Following a year when questions of diversity, climate and accessibility reshaped campus conversation and challenged the University community to take a hard look at itself and its policies, University President Mark Schlissel used his inaugural address Friday to articulate his vision for an institution marked by inclusion.
In the Hill Auditorium ceremony that officially installed him as the University’s 14th president, Schlissel delivered a set of prepared remarks that minced few words in pinpointing accessibility as one of the institution’s greatest challenges.
“Michigan’s house must be big and its doors open wide,” he said.
Though new leaders often employ inaugural speeches to lay out new policies or initiatives, Schlissel used the podium to evaluate the University’s priorities.
He cited three central principles guiding this vision for the University: embrace the University’s mission as a public institution, ensure the University is a diverse and democratic community and promote the value of all voices.
“I firmly believe that we cannot achieve true excellence without leveraging the experiences and perspectives of the broadest possible diversity of students, faculty and staff,” he said. “This is challenging work. Not only building a diverse student body, but also creating an inclusive campus climate that is open to difficult discourse.”
Though Schlissel spoke about diversity and access in general terms, his decision to devote extensive space to the topic was evidence of University’s continued struggle to grow minority enrollment and address concerns about campus climate.
Last year, the University’s Black Student Union launched the #BBUM Twitter campaign to call attention to the experience of Black students on campus. The initiative drew national coverage and prompted the University to consider action on a wide spectrum of issues, including troubling enrollment numbers for minority students.
The University has also found it difficult to shake the view that it’s a place most accessible to those with privileged socio-economic status.
In his speech, Schlissel recalled returning home every weekend as an undergraduate freshman to work at a supermarket. Those earnings — in concert with need-based scholarships and student loans — helped put him through school. Today, he said too many students face a more challenging climb to afford a university education and pledged to keep tuition affordable for all.
“Talent is uniformly distributed across the populace,” he said. “But opportunity most certainly is not. We must encourage every talented high school senior in Michigan to apply here. Students and their parents must hear clearly and rest secure that the University of Michigan values curiosity and intellect, not zip codes or family income.”
According to data from the University’s Office of the Registrar, 63 percent of incoming freshmen in fall 2011 reported family incomes exceeding $100,000. The figure was 72 percent for nonresident students. The median family income in the United States is $51,324, according to a 2012 survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Though Schlissel cited the University’s commitment to raise $1 billion for financial aid as part of the ongoing Victors for Michigan development campaign, tuition has continued to rise. LSA in-state tuition increased by 60 percent and out-of-state tuition by 55 percent between academic years 2004-05 and 2013-14, due in part to declining state support for institutions of higher education.
In the inauguration’s keynote speech that ignited the auditorium with applause, Ruth J. Simmons, the former Brown University president, called on college presidents to continue charging toward the “Great Society” laid out by President Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 commencement address at the University. In that speech, Johnson called for a renewed fight against poverty and racial injustice that would push America closer toward a society “where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents.”
“In our time, I see no better site to join that battle than universities and I see no better generals for that battle than university presidents,” Simmons said.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily outside Hill Auditorium, Simmons said, like Schlissel, she chose to discuss community and diversity after this summer’s tension in Ferguson, Mo. struck her as indicative of the issues faced by communities across the country.
“These very fundamental attributes of kindness and generosity and respect — we give short shrift to that — and yet when (conflict) explodes, that’s what it comes down to.”
Simmons said these challenges are especially prevalent on college campuses.
“It’s very hard to benefit properly from an excellent learning environment if you’re feeling alienated, disrespected, unimportant,” she said. “I don’t have any problem with people disagreeing with me; I do have a problem when there’s nobody there who looks at me and says I understand that this is difficult for you and I feel for you,” she said.
Schlissel, too, made the case for creating a community built on respect and dialogue, especially amid disagreement. He cited an incident at Brown last year when protest prevented New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly — who pioneered the controversial policing policy called “stop and frisk” — from delivering a talk on campus. Schlissel said turning from the people we disagree with or denying them the opportunity to speak robs the community of valuable learning experiences and the chance to challenge ideas.
“People have stood on this very stage and voiced unsettling opinions,” he said. “Ross Barnett was the governor of Mississippi and a segregationist. He opposed the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the integration of his state’s flagship university. He was booed here, in 1963, but he was allowed to speak. This is what great universities do: We encourage all voices, no matter how discomforting the message.”
Last spring, a proposal that asked the Central Student Government to support University divestment from companies allegedly involved in human rights violations in Palestine propagated tension across many corners of campus as groups delved into a debate that was at times divisive.
While Schlissel didn’t refer to that controversy, he emphasized the role of universities in encouraging debate that’s respectful of diverse viewpoints and a community that’s open to criticism, even when the conversation is challenging for individuals or for the University.
“That is why I want Michigan to be known as a place where mutual respect does not require agreement, where differences of perspective are treated with sensitivity, and where we all become advocates for, and experts in, civil discourse.”
Schlissel is not the first president to address these issues in an inaugural speech, though many of those addresses devoted considerably less space to the topics. Toward the end of her 2003 inaugural, University President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman highlighted the University’s pending cases before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the use of race, among other factors, in university admissions.
“No matter what the outcome may be — as an institution, we shall remain committed to the ideal of a diversely interactive community, dedicated to the highest standards,” Coleman said. “If we win, we will have a hollow victory unless we renew our commitment to learning with, and learning from, diverse others every day, in every action, in every classroom, in every living arrangement, in every research and public service endeavor. The nation will be looking to the University of Michigan for leadership and inspiration, however the decision of the Court is crafted.”
Though the court ultimately upheld part of the University’s affirmative action admissions policy, a 2006 statewide ballot proposal outlawed the consideration of race in public higher education admissions. Despite Coleman’s inaugural promises to uphold the University’s commitment to diversity, Black enrollment has hovered around six percent in recent years.
James Duderstadt, who served as the University’s 11th president, also articulated the University’s responsibility to ensure equal opportunity in his 1988 inaugural.
“If we do not create a nation that mobilizes the talents of all our citizens, we are destined for a diminished role in the global community, increased social turbulence, and most tragically, we will have failed to fulfill the promise of democracy upon which this nation was founded,” he said.
Still, ensuring expansive and equitable access to the University has proved elusive — despite the promises of multiple presidents who promised progress in their inaugurals.
Though Simmons, who tapped Schlissel to serve as her provost, said she can’t be sure how he plans to implement the vision established in his inaugural speech, she said his vow to prioritize diversity and dialogue is not for show.
“Communities are not helped by people who say one thing over here and another over there or who say things that are convenient to be said at convenient times,” she said. “What we know is he’s not a person to do that. He will always move in the direction of clarity. He won’t compromise in expressing his views and that to me is an excellent beginning.”
After listening to the inaugural address, Public Policy junior Hattie McKinney, the Black Student Union’s programming chair, said she can tell Schlissel understands the climate he’s stepping into and is ready to take the steps necessary to create tangible improvements.
However, she said it’s a speech that represents Schlissel’s intentions, and though administrators often know the direction they want to head, it’s not always achieved.
“The goals and the visions he laid out are not an overnight deal,” McKinney said. “The process will be ongoing. It’s something he can’t do alone. We’ll all have to come together to make this vision a reality and it’s going to take time.”
You can watch President Schlissel’s full inaugural address here.
Managing News Editor Jennifer Calfas contributed reporting.