The lunch fare was light but the conversation was substantive as students in the LSA Honors Program were invited to spend an hour dining and engaging in a discussion with University President Mark Schlissel Tuesday afternoon.
Schlissel kicked off the event by keeping the mood casual, calling it a relief from talking to alumni about football.
“I’ve been on the job for a little over three months, my first 100 days was sometime last week, and things were going absolutely great until I realized we have a football team who people pay a lot of attention to, and then it started going less great,” he said with a laugh.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily after the event, Schlissel added that he loves football, but feels that the team having a bad year can often drown out all of the other activities around campus. He added that he was surprised about the extent to which people are passionate about hot issues in athletics.
He also said he’s been in discussion with presidents of comparable universities and that the campus cultures are similar in regards to the role of athletics.
At the lunch, Schlissel detailed some of his life experiences that culminated in his nomination as the 14th president of the University, including his studies as an undergraduate at Princeton University followed by medical school and a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University.
“The biggest thing that changed my life was getting enough financial aid and being lucky enough to go to Princeton as an undergrad,” Schlissel said. “That’s where I really learned that smart people, talented people, successful people who rule the world are actually no different from you and me.”
Continuing to detail his college experiences, Schlissel spoke about what it was like to attend school alongside the children of senators, congressmen and famous actors.
“It turned out that they were really no different than the people I went to public school with,” he said. “The first thing I really learned in college is that people are people no matter where they come from. There’s not a huge difference between people who grow up under normal circumstances and people who grow up in the news.”
Schlissel also discussed his goals for the University during his tenure, which will last at least five years per the terms of his contract. He said his primary goals for the University include enhancing its status as a prominent public research university and becoming accessible to a wider, more diverse range of people from around the state and the country.
“Access, affordability and diversity are all obligations of a great public university,” Schissel said. “It’s very expensive to get an education here … I have to organize the way we run the University, the way we deal with financial aid and fundraise so that the decision to come to Michigan is not a financial one.”
Schlissel also said he was dissatisfied with how difficult it’s been to make the University look like the public it serves.
“I’m completely convinced that talent is uniformly distributed in our population. The difference is that opportunity is not,” he said. “I think all of us in this room have been the beneficiaries of not only your own talent, but many opportunities in your life that allowed you to come here. I think there are multiples of people that are every bit as smart as me and you who didn’t come here, who could really benefit from this education.”
Schlissel said it’s his job as president to find these talented people and find a way to make coming to the University an attainable goal for them, and that diversity will continue to remain a priority.
The second half of the session was reserved for students’ questions and concerns, which Schlissel also used as an opportunity to pick students’ brains regarding changes they’d like to see on campus and their views on the best solutions.
Some students raised questions about the University’s action and progress regarding sustainability on campus, making the big campus feel smaller, centralizing global issues for educational purposes, gender disparities among math and science majors, potential tuition caps and freezes and sexual assault awareness and prevention. Schlissel provided feedback for each question and often encouraged students to expand on their own thoughts and potential solutions.
For example, Schlissel said the University sponsors several technological projects that no other college campus or research university is participating in, but due to the energy they require, we often don’t meet criteria for third party sustainability initiatives or challenges.
With regard to sexual assault, one student said she’d like to see a shift in campus culture from awareness to prevention, ultimately allowing all students to feel safer on and off campus.
“This is probably one of the top two or three issues Michigan faces, as does every institution,” Schlissel said.
Schlissel added that sexual assault is such a difficult conversation to have on college campuses because of its sensitive nature, but the University, students and the justice system can all do things to make the situation better.
“Even talking about this topic is extremely difficult because people tense up and it’s personal and emotional for all of us,” he said. “The University will continue to work on its own internal procedures to try to develop procedures for victims of assault, and people who are accused of assault also deserve fair treatment.”
In his interview with The Daily, Schlissel said he felt the meeting was very productive and he was glad he got to hear the voices of some of the University’s undergraduates.
“It’s most of my job. I’m first and foremost a teacher; I’ve spent over 20 years teaching all different kinds of courses, undergrads, medical students,” he said. “One of the reasons I wanted to take this job was to influence education, and to do that job well I have to hear the kinds of things we heard today, from the students who are living the experience here.”