It has been one year since the university community officially welcomed President Mark S. Schlissel to campus as the 14th president of the University of Michigan.
And what a year it has been.
The president spent much of his freshman year at Michigan listening and learning as he met with faculty, staff and students on all three campuses, welcomed new executive officers to the university leadership team, met with alumni and donors around the state and across the nation, and made his first international trip to China.
He sketched out initial plans to put academic excellence, diversity and affordability foremost among his priorities for the university, set Intercollegiate Athletics on the road to success, asked for a comprehensive study of the university’s sustainability goals and commissioned an advisory panel on the biosciences.
Today, as we mark the start of Schlissel’s second academic year at the helm of one of the world’s top research universities, The University Record offers this update from the president in a question-and-answer format.
Q. It was just a year ago this week that you were inaugurated as the 14th president of the university. How would you sum up your first year?
It really has been an incredible year. I committed my first year to listening — to students, faculty, staff, alumni and other supporters — and in that regard I was very successful. I met members of our community here in Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Flint, and in cities around Michigan and throughout the country, and even in Shanghai and Beijing. I learned a lot about this university, the community, the state and the region.
These conversations helped me appreciate the many strengths of our great university and identify the areas I want to focus on in the years to come.
Q. What has impressed you the most about the university community during the course of your first year here?
I saw firsthand that the University of Michigan’s academic strengths run broad and deep. There’s really no place like it in higher education in terms of scale, scope and breadth of excellence. These strengths are the result of talented and committed people.
Our faculty members are not just outstanding scholars; they also love to teach. The deans and department chairs throughout U-M do a great job of identifying and recruiting the very best scholars.
I have been very impressed by our students on more occasions than I can count. They are passionate about making an impact, entrepreneurial and socially conscious. Their research, inventions and engaged learning projects are remarkable.
Our thousands of staff members make this massive place run smoothly. Often, they are the primary points of contact with our thousands of students, visitors and patients. The way they represent the university is outstanding. And I’ve seen that my predecessors worked hard to make sure campus facilities are in great shape. Space really does matter for learning. In addition, our health system is taking very good care of the patients from all over the region and around the world.
Q. You outlined three broad areas of emphasis during your inauguration address: Open and civil discourse, our responsibility as a public university to benefit the public, and the importance of maintaining U-M as a diverse and democratic community that is open and accessible. How has the university community responded so far in each of those areas?
I have worked very hard to keep the lines of dialogue open with all segments of our community. And people in our community have certainly not been afraid to tell me when they disagree. Overall, this discourse is productive. Talking to people in our many constituencies is a never-ending process, as it should be. I’m going to keep listening as we move forward. At a place like U-M, you never want to stop listening and learning.
The university has launched outstanding projects that benefit the public in recent years. The Mobility Transformation Center on North Campus, with its Mcity test track for autonomous vehicles, and the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation are terrific examples.
I want us to aspire to conduct research at the highest levels for the benefit of society and be known as the best public institution for discovery in the world. One of my most important duties is working with faculty to make that happen.
I am working to help us leverage U-M’s breadth of academic excellence across our many excellent disciplines. And improving the diversity of our campus community — among students, faculty and staff — is very important. We cannot be excellent without being diverse in the broadest sense of that word.
Q. What are your areas of focus for the university as you head into year two and the years ahead?
I am focusing broadly on about a half dozen areas as we move forward. Academic excellence; increasing access and affordability; increasing diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the campus community; enhancing collaboration and partnerships with our regional campuses in Flint and Dearborn along with other universities throughout the state; fostering U-M’s global footprint; ensuring that the U-M Health System is the best it can be in research, teaching and patient care. I would consider these my primary areas of focus, and I’ll be sharing more specifics during the fall semester.
Q. You regularly emphasize the academic excellence of the university and talk about wanting to enhance academic excellence. How do you anticipate doing that work in the years ahead?
I want to position U-M for perpetual excellence in research and education with public impact, research that addresses major societal issues, scholarship and creative works that enriches the human experience. To best achieve this, I hope to help our faculty be entrepreneurial in nature and to leverage the remarkable breadth of U-M’s academic portfolio.
Our potential to be more than the sum of our many excellent parts is truly exciting. To do this, we will prioritize cross-disciplinary approaches. I also hope we are able to increase collaboration cross our three campuses in Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn and look for ways we can extend that to other colleges and universities in the state.
Q. You will be providing the university community an update tomorrow on the diversity strategic planning process. Can you give a little preview of what that message will be and the path forward on this important topic?
Diversity is a key ingredient in excellence. We cannot be excellent without being diverse. Learning across differences is essential if we are to prepare students best for the world they will encounter after graduation.
I have made diversity, equity and inclusion a focus of my presidency. Having the right structures in place is critical to keeping us moving forward. The update tomorrow will discuss some of those structures and identify the people in each campus unit who will be involved in the planning process in the months ahead. We will continue to engage faculty, staff, and students throughout U-M in this process.
Tomorrow’s update also will highlight some of the new approaches we are trying. For instance, we have just launched a pilot scholarship program that we believe will help recruit high-achieving students from economically disadvantaged families throughout our state.
This pilot is called the High Achieving Involved Leader (HAIL) program, and it is designed to increase applications to U-M from high-achieving, low-income students.
