I, for one, have been thoroughly underwhelmed by University President Mark Schlissel since his installment as the 14th president of the University of Michigan. To be fair, I was underwhelmed at the announcement of his presidency last January, prior to public acceptance of the job. Based on his background in higher education, his visible identities and his expressed intent in taking the most highly esteemed position at this university, I didn’t see what he could bring to a campus such as ours. For much of the University community, the 2013-2014 academic year was one of community upheaval and nationally publicized campus turmoil. I wasn’t sure what expertise Schlissel could bring to our campus community that would help address the institutional fault lines and communal fractures that were so clearly in need of attention, resources and just blatant recognition.
Six months in to his official term as the supreme power of all things Michigan (emphasis on the block ‘M’), I still haven’t quite figured out what exactly that special something is. In the past six months, Schlissel has really let me down. Not that I expected anything outside of the administrative status quo from him, but even with the tragically low expectations I had, Schlissel had some pretty impressive moments of blatant disregard for the student communities he was hired to represent. Ranging from his comments on student-athletes as not all academically “qualified,” to his dismissal of student demands in relation to sexual assault on campus, he hasn’t exactly proven his commitment to the various student communities.
The good news, though, is that Schlissel is only six months into his inaugural term. He still has plenty of time to really prove his commitment to students and show us that he is more than an administrative mouthpiece — that he is an educator committed to investing in all students, in all of their interests and in all of their identities; that he is committed to actualizing the concept of “diversity” in all of its forms, not just using the word in public forms. So as I write my own resolutions for the New Year, I have decided to take it upon myself to write a couple for Schlissel as well.
1) Uplift Student Voices
In a statement published by the Daily on Nov. 30, Schlissel responded to a list of student demands regarding sexual assault on campus by saying, “The one thing I will object to, which drives me a little nutty, is framing things as demands. I think that makes it really difficult to have discussions.”
This statement dismisses and silences students’ feelings and experiences with sexual assault on campus, as well as their efforts toward change. It shows a blatant disregard for some survivors’ and allies’ frustration with the current administrative dialogue and action around assault at the University.
In December, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann joined students at her annual holiday party as they staged a “die-in” after the no-indictment verdict in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. This is the type of administrative action that empowers students. Regardless of how Gutmann feels about the verdicts, she was showing solidarity for her students and affirming their feelings. While Schlissel didn’t have to agree with any of the demands, he needed to affirm the feelings of those who wrote them, not mock his students, both survivors and their allies.
2) Stop “Listening,” Start Engaging
I really do commend Schlissel on the dozens of campus conversations he has held with students over the past six months. It’s critical for any administrator making decisions on behalf of students to actually meet with the students whose lives their decisions impact. But there is a difference between simply listening to and actually engaging with student concerns. And from what I have personally experienced and heard from my peers, there has been a lot of selective listening and very minimal active engagement.
While recognizing six months is a very short period of time, it’s inexcusable to be in several intentional meetings with the president and not once have him, or anyone on his behalf, take a single note on the “student feedback and input” that was requested. During numerous fireside chats (conversations where invited “campus leaders” met with Schlissel for an hour to talk about campus concerns), not once did Schlissel write down a student concern, publicly acknowledge and engage a student grievance or (to my knowledge) schedule follow-up meetings with any of the students in those meetings.
So for the next convergence of “student leaders” that Schlissel plans to hold, it would be wise for him to make a sincere effort to actively engage with the invited students. This means doing homework about who is in the room, what kinds of experiences have students in the room had and what work have they already done on the initiatives being discussed.
While I may not be his biggest fan, it’s one of my resolutions in the New Year to not freeze people in time, and to allow others the space to learn and grow as I have been afforded.
So, happy New Year, President Schlissel. Let’s make this one better than the last.
Carly Manes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.