Michigan Daily columnist Carly Manes wrote a bizarre and unfair criticism of University President Mark Schlissel in an article published January 6. As someone who has been impressed with Schlissel, I felt compelled to respond. The strange assertions began early in the piece, when Manes wrote, “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.” What does this even mean? His background in higher education (professor at Johns Hopkins, dean at University of California, Berkeley, provost at Brown) left him unqualified to be Michigan president? Would Manes have preferred a politician? His “expressed intent” to take the job? Did we want someone who accidentally took the job? Any fair-minded observer has to conclude Schlissel’s experience makes him eminently qualified to lead the University, so Manes’ initial doubts are confusing and unfortunately not made explicit enough to take seriously.
Manes criticizes Schlissel’s handling of sexual assault because he objected to a framing of requests by an anonymous group of students as “demands,” which, he said, “makes it really difficult to have discussions.” Schlissel’s comment “dismisses and silences students’ feelings and experiences,” Manes wrote. “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.” I’d agree — if that was all he had to say on the topic. Had the author bothered to watch Schlissel’s interview in which he made those comments, posted on the Daily’s website, she would have also heard him say, “I’m impressed by people that develop this passion … to take the time and show up in public and talk about something they care about a lot. The kinds of things that the students who were discussing their feelings about sexual assault and the way the University handles this were all reasonable things to think about and discuss.” The University needs the help of the student body to fix its poor approach to sexual assault; Schlissel is welcoming a discussion on this issue much more openly than his predecessor’s administration did.
Her final grievance against Schlissel is that, in meetings with students, “not once (has he), or anyone on his behalf, (taken) a single note on the ‘student feedback and input’ that was requested.” “Inexcusable,” she writes. Really? Given Schlissel was able to recall several of the previously referenced demands specifically (seriously, watch the interview, he knew them all off the top of his head), we know he is absorbing what students tell him. And the lack of note-taking would be a small-time offense by Schlissel — if it were true. As one recent fireside chat attendee told me, “he wrote his notes on the back of his name tag to ensure he would remember what a student said to him.” Additionally, I am told there is normally someone taking notes on a computer for him during fireside chats and other meetings with groups of students.
Schlissel’s engagement with students in his first six months has been impressive. The first meeting he held on the day he was introduced as president-elect was with students (at his request). He has held open and frank fireside chats with students and meetings with student groups at a greater frequency than his predecessor. He has been visible in the student community, even inviting students over to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. He responded professionally but quickly to the scandal and student outrage brewing over the mismanagement of Michigan Athletics. Schlissel installed an interim Athletic Director who has already taken great steps to reform the culture of the Athletic Department. Schlissel is working with students on new efforts to promote diversity and sustainability on campus.
Six months is not nearly enough time to judge Schlissel’s tenure as President, and he is bound to hit a few speed bumps as he acquaints himself with the University. But his leadership has, so far, been a breath of fresh air for the University. I hope students continue to raise issues to Schlissel (hopefully more serious issues than “take notes”) and that he continues to engage with students. If he is the president I think he is, the student voice at the University will enjoy a bigger seat at the table than it has in a while. And Schlissel could become one of the most transformative presidents in our University’s history because of it.
Michael Proppe is a graduate student in the School of Business and former president of Central Student Government.