Photo by Scott C. Soderberg/Michigan Photography

Photo by Scott C. Soderberg/Michigan Photography

Schlissel’s Second Term

by Sharon Morioka, ’84, MA’86 | Fall 2019

As Mark Schlissel embarks on his second term as U-M president, Michigan Alumnus asks about his accomplishments and challenges during his first term and his plans for the future of the University.

What would you have told yourself five years ago if you’d known what you know now?

Although I had heard about the scale and the complexity of the University and how decentralized it is, I didn’t appreciate it until I had boots on the ground. The deans, directors, and unit heads have great authority and great responsibility. So the levers of leadership are different than they would be in a much more centralized place. It took a while to learn how deep and broad that was across the culture of the University.

Do you have an example of how you’ve been able to use that as an advantage in your work?

I invited the deans or directors, along with a leading faculty member, from each school to dinner at the house. And I asked, “What are you and your colleagues interested in, on a five- or 10-year time horizon, that you think would benefit from closer relations with the other schools sitting around this table?” That’s where our Poverty Solutions initiative came from.

We had an associate professor who had just gotten promoted to full professor, Luke Shaefer. He had published a very well-noted book, “$2.00 a Day,” about extreme poverty in America. He and a number of other senior people who were already collaborating were able to pull together this campuswide effort. I provided some Central Campus dollars to prime the pump and some visibility around it. And it’s really taken off. There are dozens of projects, and many of our schools and colleges are involved.

What is the benefit of these cross-disciplinary initiatives and the greatest challenge to making them successful?

It’s not that there aren’t interesting things, big things, happening inside individual schools and colleges. But one school or college looks relatively narrowly at where its opportunities might lie, but when you put together the breadth of what the whole institution can bring to the table, magical things can happen. The challenge in developing something after a good idea hits the table is finding leadership. Universities in general—and Michigan in particular—we’re not top-down places. We’re places where things work the best if the ideas percolate up from the faculty, the chairs, the deans.

How I add value from the top of the campus is to see the whole playing field and to try to find ways to get people in the room together.

Of all of the initiatives you’ve worked on during the past five years, which has given you the most energy?

The single one that I’m most proud of, which we launched last year, is the Go Blue Guarantee. (The guarantee provides in-state students with full tuition for up to four years if their family income is $65,000 or less and they have assets below $50,000.) I told people, if I quit my job tomorrow, that’s enough. The idea is that residents of the state of Michigan who work hard, do well in school, take their studies seriously, apply to this great public university, and get accepted can pay for it. The notion of free education being available to half the families in the state, and one of the global leaders in higher ed, it’s just breathtaking. (See the sidebar for more about Schlissel’s other initiatives.)

What are you looking toward during your second term?

I’ve been talking to relevant deans and other leaders around campus about developing an arts initiative. We have a uniquely strong arts community.

For example, kids go from being musical theater students to being leads on Broadway in a year. It’s just unbelievable, that level of talent. You add to that the School of Art & Design, which in its niche is very well regarded. Then architecture and urban planning. Architects and planners are artistic, have an artistic sensibility. And on top of that, UMMA, the art museum, is spectacular, one of the greatest university-associated art museums. The University Musical Society is the preeminent university arts presenting organization. You know, I can walk from my house in 10 minutes and be seated in a great seat listening to the New York Philharmonic. Who gets to do that?

So we add all these things up and think about how can we bring them together and build on them, in a way that elevates the whole breadth of the University. I’ve got a group of leaders from those organizations, plus some others, brainstorming how we can do that. The analogy is what we’ve done with Poverty Solutions.

President Mark Schlissel

Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography

Under your leadership, the University has become very involved with Detroit. What is in the works now for Detroit?

We recently acquired a piece of the Rackham Building downtown near the Detroit Institute of Arts, which we didn’t previously own. That ultimately will become the home base for our community-engaged research, our outreach to high school students, our outreach for admission purposes in the city of Detroit. So it’ll be a real Detroit home base.

We also recently launched something that we’re very proud of: a partnership with the Detroit Public Schools at Marygrove College. Our School of Education developed a partnership with a number of organizations in the city, including the Detroit Public Schools and Starfish Family Services, which has a preschool. With backing from The Kresge Foundation, we are working together to start a preschool-through-college program they’re calling a teaching school. The analogy is a teaching hospital, and the idea is to have Detroit school teachers, student teachers from the University of Michigan, and Michigan education faculty members working together in a Detroit public school.

During your first term, what question did most people ask you?

It’s hard for me to remember a time that I opened up a talk to Q and A when there weren’t questions about the costs and affordability of higher ed. What’s interesting is we’ve got a great story to tell around affordability. And the problem is there’s so much counternarrative in the public about how expensive, unaffordable, schools are. But for students from within the state of Michigan who get financial aid, over the last decade the tuition has increased zero dollars. So every time we have to raise tuition, we mitigate the consequences of that for kids who are on aid.

I also get questions around athletics or a particular construction project. And then there’s a sort of crisis du jour. Last fall, we had a faculty member who had volunteered to write a letter of recommendation for a student, then changed his mind. That became a big topic of conversation.

