President Mark Schlissel emphasized the importance of collaboration, outlined his priorities and provided updates on several campus initiatives during his Oct. 7 President’s University Leadership Address.
Speaking to university leaders in the Robertson Auditorium of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and an online audience, Schlissel announced a new center for environmental justice at the School for Environment and Sustainability. He also highlighted efforts around research, poverty, the arts, carbon neutrality, and diversity, equity and inclusion.
Schlissel said as long as challenges remain in society, U-M’s work will be unfinished.
“The initiatives and issues I’ve discussed today are made possible by the breadth and depth of academic excellence at U-M combined with our public ethos,” he said. “Your commitment to challenging the present, enriching our future, and making our world better.
“We are a university whose work matters. And in the years to come, I pledge to you that our important work will continue — together.”
Schlissel said he is “exceedingly proud of what we have accomplished thus far together,” and remains excited about the future. He said details will be forthcoming about a handful of new initiatives, including a collaborative effort around federal research priorities that involves government programming, philanthropic interests and faculty expertise.
Schlissel’s speech came two days after he announced he would step down as president in June 2023. He said he made the announcement now to avoid uncertainty and to promote a thoughtful and deliberate transition.
Research initiatives, future of education
Schlissel spoke extensively about the university’s research enterprise, calling it a point of pride. He said year-to-date total research activity is 3.4 percent higher than 2019’s pre-pandemic levels. Federal research activity is up 17 percent from 2019.
Additionally, new proposal submissions are now greater than pre-pandemic levels.
“As part of our commitment to translating research to the marketplace, we are reporting 23 startups and 502 inventions during fiscal year 2021 — a level comparable to our best years,” Schlissel said.
Schlissel mentioned several research-related successes, including Blue Conduit, a startup from the Ross School that uses machine learning to help towns identify and replace lead-contaminated water lines; a $240 million collaboration between the startup EVOQ Therapeutics and Amgen for the development of novel drugs for autoimmune disorders; more than $4 million in outside funding for UM-Dearborn researchers in the first two months of this fiscal year; and the recent dedication of the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building.
He also highlighted the Biosciences Initiative, which is entering its fifth year. He said its successes include nine major scientific research initiatives in areas such as RNA biology, climate change biology and infectious disease threats.
Schlissel said the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention that launched two years ago is off to a strong start. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded a $6 million grant to support the U-M-based Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center. The money will support researchers partnering with communities to reduce youth firearm violence.
In addition, Schlissel said higher education is heading toward a blended future, where the boundaries between residential and online education are blurred.
He said that since the Center for Academic Innovation was launched in 2019, the number of massive open online course enrollments has doubled to 16 million. Unique learners count for half of that growth.
Schlissel said 96 percent of undergraduates and more than 100 other institutions are using educational software developed by the center. In addition, the center has partnered with 11 U-M schools and colleges for immersive learning projects under their XR initiative.
New environmental justice center
Schlissel said the university will build on its legacy in the environmental justice field thanks to the NorthLight Foundation and Dan and Sheryl Tishman committing more than $11.12 million to establish the Tishman Center for Social Justice and the Environment at the School for Environment and Sustainability.
The gift also creates the Tishman Scholarship Fund and two Tishman Professorships in Environmental Justice at SEAS and the College of Engineering.
“The Tishman Center will enable the university community to better integrate environmental justice into all solutions for the planet,” he said.
Carbon neutrality efforts
Saying U-M has never shied away from challenges, Schlissel noted the university’s commitments to achieve a net-zero endowment by 2050 and reach carbon neutrality.
He said U-M is working to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from direct, on-campus sources, reduce emissions from purchased electricity to net-zero, and establish innovative goals for emissions from indirect sources like commuting, university travel and food procurement. The university recently purchased four electric buses for deployment on the Ann Arbor campus.
Schlissel also said U-M is looking forward to installing its first geothermal heating and cooling systems for the Beyster Building.
About half of the purchased electricity for the Ann Arbor campus now comes from Michigan-sourced renewable wind energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Schlissel said U-M is making significant investments in carbon neutrality research and development, building on multidisciplinary initiatives like the Carbon Neutrality Acceleration Program, the Global CO2 Initiative and the Institute for Global Change Biology. In its first round of funding, the Acceleration Program awarded $1.75 million to seven projects that have the potential to help reduce net carbon emissions.
“We all have a role to play in making U-M the most sustainable university it can be,” Schlissel said.
Schlissel said thanks to the efforts of students, faculty, staff, health care professionals, donors and community and government partners, the university is once again buzzing with activity.
“You are helping us overcome a global pandemic, and we’ve regained those parts of our mission that have made us excellent for more than two centuries,” he said.
Schlissel specifically mentioned the work of the Campus Health Response Committee he established in July 2020; the Emergency Operations Center COVID-19 Planning Team, which includes staff representing multiple units from all three campuses and Michigan Medicine; and the Faculty COVID-19 Council.
