In an intimate setting, University President Mary Sue Coleman and E. Royster Harper, the vice president for academic affairs, answered questions posed by more than 30 students yesterday at the Michigan Union.

Each month, Coleman and Harper randomly select students to participate in these “fireside chats” to create a better connection between the administration and students. The students represent a variety of the University’s colleges, schools and disciplines.

In the first fireside chat of the calendar year, Coleman and Harper answered questions about access to higher education, the University’s next capital campaign and campus safety, among other topics.

Multiple students, including Ross senior Harry Eun, asked questions about the widening gap of access to higher education and its effect on the University. Eun cited a speech by Bill Gates that addressed the difference between reaching higher education for people with and without access to academic and financial resources.

Coleman said the University has been able to continuously achieve “an uncommon education for the common man,” in the words of former University President James Angell. She added that though the University accepts an equal amount of students from each sect of socioeconomic statuses, there is still the possibility that some high-school students from lower income areas may be discouraged from applying because they believe they won’t be able to afford an education here.

“The challenges that we’re all facing is how do we change that dynamic, how do we get that message to students everywhere,” Coleman said. “You shouldn’t be afraid to apply. We’ll be able to give you the financial aid you need once you get in.”

Since writing a letter to President Barack Obama last year about support for the country’s universities, Coleman said she’s working at the state and federal levels to increase state appropriation and federal legal support for public universities. She added that she has seen increasing support from executives of multiple corporations in the state in the past year as a result.

“Everybody’s got to play a part,” Coleman said. “Tuition will always play a role, but we have to have tuition balanced with financial aid. I’m actually optimistic because I think people are beginning to realize that the U.S. has a fantastic higher education system.”

Coleman also gave some insight into the University’s focus for the next capital campaign, in which the administration determines the focus of fall fundraising efforts.

LSA senior Feiman Ding told Coleman she was concerned that her one-credit orchestra ensemble class is losing participants because of the University’s policy on increasing tuition for students taking more than 18 credits.

In response, Coleman said she hopes to challenge issues like this with the University’s next capital campaign, which will focus primarily on student support. Since each school and college can propose ideas for the campaign, Coleman said she will talk to Christopher Kendall, the dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, support to students with this issue.

“I think the degree to which we can engage students in the arts, even if that’s not going to be their main focus, will impact their lives tremendously,” Coleman said.

In light of several crime alerts issued recently, Rackham student Huichao Ma said she is concerned for her safety on campus.

Coleman believes the University has a safe campus, but warned students to use safety precautions regularly.

Referencing a report by Ann Arbor Police that a taxi driver raped a University student, Harper said the University intends to work with the city of Ann Arbor on changing current laws that allow unregistered taxis — many registered as limosuines — to pick up passengers within the city limits.

In an interview after the event, Harper said the fireside chats are an invaluable forum in which Coleman can receive student feedback.

“It gives her the ability to hear what’s going on for herself, and then when she’s with faculty members and deans, she’ll share it with us,” Harper said. “She’ll hear it, and then if there’s something that we can do to make the place better for students, she’ll follow it up. She really takes it seriously.”

After the event, Rackham student Chris Bennett, who asked about a long-term approach to integrating North Campus and Central Campus, said he thought Coleman was very approachable.

“If you had a problem, issue, a complaint — good or bad — she was open to hearing it, and I thought it was great.”

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