President Schlissel lays out initiatives for U-M to tackle societal problems


Declaring the University of Michigan has “the talent to advance excellence and achieve impact at levels befitting both our legacy and our potential,” President Mark Schlissel on Wednesday outlined initiatives that target issues ranging from poverty to academic innovation, and from sustainability to diversity.

“These announcements align with my commitment to encourage scholarship that addresses major societal problems, using the full spectrum of our disciplinary breadth,” Schlissel told the invited crowd of nearly 200 faculty, staff and students gathered at the Michigan Union’s Rogel Ballroom for his annual Leadership Breakfast.

“They also include my pledge to help you provide all of our students with the best education possible, enhanced by high-impact, engaged learning experiences for undergraduates, graduate and professional students.”

Schlissel also used the occasion to preview some of next year’s bicentennial celebration, highlighting three Presidential Bicentennial Colloquia, the first of which will feature a conversation with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Susanne Baer of Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court.

“Our full year of bicentennial events and activities gives us a wonderful opportunity to look forward and consider how we should lead in the future — to celebrate and cerebrate, as it were,” he said.

Sotomayor and Baer will be part of a Jan. 30 colloquium, titled “The Future University Community.” The second colloquium on June 26 coincides with a meeting of the Tanner Foundation and will consider “The Evolving Bargain Between Research Universities and Society.” Finally, “The Campus of the Future” on Oct. 26 will explore the future of the residential research university and features a student design competition focusing on how the campus may look in 50 years.

President Mark Schlissel discusses several new initiatives at his annual Leadership Breakfast. (Photo by Roger Hart, Michigan Photography)

Introducing his new initiatives, Schlissel said one of his primary responsibilities is to help everyone at the university achieve the lofty aspirations he has come to recognize in the more than two years that have passed since he became U-M’s 14th president.

“We are ready, as U-M’s first president, Henry Tappan, once said, to ‘carry’ this university ‘forward to perfection,'” he said. “This morning, I am proud to discuss a few of the ways we will do this together.”

Poverty Solutions

The university will launch a multidisciplinary initiative to develop new strategies for preventing and alleviating poverty. Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan will include faculty from many schools and colleges, build on strong community partnerships, and provide new engaged learning opportunities for students.

“As its name implies, our new initiative is focused on action and solutions. We’re going to roll up our sleeves with the goal of having impact directly,” Schlissel said. “The aim here is to translate research into actionable interventions and then to rigorously assess their effectiveness.”

He announced that Luke Shaefer, associate professor of social work and public policy, would direct the new initiative.

Academic Innovation

The recent launch of an Academic Innovation Initiative, Schlissel said, “represents the next stage in our leadership in higher education.”

“We have assembled large amounts of data that help us scrutinize the effectiveness of our teaching and better understand our students,” he said. “We can now make education for learners at all life stages as dynamic as the global job market they will need to navigate. Our Academic Innovation Initiative will help us apply all of this — the data, the access, and our outstanding faculty talent — in service of higher education and society at large.”

Schlissel said he and Provost Martha Pollack have charged the Office of Academic Innovation and the Academic Innovation steering committee with developing recommendations.

View the full speech by President Mark Schlissel.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

The president offered a preview of what will be delivered in greater detail Thursday, when the university launches its campuswide strategic plan to improve diversity, equity and inclusion.

The plan, titled “Many Voices, Our Michigan,” incorporates individual plans drawn up over the past year by each school, college, and major administrative unit. It will provide overarching strategies in three key areas: creating an inclusive and equitable campus climate; recruiting, retaining and developing a diverse community; and supporting innovative and inclusive scholarship and teaching.

“I want our entire community to know that what we are unveiling tomorrow is both a plan and a pledge,” Schlissel said. “It includes metrics, reporting schedules and measures of accountability — for me, and for all of us. It includes $85 million in new investments over five years that we consider crucial to our mission.”

To lead the implementation and evaluation of the DE&I strategic plan, Schlissel said he will recommend the Board of Regents at its October meeting approve Robert M. Sellers, currently vice provost for equity, inclusion and academic affairs, for the newly created position of chief diversity officer.

Environment and Sustainability

Schlissel discussed an earlier announcement that the university plans to create a new school focusing on sustainability and the environment. It will replace the School of Natural Resources and Environment, build on its predecessor’s strengths and have a broader mission.

