University President Mary Sue Coleman fielded questions yesterday about renewable energy and last month’s graduate student instructor strike at a meeting with about 50 University students billed as a “fireside chat.”

Brian Merlos
University President Mary Sue Coleman addresses students at her fireside chat at the Michigan Union yesterday. In a question-and-answer format, several of the about 50 students in attendance asked Coleman questions about recent hot topics like renewable e

Though the mostly question-and-answer formatted event raised controversial issues, it maintained a light atmosphere with the group bursting into laughter several times in response to Coleman’s quips.

E. Royster Harper, vice president for student affairs, was also on hand for the chat, which was held in the Michigan Union’s Kuenzel Room.

Though the talk shifted from topic to topic, questions and concerns about the environment and sustainability were at the forefront of the chat, as the state Senate recently passed bills calling for Michigan’s government buildings to obtain 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has also recently been proposing that renewable sources must account for 10 percent of all of the state’s electricity by 2015.

“It’s going to become evermore important in the future,” Coleman said. “Not only from the perspective of saving money, but we also must do what we can for the environment.”

Addressing another recent issue, a student asked about whether the University planned to return Native American remains and artifacts that one Michigan tribe says belonged to its ancestors. Echoing the University’s stance from the past few weeks, Coleman maintained that giving back the remains without being certain of their origin would violate federal law.

“It would be illegal to turn them over because there is no way to know if they belong to the group,” Coleman said. She said that if the law changed, though, the University could change its decision.

Later, one student brought up the recent Graduate Employees’ Organization walkout, questioning whether the University was simply waiting for the GEO to protest before revising the contract, but Coleman interrupted the student with an abrupt “no.”

“We care deeply about how our graduate students fare,” she said.

Several students asked Coleman about ongoing renovations on campus, making North Campus more “lively” and ways to make the dorms more accommodating to handicapped residents.

Two students said it was a difficult process for out-of-state students to find summer jobs in their home states. Coleman said she would pass the concern to other University officials.

Coleman also touched on the University’s move to digitize researchers’ materials to make them available for everyone, in response to a student’s comment about Harvard University’s similar endeavor.

“It is our responsibility to make things accessible,” she said. “I think we’ve been very much leaders in the digitization approach.”

After a little more than an hour of talking, the chat wound down. Coleman said she was excited by the discussion.

“This is my best one of these in six years,” said Coleman, who’s participated in similar talks before with students.

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