If they apply and are admitted, these students will be provided with a scholarship covering four years of full tuition and fees.
There is so much positive momentum and energy around diversity, equity and inclusion at Michigan.
Q. College affordability remains a critical issue for students and their families. How will the university maintain its focus on this important topic?
We will continue to look for additional areas for operational efficiencies while also making important investments to maintain academic excellence. Finding that right balance is critical. The goal is to keep the increase in tuition as small as possible. The university has done a good job of that during some tough economic times over the past decade.
At the same time we’ve significantly increased financial aid resources so that aid has covered any increase in cost for most in-state students receiving financial aid. More than 70 percent of our in-state undergraduates are receiving need-based financial aid. And the Victors for Michigan campaign now underway has a goal of raising $1 billion for student support. That’s an aggressive goal, and I’m happy to report we are about halfway there.
It takes a combination of all those elements — cost control, increasing financial aid, tuition restraint, philanthropy — along with what we hope will be a continuation of modest increases in state support, to keep higher education affordable.
Q. From your perspective as a physician-scientist, how does the university’s medical enterprise fit into your vision for the future of the university?
The patient care that our physicians provide for residents of our state and beyond is an essential part of our mission. Our medicine saves people’s lives every day in Michigan. Health care today operates in a fast-changing and competitive environment. Our health system must be well managed and strategic in focus. I have tremendous confidence in the new head of our health system, Dr. Marschall Runge, who is bringing new ideas to the table.
Q. You also spent a fair amount of time in your first year focused on athletics issues. How do you see that situation today?
I think this is an exciting time to be a fan of Michigan Athletics. Jim Hackett, our interim athletic director, has us moving in the right direction. I took my first “road trip” for the football game in Utah. (Michigan lost, 24-17.) There were nearly 1,000 fans at our tailgate. The energy is palpable. I’m looking forward to the rest of the football season, as well as hearing about the many other U-M student-athletes who are such great ambassadors for our campus. My respect for our student-athletes continues to grow as I see for myself the commitment they make to achieve excellence on the field of competition and success in the classroom.
Q. Sexual misconduct among students remains an important issue facing higher education. The university has released its own campus climate survey data, and data from the Association of American Universities’ survey will be released this fall. How will this survey information help U-M address this important issue?
The U-M survey results are helping us revise and better target our educational efforts. We already have made changes in programming and brought on additional staff to speed up investigations, and provide additional support for survivors.
The results of the AAU survey will be available this fall, and we’ll use that additional information as we move forward. Our goal with the surveys this year was to undertake a thorough, transparent and honest self-examination of sexual misconduct on our campus, and to provide baseline information as we work to diminish its incidence. Now we are using the data to help our students.
Q. Related to that is the issue of binge drinking among college students. What role will you play as president in the university’s efforts to temper college-age drinking?
Our actions to reduce dangerous drinking are intended to reduce the risk of harm and increase the safety of students. We have taken a comprehensive evidence-based approach to reducing alcohol harm.
While we continue to emphasize bystander-intervention educational programming, we are also implementing additional strategies. We will be working more closely with Ann Arbor police in off-campus areas, and we’ll be notifying parents of first-year students after a second violation of university drug or alcohol policies. The health and safety of students is our No. 1 priority and I take that responsibility seriously as president.
Q. There also have been concerns about inappropriate behavior within the Greek Life community and U-M is taking steps to explore some new approaches there. How important will changes in Greek Life be for the U-M student community?
We are working collaboratively with national Greek organizations, alumni, students and parents to refocus our large Greek Life community on the core values of those Greek organizations.
We had a good meeting this summer with national Greek organizations. Our approach has been collaborative, with the national organizations, alumni, students and parents.
We are redoubling our efforts on educational programming and having important discussions about how we can maintain positive aspects of the Greek system like service and lifelong friendships while minimizing risky and unacceptable behaviors.
Q. The university has many strong connections to Detroit, where the university was started nearly 200 years ago. How will the university continue to solidify its relationship with Detroit in the future?
We are engaged in Detroit at many levels and across nearly every discipline. Our schools, colleges and faculty members are leading research and teaching programs, and student groups are conducting service-learning projects working alongside residents who are creating a better future for the city. Some of the efforts are new, having been created to respond to emerging opportunities.
We launched a website that describes some the hundreds of activities we have in Detroit. I have been in the city numerous times to see the work being done by our faculty and students. Their creativity and passion for improving communities is apparent in this work. I don’t see our momentum ebbing anytime soon.
Q. How do you see the Flint and Dearborn campuses fitting in with your vision for the university?
Both campuses are critical to how we serve the state and society at large. I’m looking to identify more opportunities for students and faculty members to collaborate across the breadth of the university. We have so many combined strengths among our three campuses. Greater levels of collaboration will allow us to have more impact. I want our three campuses to take more advantage of one another.
Q. You had some key leadership positions to fill when you arrived. How important has it been to find the right people to fill such openings as chief financial officer and the executive vice president for medical affairs? What is your assessment of the university’s leadership team overall?
We have a great team in place and the additions we have made are very positive for the university. I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with them on a daily basis, as well as with the people in their organizations.
Provost Martha Pollack also is working to recruit new deans in several schools. This is part of the normal transition at the university as deans typically are limited to serving two five-year terms. It’s important to bring in new leaders with new ideas and areas of focus.