September 5, 2014
Topic: Campus News
In his first address as U-M's newly inaugurated president, Mark S. Schlissel on Friday declared a central tenet of the university — as it prepares to enter its third century — must be "to seek out, encourage and value all voices."
"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 said.
His speech to a Hill Auditorium audience of faculty, students, staff, government leaders and delegates from nearly 100 institutions of higher education highlighted a ceremony filled with pageantry and tradition, as the Board of Regents formally installed Schissel as the university's 14th president.
And it came amid a day of celebration that also included academic symposia and an informal public reception on Ingalls Mall.
In his address, Schlissel said he was "concerned about recent trends that can diminish learning opportunities in a misguided effort to protect students from ideas that some might find offensive or disturbing."
He cited recent instances in which graduation speakers at other institutions were disinvited or felt forced to withdraw "because others disagreed with their work, their presumed beliefs, or the organizations they led." And, he said, self-censorship poses a related challenge to open discourse.
"This type of wrongheaded courtesy and political correctness weakens the frank discussions that might otherwise lead to heightened understanding," Schlissel said. "Ideas go unchallenged. Opportunities for learning and growth are missed. We fail as educators."
President Mark S. Schlissel waves to the crowd after Board of Regents Chair Katherine White (right) announced his inauguration. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)
Calling for uncomfortable ideas to be faced with civility, Schlissel quoted Robben Fleming, U-M's ninth president who shepherded the university through the tumultuous periods of Vietnam and Watergate: "Is it too much to hope, that in this home of the intellect we can conduct ourselves with dignity and respect?"
"It takes far more courage to hear and try to understand unfamiliar and unwelcome ideas than it does to shout down the speaker," Schlissel said. "You don't have to agree, but you have to think."
The new president's call for open and civil discourse was one of three central tenets he laid out for the university. The others were "our mission as a public institution as a bedrock principle, a privilege and a responsibility;" and that U-M must be "a diverse and democratic community, open, and accessible."
Schlissel said he is committed to enhancing the university's already eminent standing as a place where gifted scholars focus on research, teaching and mentoring the next generation to become engaged citizens and leaders.
And while he offered a vision for expanding the university's success, he stressed that in his first eight weeks as president, he has focused on learning about the university community — and he'll continue to learn.
"I am walking in new directions, and I am asking a lot of questions. I am meeting with students, staff and faculty, learning their aspirations, what they are most proud of, and what they are anxious about as we move forward together," Schlissel said. "More than anything, I am listening."
Watch the procession and installation ceremony.
Provost Martha Pollack, who led the inaugural program, said the new president comes in at a time when higher education faces fundamental questions: What should a 21st-century education include? How can, or should, technology contribute? What is the appropriate role for research? And how can universities become truly diverse?
"Dr. Schlissel is the right leader for this work. Becoming a university president is an act of passionate commitment to the academic values of free and rigorous inquiry, civil debate, diversity and excellence. Dr. Schlissel approaches the challenges before us with unwavering dedication to these values," Pollack said.
The keynote speaker, Ruth Simmons, president emerita of Brown University, where Schlissel served as provost before coming to U-M, opened by saying, "I'm here to support my son."
"His profound commitment to the academic enterprise, his conviction about the values and behavior that are intrinsic to excellence in this endeavor, his proven courage in the face of ill-placed pressure, and his openness to different opinions will help him steer a sure course for this great university," Simmons said.
Brown University President Emerita Ruth Simmons delivered the keynote address at the inauguration. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)
Gov. Rick Snyder, who holds bachelor's, master's and law degrees from U-M, told the gathering that one quality driving U-M as an outstanding university is "its humanity, the people here," and that the president serves as "the cornerstone of that humanity."
Noting that although the state of Michigan is 20 years younger than U-M, it has had 48 governors compared with 14 university presidents. "So Mark, if anything, I think you have a great opportunity for a long and valuable tenure," Snyder said.
The new president said he approached his installation with a sense of "honor and humility," noting that while work-study jobs, scholarships, need-based aid and student loans paid for his education, not everyone is so lucky.
"It is imperative that we keep tuition affordable and build the financial resources that allow students from across the full spectrum of society to attend Michigan, regardless of their economic circumstances," he said.
And, he added, Michigan should be a place where faculty always believe they can do their best work. This means surrounding them with outstanding colleagues, students and staff, providing cutting-edge infrastructure, developing resources to support innovative research and teaching, and celebrating their successes.
"The life of the mind, a life committed to discovery and education, is a life unlike any other," he said.
Representing the faculty, Scott Masten, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and professor of business economics and public policy, welcomed the new president to the faculty's ranks as well. Schlissel also holds appointments in the Medical School and LSA.
"The University of Michigan owes much of its success to the wisdom and good fortune of selecting leaders who are themselves scholars, for whom research and education are integral to their identities, and who consequently could be counted on never to lose sight of that central mission," Masten said. "In Mark Schlissel, the university continues this tradition."
Central Student Government President Robert Dishell presented the new president with a gift from students, faculty and staff: a Bur oak tree that will be planted in Schlissel's honor at the northwest corner of the Diag.
President Mark S. Schlissel greets students lined up along the procession route into the ceremony. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)
Schlissel said one of the great joys of devoting one's life to the academy is to be surrounded by the optimism and energy of students.
"It's palpable and it's perennial," he said. "The enthusiasm of students, their resilience and sense of immortality, their passion and energy — it's electrifying."
Schlissel said U-M can employ the power of ideas and its collective diversity of experience to solve important problems and strengthen lives and communities, to challenge and be challenged, to lead and be the best, and "to be Michigan, an exceptional global public university, where learning transforms lives and promotes economic progress, and where we pursue together understanding and discovery that will change the world."