Schlissel talks diversity at leadership breakfast

By Genevieve Hummer, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 18, 2015

University President Mark Schlissel hosted 200 students, faculty and staff members Monday morning in the Michigan League Ballroom to jump start a campuswide conversation on diversity.

Schlissel announced plans for the leadership breakfast in December through an e-mail newsletter delivered to students and faculty. In September, the Office of the Provost released reports from three faculty-led committees that included 13 recommendations for diversifying the campus, including the creation of a strategic diversity plan.

Michigan Daily reporters were not invited to Monday’s breakfast. According to a University press release and several faculty, administrators and students who attended the event, Schlissel announced intentions to prioritize the issue during his term, echoing sentiments similar to his September inaugural address.

“I am committed to making diversity, equity and an inclusive campus environment a major focus of my presidency," Schlissel said. "Together, we can embrace the best parts of our past and the brightest minds of the future, and create new levels of pride and excellence for everyone in the University of Michigan community.”

Though Schlissel acknowledged the challenges ahead, he expressed optimism for the University’s ability to achieve significant change.

Issues of diversity, inclusion and equity have played a prominent role on campus over the last year. In November 2013, members of the University’s Black Student Union launched the Being Black at the University of Michigan campaign — using the hashtag #BBUM on Twitter — to draw attention to the experiences of Black students on campus. The student organizers later demanded the University make process around a series of policy initiatives, including increasing minority enrollment.

Among initiatives currently in the works, Schlissel announced the University has begun a Strategic Plan for Diversity and said he plans to gather department chairs later this semester to discuss diversity and inclusion. He also listed plans for a campuswide diversity summit in the fall, new partnerships with school districts home to underrepresented populations and a task force to consider hiring and promotion of underrepresented faculty.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily last month, Schlissel noted the University’s long-standing goal to diversify, but said current strategies must be improved.

“It really is fair to say that there has been a long-term commitment to diversity at the University of Michigan, I think the record is really clear,” he said. “The problem is, our success hasn’t matched our aspirations despite people’s serious efforts and serious commitments.”

Martha Jones, associate chair of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and associate professor of history and Afroamerican and African Studies, attended the event and said she was excited by Schlissel’s interest in campus-wide diversity.

“I thought it was a very bold morning and I was very impressed as I learned that our new president was going to make diversity one of his major agenda items for the term of his presidency,” Jones said. “What I saw on Monday was a president that seemed poised to lead us on a new path, and that for me was new and that for me was why it was an exciting and important morning.”

However, Jones said she’s interested to know more about initiatives in the works, particularly ongoing strategic planning.

“I’m eager to hear more details as they develop,” she said.

After outlining his priorities, Schlissel fielded questions and comments from the event’s attendees. According to a University press release, one attendee asked what takeaways attendees should communicate to their colleagues.

"I think it's fair to tell them that there's skepticism in the air because words are easy, and I think it's fair to tell them that the president and the senior leadership and the regents themselves are ready to be held to account,” Schlissel said.

"I not only need your ideas, I need your criticism,” he said. “I need you to poke me with a stick. I need you to hold me and the leadership team and the regents to account, so that we have the conversation again and again.”

Pharmacy student Kristye Russell, who attended the event, said she is concerned how the plan would meet the needs of graduate and professional students enrolled in schools outside of the Rackham Graduate School.

“The biggest challenge is going to be getting an initiative to roll out that is going to be widely adopted and accepted on campus by everybody and that is going to meet everybody’s needs,” she said.

Jones said Schlissel’s talk focused primarily on campus climate issues, which she said are less quantifiable, but equally as relevant as admissions and hiring statistics.

“Our climate issues need to be understood and addressed so that faculty, students and staff all feel welcome, safe, encouraged and at the center of the life and learning that goes on here,” she said.

Esrold Nurse, LSA assistant dean for undergraduate education and executive director of the Newnan Academic Advising Center, attended the breakfast and agreed that changing the campus climate is important.

“All students need to feel welcomed in our community,” Nurse wrote in an e-mail interview. “Prospective (underrepresented minority) students need to see the University as a place which acknowledges differences and embraces it.”

Nurse said Schlissel’s ideas are key for laying important groundwork on the issue.

“Yet to ensure progress, the President's ideas will require immediate and specific plans to take us from ideas to action and must by necessity involve all schools and colleges, faculty, staff and students in the development of those plans,” he wrote.

LSA senior Cesar Vargas, who attended the event, is a first-generation college student. He said students need to build a greater understanding of the socioeconomic diversity at the University.

“In today’s day one of the biggest taboos people have a hard time talking about is social class,” Vargas said. “One way to approach that is to inform people about the disparities that occur within the educational system.”

Sandra Gregerman, director of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, wrote in an e-mail interview that she felt Schlissel made his commitment to diversifying the campus clear.

"The tenor and emotion shared by President Schlissel was deeply appreciated by someone who has been working on these issues for a long time, and his call to 'nudge' him and share concerns, ideas, and critiques demonstrated his deeply felt and personal commitment to creating a more diverse and inclusive campus community,” she wrote.