“Hardest problem and biggest challenge”
President Mark Schlissel launched a campuswide conversation on diversity last month, calling for innovative and ambitious measures to address “the hardest problem and biggest challenge that we’re going to confront together.”
At a breakfast gathering of approximately 200 faculty, staff, student, and administrative leaders, Schlissel said improving diversity is key to meeting U-M’s aspirations as a great university.
He laid out immediate and long-term measures for U-M, and acknowledged that “the road ahead will be long; it will be hard.”
A major focus of his presidency
“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.”
Regent Shauna Ryder Diggs introduced Schlissel, repeatedly declaring that “now is the time” to address diversity in an honest and thoughtful manner, and to implement real change with strategic, detailed, and data-driven plans.
Schlissel acknowledged U-M’s complex history regarding diversity, which has spanned the civil rights movement, economic recessions and recoveries, and a legal landscape that includes the Gratz and Grutter cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and the 2006 amendment to the Michigan Constitution that prohibits discrimination and preferential treatment based on race, ethnicity, sex, or national origin in public education, public employment, or public contracting.
“I am confident, however, that within the current law, we can tap the full creativity and talent of the U-M community, and innovate to make a difference in the diversity of our students, faculty, and staff,” Schlissel said. “While the challenges to diversity, equity, and inclusion have been decades in the making, and though they continue to be present today, I have every confidence that they will not outlast our will.”
The big picture
The president elaborated on how addressing diversity is borne out in the University’s three primary aspirations to:
- Seek ever-increasing excellence in academics. “When we engage across differences as an academic community, we expand our opportunities to learn from one another — inside and outside of our classrooms — and research demonstrates that we also achieve better learning outcomes and produce more creative and important new knowledge and levels of understanding.”
- Fulfill its role as a public university. “If we do not address the very real challenges of ensuring significant racial diversity, we will not be able to best fulfill our public mission.”
- Be the leaders and best. “The Michigan community has a passion for solving problems, and we do not shrink from the biggest and most complex issues facing society.”
To realize its full potential, Schlissel said, U-M must find new ways to attract the students, faculty, and staff to ensure U-M truly looks “like the public we serve,” and that the campus climate “allows diversity to flourish — in all of its forms.”
“We cannot neglect any group in our work,” he said. “Those of different races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, faiths, income levels, political perspectives, viewpoints, and disabilities all must feel welcome.”
Course for the future
Toward that end, Schlissel outlined several components of the long-term course for the future:
- The University has started a Strategic Plan for Diversity, and he has asked schools, colleges, and central administration to create their own plans as well. The Flint and Dearborn campuses will be important partners in that effort, Schlissel said.
- He and Provost Martha Pollack will convene a meeting of all campus department chairs to discuss diversity and inclusion later this semester, and a campuswide Summit on Diversity will take place in the fall.
- New partnerships are being launched with K-12 school districts that serve underrepresented students, to identify and prepare students who show promise, and help their families understand all that’s involved in sending their children to U-M.
- New services are being developed for U-M students who are the first in their families to attend college.
- Professional development programs will be implemented to help new faculty to be effective teachers for all students.
- The Diversity Matters website will be significantly upgraded.
- Changes to the Race & Ethnicity educational requirement have been made in some schools and colleges and continue to be considered in others.
- A staff task force on diversity, equity, and inclusion in Human Resources will examine the hiring, promotion, and climate for staff, in particular staff who are part of underrepresented groups at U-M.
Two short-term measures that Schlissel highlighted are a series of personal visits he will make to high schools throughout the state that serve underrepresented students, and the continuation of Student Life’s Change It Up program.
Change It Up began last fall to help first-year students develop skills and confidence to intervene in situations that negatively affect individuals and the campus climate. It will repeat this fall for new first-year students, and some schools and colleges are implementing workshops for graduate students.
“I have asked Student Life to create a version of the program for staff and administrators,” Schlissel said. “When the program is ready, I will be in the first course — and I am asking the executive officers in my leadership team to join me.”
Schlissel said these efforts represent the start of plans that “inexorably link the values of excellence and diversity,” and include clear expectations and measures of accountability.
“I will work with the regents and Provost Pollack to identify and allocate resources as appropriate as they relate to diversity. I can assure you that every idea with merit and impact will have the full consideration of my team and me,” Schlissel said.
Questions and answers
In the discussion that followed his address, Schlissel answered a variety of questions and comments from audience members. Topics included:
What they should tell their colleagues about what they heard at the breakfast.
“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.”
U-M’s image as an elite institution that also is viewed in many communities as “elitist.” Schlissel said he was “troubled and a little bit hurt” by that perception.
“I think we have to approach the people of Michigan with more humility. And leadership has to show more humility, I believe, about our contributions, but also about the challenges we face and the ways in which we’re trying to adjust them, and the ways in which we’re imperfect.”
How to engage alumni in an admission process that looks beyond the traditional criteria of grades and test scores.
“We have many things we look for as we build a class of students and one of the things we look for is to diversify the class.” Schlissel noted that alumni could help promote understanding of that effort, and how it requires the University “to try to look for talent in all different kinds of places and measure that talent differently.”
Ways to inspire faculty to bring up and discuss in the classroom difficult issues related to diversity that might be easier to avoid.
“It’s not just a series of training programs that we can deliver to help faculty have tools, but it’s a faculty culture issue, and to change culture I think we need cultural champions to tell this story in audiences where not everyone is going to get it right away.”
A beacon for society at large
In conclusion, the president asked that all constituents who comprise the U-M community address these issues in a way that can serve as a beacon for the rest of higher education and society at large.
“I not only need your ideas, I need your criticism. 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,” Schlissel said, adding that “the conversation shifts through time.”
While it may have been considered a success just to talk about these issues in the past, now success is judged by looking “around us in the room and the room looks different. And that we’re truly making a difference in the world for one of the most important sets of issues that we’re going to confront, and that we leave our children a much better world than the one we inherited.”
This story appears courtesy of The University Record.