He noted the ongoing efforts around health and safety and the high vaccination levels in the campus community.
“The universitywide commitment to moving us forward amidst a very challenging pandemic will forever be one of my most meaningful memories,” he said.
Importance of the arts
Schlissel said the Arts Initiative he launched at his leadership address in 2019 has helped the community find ways to heal from the coronavirus pandemic.
He cited examples of projects under the initiative, such as cellist YoYo Ma spending a six-month residency alongside students and local artists to develop a “Travel Guide for Talking Hearts.” Other pilot projects have been launched, including “Envisioning Real Utopias,” a collaboration across the social sciences and architecture.
Schlissel said several other projects are underway, including a Culture Corps of community college and U-M undergraduate students who will receive paid immersive internships in southeast Michigan arts and culture organizations.
Its goals are threefold: to help encourage a sustained “pipeline” of diverse students in arts and culture careers, to encourage and expose students to humanities majors and careers generally, and to support a breadth of art and culture organizations with a consistent group of paid students.
“As we all look ahead to what the future holds for our campus, the Arts Initiative will be a vital force for advancing new ways to solve problems, heal, connect, learn and grow,” Schlissel said.
Diversity, equity and inclusion
Over the past several months, Schlissel said, the U-M community has responded to inequities and injustice with impressive advocacy. For instance, he said, university research has helped bring into focus the disproportionate harms of COVID-19, the rise of xenophobia, and the impact of police violence on mental health.
With the pandemic disparately affecting people with disabilities, Schlissel said U-M will continue to rethink and promote equitable access and opportunities for all, including through the Toward an Anti-Ableist Academy conference this month.
Schlissel said while the university has made tremendous progress with its initial five-year Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, there is still much work to do. Details about U-M’s new DEI 2.0 initiative will be shared at next week’s DEI Summit. He said the initiative will include a census survey open to all students, faculty and staff on campus beginning in late October, as well as a scientific sampling of the opinions of the community.
Schlissel also noted that the Provost’s Office’s anti-racism initiatives are moving forward, including the faculty hiring initiative and implementation of recommendations from the Advancing Public Safety Task Force.
The Office of the Vice President for Research, in partnership with the National Center for Institutional Diversity, recently awarded nearly $500,000 in anti-racism grants to eight research teams from across the Ann Arbor campus.
“To make our university a better place today, we must examine the racism and lack of inclusion that has been part of our past, part of our own history and that of our nation,” Schlissel said.
Schlissel highlighted the work of Poverty Solutions, an initiative created in 2016 to find new ways to prevent and alleviate poverty.
He said the recent expansion of the Child Tax Credit was motivated in part by the efforts of Luke Shaefer, director of Poverty Solutions, the Hermann and Amalie Kohn Professor of Social Justice and Social Policy, and professor of public policy and of social work.
He said a 30 percent decline in food insufficiency for adults with children and a 43 percent decline in food insufficiency for low-income households shown in recent Census Bureau research are the result of the payments that went out under the expanded Child Tax Credit.
Schlissel said Shaefer and his colleagues advocated for the expanded credit, providing analysis that demonstrated its benefits, and in July 2020, testified before Congress.
“Thanks to many faculty, students, staff and an impressive array of partners, we are realizing this initiative’s vision: to inform, seek out, and test new strategies for preventing and alleviating poverty,” he said.
Schlissel said Poverty Solutions’ impact doesn’t end there, with a bipartisan group of U.S. senators citing a report by U-M’s Jen Erb-Downward as motivation for an additional $800 million to help homeless public school students during the pandemic.
He said the initiative also helped shape a $50 million eviction prevention fund in Michigan.
Recognizing faculty and staff
Schlissel also honored top faculty who were elected to national academies, as well as others who have been honored since his last in-person leadership address. He said U-M has 10 new Thurnau professors, six Sloan Research Fellows, five Guggenheim Fellows, two Carnegie Fellows and one MacArthur Fellow.
He noted that U-M has welcomed several new deans and three interim deans, as well as three new executive officers, a provost at UM-Flint and an interim provost at UM-Dearborn.
Schlissel also thanked former Vice President for Government Relations Cynthia Wilbanks for her service. She retired last year.
Responding to an audience member’s question about his future plans, Schlissel said there are a lot of things he’s excited about and interested in doing before he leaves the presidency.
He said he will support his successor and help with the transition. He also said he has no specific plans, but pointed out that he’s a tenured member of U-M’s faculty.
“Before I started doing academic leadership work, I was just an old biology professor,” he said. “I taught undergrads and graduate students and medical students at different institutions. I ran a research lab trying to understand the mechanisms of the immune system.
“If nothing more interesting comes along, I’m going to go back to what I know how to do and love, which is teaching and research.”