Though the room didn’t have a fireplace, University President Mark Schlissel held his first fireside chat Thursday afternoon with about 30 students in the Willis Ward Lounge of the Michigan Union.
Fireside chats are discussions with the University president for a group of randomly selected students, a tradition begun by University President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman.
During the hour-long event, Schlissel fielded questions from students on a variety of topics, including the Munger Graduate Residences project and North Campus culture, and asked them questions of his own on topics like athletics.
“I’m trying to find ways to reach out and learn about what the student experience is like here, and what I can do to protect the things that are really good, and to fix the things that aren’t quite working right,” he told students at the start of the chat.
LSA senior Joseph Jozlin asked Schlissel about the balance between student input and development, citing the Munger Residences project, which displaced popular Ann Arbor restaurant Blimpy Burger and has been criticized for elements of its design and projected room rates some have deemed too hefty.
“I know Blimpy Burger is a Michigan thing, and I thought it should be protected,” Jozlin said.
Schlissel said it came down to the bigger question of how much influence donors should have at the University, and added that he wasn’t opposed to saying no to a donor if there wasn’t consensus on the project between them and the University.
“In this instance, it was a tough call, because I actually think it is important to have graduate housing,” he said of the Munger project. “And I think it’s important in particular for many of our graduate students that come from other parts of the world that have a challenging time in the first year or so in the United States.”
Discussing North Campus issues, students highlighted both positive aspects, such as the resources available and the community of engineers and other students, but also concerns of physical and social isolation, especially for freshmen, 60 percent of whom live on North Campus.
In response, Schlissel agreed more could be done to improve the quality of life for students on North Campus and efforts in that are ongoing.
“The best idea that I’ve heard so far is to build up community on the North Campus so that it’s as vibrant socially, and in terms of the activities that are on the main part of campus,” he said.
Schlissel also asked several questions of his own, with a focus on collegiate athletics and the role they play in University life. Students touched on several issues in their responses, including a weaker home schedule for football this year, University Athletic Department funding and student experience on game day.
In a sentiment echoed by several students, Public Policy junior Jennifer Arnold said it seemed like the focus had shifted more towards the brand of athletics, not the people involved.
“It doesn’t seem as student-run, or as marching band-involved, as it used to be,” she said.
LSA senior Clarence Stone agreed.
“It seems like the Athletic Department is just expanding with all the money that they’re receiving, with donations from Stephen M. Ross when other programs might need those donations just as much,” he said. “I feel like right now it’s becoming more focused on the brand of Michigan athletics instead of being something for the athletes and the school.”
Schlissel told students that the prominence of athletics was something he wanted to find a balance on for the University.
“I think the whole thing is balance,” he said. “We don’t want to go crazy overboard because I think Michigan should be known for the breadth of the things it does.”
He added that he thought the center of the game day experience should be the people.
“I really think it has to be focused on all the people who are a part of our permanent community, coming together to enjoy a football game on a Saturday,” he said.
In an interview after the event, Schlissel said the hope is for the chats to be a regular occurrence as long as students continue to be interested. He said he appreciated the way students approached talking about issues on campus.
“Everyone has positive things to say, they have critical things to say,” he said. “But the criticism is offered without negativism. They were offering suggestions on how to make the place better, and that’s great.”