That involved a professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student applying to study abroad in Israel. What was your impression of that incident?

We all have our personal political beliefs. But what we expect is that faculty separate their own beliefs from their best ideas about how to teach. So if you’re teaching history, you’re not teaching history from a liberal perspective or from a conservative perspective; you’re teaching it from a historian’s perspective. And the same thing with politics and cultures and religion, all of the topics that have a political overlay. We expect—and the majority of our faculty live up to this—that they have to teach in a broad and balanced approach. It’s fine if faculty members want to talk about their perspective, but they have to put that in context of other thinking. And they have to manage a classroom where students of divergent views feel free and comfortable to discuss their views.

The provost launched a program to address these issues, correct?

I think the provost very wisely used it as an opportunity to launch a discussion among our faculty about what our values are at the intersection of personal political beliefs and our commitments to our students. Although certainly people will disagree with what I’m about to say, this had nothing to do with academic freedom. And we weren’t telling professors what they’re allowed to write about, what they’re allowed to research, what they’re allowed to advocate for in public, what they’re allowed to teach, even. What we were saying is that a person’s personal beliefs should not interfere with our community’s commitment to the best interest of our students.

So this commission was really very informative. They did a lot of outreach, they provoked a lot of conversations, and they came up with a statement of principles that we’ve shared with the community. And in this academic year, we’re going to continue to discuss it and see if we can develop some kind of coherence around it.

One last question: How have alumni best supported you during your first term?

It’s amazing, but I had to do nothing to get the support of alumni. They love the University, and I’m sort of the personification of their university. So wherever I go, I get welcomed with open arms, treated with respect. People tell me about not just themselves but their extended family experience with Michigan; they talk about individual professors from 30 years ago who changed their life, the friends they made that continue to be some of their best friends. They tell me about the trip to the 1998 Rose Bowl. So there’s just a powerful sense of connection.

I’ve traveled all around the country and around the world, and invariably when I’m in a city that has an alumni club, we’ll meet with alumni. They’re all interested in what’s going on at the University; they’re interested in offering their opinions and advice. And they’re enormously supportive. I get emails, and I’d probably say that the ratio of supportive to critical is a very favorable ratio from alumni. Alumni aren’t just critics; they really love to tell you when things are going well and that they’re very proud.

The Lightning Round

Michigan Alumnus posed the following series of relatively random questions for President Schlissel to respond to in one sentence or less.

Maize and Blue gear you wear most?
Nike-branded Block M gym shorts and shirt.

Favorite piece of art on campus?
Sculpture commissioned and dedicated to staff: “Arriving Home” by Dennis Oppenheim.

Go-to sandwich at Zingerman’s?

Most memorable/inspirational interaction with a U-M student?
Dana Greene Jr., the student who took a knee on our Diag for more than 20 hours in protest against racism.

Haya Alfarhan, who wrote an op-ed in The Michigan Daily about the difference between feeling safe and feeling comfortable.

Most memorable/inspirational interaction with a U-M alum?
Giving Charlie Munger a tour of the Munger Graduate Residences he funded with a very generous gift to U-M.

Best trip you’ve taken as president?
Traveling around the state of Michigan in the weeks before I took office.

Favorite season on campus?
Fall—a combination of climate, foliage, football season, and renewal as students reappear.

Thing you most enjoy doing when your family visits Ann Arbor?
Long walks in the Arb.

What you like most about tweeting?
Ability to rapidly reach out to U-M supporters and focus their interest on something important to the University.

Favorite movie?
“The American President” (starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening).

Major Initiatives

In 2014, when Mark Schlissel first took office as U-M president and sat for an interview with Michigan Alumnus, he didn’t yet have a specific answer to that most-asked question: “What are your goals as president?” Much has changed over the past five years. In the main story, he points to Poverty Solutions and the Go Blue Guarantee as successful initiatives. Following is a list of others from his first term.

In October 2016, after a year of planning, the University unveiled its five-year strategic plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The initiative aims to create an inclusive and equitable campus; recruit, retain, and develop a diverse university community; and support innovation and inclusive scholarship and teaching.

With this initiative, launched in October 2017, researchers across campus combine their biomedical expertise with big data and social science approaches to tailor specific solutions to health problems. “Lung cancer in one person is going to be different than lung cancer in another,” says Schlissel. “And the ability to distinguish those diseases one individual at a time lets us tailor treatments that are going to be more likely to have benefits and fewer side effects.”

A committee comprising researchers in various bioscience fields is working to strengthen research and education through leadership, coordination, and alignment across the campus. “The goal of this initiative is to tap into the breadth of the University and get different disciplines to work together with life scientists and doctors to really understand biological problems in very novel ways,” says Schlissel.

As its name implies, this faculty-driven initiative helps the University determine how to elevate the quality and the impact of its teaching by taking advantage of online information, online communication, and learning analytics, says Schlissel.

Student and faculty researchers across the University can use the ability to gather, store, search, and analyze big data to provide insights into a range of disciplines, from disease and climate change to social behavior and economics.

Sharon Morioka, ’84, MA’86, is the editor of Michigan Alumnus.

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