“It will also be a new kind of school,” he said. “It will have new ways of engaging faculty from all across the university, be organized around themes that evolve over time and have curricula that are intensely engaged.”

The new school will be formally named later in the fall, and the search for a dean has begun.

Schlissel spoke to an invited crowd of campus leaders at the Michigan Union’s Rogel Ballroom. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

Looking back at the goals he laid out during his 2015 Leadership Breakfast, Schlissel recalled one of the efforts that grew out of campuswide sustainability goals — reducing the amount of solid waste generated by the university. Toward that end, he announced that all football games at Michigan Stadium in 2017 would be zero-waste events.

He also reiterated a push for more public engagement by faculty, saying U-M’s future leadership will be evaluated in part by its ability to better focus the university’s work externally, and share scholarship and expertise with a broader public.

“I want to help us disseminate our work in a more conspicuous and public manner, by incentivizing faculty to share their expertise,” Schlissel said. “We should make a particular effort to highlight the work of humanists and social scientists, who contribute greatly to our understanding of and solutions to some of the biggest problems we face as a society.”

This fall, he said, U-M will focus on developing faculty engagement in four key areas: better understanding what people are already doing, finding additional ways to celebrate such work, intensifying efforts to reach important constituencies in Washington, D.C., and assisting any faculty members who wish to reach out to a broader public audience.

Schlissel lauded campus collaborations, citing UM-Flint for bringing together faculty from all three campuses to address that city’s water crisis, UM-Dearborn’s new Talent Gateway to help students become “entrepreneurs of themselves,” and Ann Arbor faculty collaborating on faculty search plans as part of a long-term strategy to advance discovery and impact in the biosciences.

And he cheered the universitywide collaboration that has placed the Victors for Michigan campaign well ahead of schedule toward achieving its $4 billion goal. Donors have made gifts of $3.63 billion, with $839 million designated toward the $1 billion goal for student support, including scholarship, fellowships, internships and global study.

Finally, the president outlined how the university has confronted challenging issues, both as an academic community and as citizens, and doing so in a “spirit of community.”

He used as examples Sunday’s conversation about campus climate that stemmed from racially charged fliers on campus, a similar conversation in July about racism and violence, faculty and student demonstrations against hate, and student leaders who stepped up as allies against hateful speech and discrimination.

During comments after the speech, Provost Martha Pollack announced the creation of a hotline to help faculty respond and seek advice regarding racially charged events on campus or tense moments in the classroom. That number — 734-764-0505 — is staffed at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching.

“At Michigan, we are strongest when we work to solve problems and promote understanding, together, as one community,” Schlissel said. “As allies. As leaders and best. We are the University of Michigan.”



  1. Zane White
    on October 8, 2016 at 6:06 am

    As an alum, it’s clear that the University of Michigan stands true to it’s claim of being a Leader and Best in addressing issues that touch the lives of a wide range of people.

    When finding answers to improve an area the intentions of the group solving the issue (or working on solving the issue) are made clear by the way that initiative is named, approached and how it’s discussed.

    Thus, when President Schlissel announced the Poverty Solution, (as oppose to War On Poverty) I let out a sigh of relief.

    I look forward to seeing how these changes will develop and its results. Thank you for having a desire to create a plan of action.

    Go Blue!


  2. Karen Dabney
    on October 10, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    I am a proud graduate of The University of Michigan, I am excited to see the promise of change regarding minoritized persons’ experiences while attending the university. The sad thing is this has been an issue forever! I attended in the mid 1970’s and the population of Black students has not improved much and I’m not sure if there is enough effort toward the successful matriculation of Black students within the university. I later attended another university and obtained a degree in a different discipline. I was more successful there grade-wise because of supplemental services available to those who needed it. My case was a bit different because I needed help in terms of being an older person learning more about computers and the like. But it was nothing like attending U of M and catching up on things that weren’t adequately covered in the high school I attended and the fact my family was more formally educated than many, my confidence level suffered when I met with open – yet covert – hostility toward myself as a student in a program where I was often the only Black student in most of my classes.
    I made it through because I was able to overcome those issues. But I was prepared. Most Black students in that type of situation would have failed or been ousted for having openly challenged a racist instructor or threatening student.
    I don’t know what is being done to prevent such things at present but I hope ANY student who is seen as less deserving by anyone involved is able to know where and how to seek support. it’s a minefield out there!
    ~BFA Wrangler

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