As he concluded his first week as University President, Mark Schlissel was already facing questions about his legacy.
“Four days in, that’s really interesting,” he said. “A decade or five years from now — however long I’m here — we can talk about legacy.”
Reluctant to make predictions, Schlissel met with media Friday morning to discuss what he referred to as “high-level” visions for the University. In the six months between the announcement of his presidency at a special January Board of Regents meeting and his official first day in office on July 14, he’s had the opportunity to learn a lot, but he admitted that one of the biggest challenges during his first year would be understanding how the University and its various departments operate.
However, his appointment may already be shifting University dynamics, in particular the relationship between the President and University Athletic Department.
“Athletics seems to be part of the culture here at Michigan, in a historical sense,” Schlissel told media Friday. “What I want to be sure of is that athletics exists in an appropriate balance with everything else that the University does.”
“Athletics isn’t part of the mission statement of the University — we’re an academic institution,” he added.
Thursday afternoon at their monthly meeting, the regents voted against a proposal from the Athletic Department to allow fireworks at Michigan Stadium in the upcoming season. Several expressed concern that the proposed shows were not consistent with the tradition and culture of Michigan athletics.
The move was unusual for the board, which historically has approved such proposals, often without debate or dissent. On July 11, the Detroit Free Press sued the University over allegations that regents decide upcoming issue in private before meetings, which the lawsuit attests is a violation of the Open Meetings Act.
The regents had approved the use of fireworks at Michigan Stadium on two separate occasions in recent years. The first was for the “Big Chill at the Big House”, a hockey game between the University and Michigan State on December 11, 2010. The second approval was for the NHL Winter Classic hockey game, played between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 1, 2014.
On both occasions, the use of fireworks was approved unanimously and, according to minutes taken during each meeting, with little or no discussion between the regents.
It was quite a different case with Schlissel in the room on Thursday, as the regents took more than 20 minutes to discuss, debate and vote on the proposal. At one point, Henry Baier, associate vice president for facilities and operations, who was presenting information on the proposal, was asked to leave the room and gather more information before the regents made their decision.
While Schlissel is not a voting member of the board, he said he appreciated the active participation and debate on the issue.
“As you could tell from yesterday’s discussion, (the regents) have different opinions about the specific issue, but also the broader issue — what’s happening to the culture of athletics, what’s happening to the commercialization of athletics,” Schlissel said.
He didn’t give a personal opinion on the use of fireworks, stating that he’d yet to attend a Michigan football game, but said he was “respectful of the discussion”.
“(The regents) have respectful disagreements, and I actually thought that discussion was great,” he said. “I think that the regents that wanted to comment got their ideas out on the table with clarity. I think the course of that discussion might have actually changed the minds of some of the Regents.”
On multiple occasions his first week, Schlissel has referred to himself as an “air traffic controller”. Instead of managing the operations of individual units on campus, he said he wants to facilitate conversation and create the best environment for individuals to improve the University.
“I am a huge believer in the value of civil discourse, and I feel that Michigan should be a place where we model how people who disagree with each other should be able to talk across their differences,” Schlissel said. “That’s really a goal of mine, is promoting those kind of behaviors in a diverse and inclusive community.”
Regarding the firework decision, however, Schlissel added he was glad he didn’t have to make the decision himself.
“Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to vote for fireworks.”