searching for a new dean. Public Policy majors were invited to directly speak with candidates at open forums and discuss their merits. One prospective dean rescinded their candidacy late in the process. The search committee sent out an email letting us know that this final candidate would have added increased diversity to the selection pool. Obviously, this can’t become a trend, but we appreciated the transparency and effort made.

I don’t believe the University has dug itself in so deep that it cannot recover. Each year, thousands of students leave and thousands enter. That’s thousands of opportunities for first impressions. What if, on the first day of class, Schlissel sent out an email to the entire student body. It could frankly recognize the increasing incidence of hate speech on campus, reaffirm that such actions have no place on our campus and list new, material ways the University plans to ensure our campus is welcoming to all students. It could also feature resources for students adversely affected by hate speech.

I’m not looking to castigate the University’s policies. We have made serious progress in the past few years, and I’m hopeful that the University will continue its work. But to build upon previous success, the administration has to reevaluate its outreach to the student body. That’s been sorely lacking, and I look forward to seeing the University follow through.

Roland Davidson recently graduated from the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy and wrote for the auspicious Michigan Daily. He invites you to follow him on his blog Studies in Eclecticism or like it on Facebook.