Driving the cadence of human progress

October 7, 2021

It’s a pleasure to welcome you to this year’s leadership address – my seventh since beginning as president.

Can you believe it’s been seven-plus years?

This is the eighth year of my presidency and an important time to think about the future we will share.

It’s impossible to have the view that I do and see the lives we save, the students we educate, the knowledge we create, and the frontiers we challenge without also considering how to best position this wonderful university for perpetual success.

During this pandemic, we’ve endured more than our fair share of changes that happen overnight.

And we’ve heard the words “uncertain” and “unprecedented” so frequently that they were very quickly deemed overused.

I announced my decision recently to step down as president at the end of June 2023 in an effort to avoid uncertainty, and to be in keeping with the precedent that the best transitions occur at the right time and are thoughtful and deliberate.

I’ve discussed this with our Regents and feel that an announcement a couple years out allows for a smooth transition, which I will support in every way I can while ensuring that we can continue the important work we’re doing.

What is certain is U-M’s deep commitment to improving our community and world, along with the abundance of resolve that has always been a defining quality of our university.

We drive the cadence of human progress.

There is no truth we fail to pursue, no problem we back away from, and no line of inquiry we will not cross.

I am exceedingly proud of what we have accomplished thus far together, and remain excited about what we are planning for the years ahead.

I was reminded again of that promising future last week.

On Friday, Regent Acker and I joined Dean Curzan for the ceremonial opening of the LSA Building renovation and addition.

As a gorgeous, state-of-the-art home for the liberal arts on our campus, it’s an outstanding milestone for the University of Michigan.

It’s a place of learning, support, and ideas – like the Opportunity Hub and the OptiMize program.

Where academic advising is coordinated with internships and career services.

Where students can network, collaborate, innovate, have social impact, and imagine the road ahead.

It’s also a monument to where we are going as a university.

We are a university whose work matters.

Like the new space in LSA, U- M is uniting our formidable disciplinary strength, better serving our students and engaging with community and business partners, alumni, and donors to address major societal challenges.

As I’ve said before, initiatives and projects that bring us together make us better.

I’m going to share some updates and announcements that focus on making us an increasingly relevant and innovative university – an institution that draws excellence from the full breadth of our community, keeps its doors open wide to provide opportunity to talented people from all parts of our state and beyond, adapts to the needs and changes in society, leads the world to greater levels of understanding, and directs our intellectual might to the service of our public mission.

This fall, we have felt this much more poignantly.

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.

Our students are taking classes in-person, delivered in modalities based on world-class pedagogy.

Our research enterprise, which I’ll discuss in more detail shortly, is back in full stride.

Our students, faculty, and staff have blended traditional and remote methods of service to make greater positive differences in communities.

And the full residential experience has returned in all of its co-curricular glory.

As Roni Kane wrote in the Michigan Daily’s story on the Glass Animals concert: “Thursday night made it official: The Wolverines are back on campus.”

Thanks to extremely high levels of vaccination and additional public health measures, we’ve transitioned from daily worries about heat maps to cheering on “Heat Waves” in the Crisler Center.

Our health and safety efforts are ongoing, but we crossed a significant threshold 39 days ago when we opened Michigan Stadium for an in-person Student Convocation.

It was a very special afternoon for all of us.

The first-year students who joined us for Convocation were from amongst the largest applicant pool in U-M history and members of our most competitive undergraduate class ever.

Our classrooms, residence halls, performance venues, and athletic facilities are full of activity because of the thousands of you who made this type of semester possible ­– the health care professionals on the front lines; the instructors who adapted their courses; the dining and custodial professionals who are front and center, and the staff working behind the scenes; the students who persevered, helped others and inspired us; the donors whose generosity helped us address critical issues; and our community and government partners who collaborated with us to make our region, state and world better.

Campus Health Response Committee

I established the Campus Health Response Committee in July 2020 to support the health of the university community during this pandemic.

They meet multiple times a week and are experts in their domains.

As many of you know, there is a complex and constantly changing mix of federal, state, and local public health guidelines that influence what we do on our campuses.

The CHRC members stay abreast of these guidelines, along with the most up-to-date research.

A much larger group of five dozen or so, called the Emergency Operations Center COVID-19 Planning Team, includes staff representing multiple units from all three campuses and Michigan Medicine.

At the outset of the pandemic, they met daily – and that meant seven times a week.

They instituted a tool for quickly sharing information, and their expertise helped the leadership team and me be more responsive to needs at a university that is large and decentralized.

Thank you, EOC members.

SACUA (Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs) has also selected new members for the second Faculty COVID-19 Council to share ideas and concerns.

Provost (Susan) Collins and I are meeting with them regularly.

The universitywide commitment to moving us forward amidst a very challenging pandemic will forever be one of my most meaningful memories.

Thank you.

Honored Faculty

One of the traditions of this event is honoring those faculty who were elected to national academies.

This year, we’re celebrating two cohorts worth of top faculty, as we didn’t meet last year.

In addition to the national academies, we count 10 new Thurnau professors, six Sloan Research Fellows, five Guggenheim Fellows, two Carnegie Fellows, and one MacArthur fellow.

You can see the full list on the screen, and some of these colleagues are here today.

In the past year and a half, we’ve been pleased to welcome three interim deans across the university and several new deans.

At UM-Flint, Cynthia McCurren leads the School of Nursing, Beth Kubitskey leads the School of Education and Human Services, and Christopher Pearson leads the new College of Innovation and Technology.

At UM-Dearborn, Ghassan Kridli leads the College of Engineering and Computer Science and Ann Lampkin-Williams leads the College of Education, Health, and Human Services.

Flint’s Provost, Sonja Feist-Price, began last year, and Dearborn’s interim Provost is Gabriella Scarlatta.

Among executive officers, Chris Kolb began as our Vice President for Government Relations in January, and Geoffrey Chatas began as our Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer last week.

Also attending his first Leadership Address is Vice President for Student Life Martino Harmon, who joined us in July of 2020.

Welcome, colleagues!

Honoring Former Vice President Cynthia Wilbanks

The realities of the pandemic last year meant we were not able to say farewell to one of our longtime colleagues in person.

When Cynthia Wilbanks was nominated as the Vice President for Government Relations in 1998, President Bollinger cited her “leadership and wisdom” and noted she was an “astute student of politics.”

At the end of last year, she retired from U-M after an extraordinary career.

I know I am not alone in saying I relied on her wisdom, leadership, and political acumen over the years.

During her quarter century with us, she helped to redefine the role of the public university in society.

It has always been her belief that U-M must be an immutable part of the local, state, and national landscape, and that we must help to develop the policies and economic opportunities that benefit our communities.

The partnerships she built led to unparalleled opportunities for our students and researchers that are in force today.

At U-M she worked with four governors, 10 speakers of the state house, six U.S. Secretaries of Education, three Ann Arbor mayors, and dozens upon dozens of legislators.

She maintained and strengthened these relationships through incredibly hard work, and is a repository of knowledge of state politics.

One of my favorite stories is that she once took a pen out of her handbag during a meeting to hand draw a map of a Congressional district to emphasize her point.

She also recognized that faculty expertise can elevate national discourse and be a powerful tool in advocacy, not just for universities but for the issues that matter most to our citizens.

Thank you, Cynthia.

Research Excellence

One area of our pandemic response that we can all take tremendous pride in is our research enterprise.

As it has for more than 200 years, Michigan research triumphed.

In key measures, we are exceeding pre-pandemic levels of productivity.

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 and new proposal submissions are now higher 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.

U-M is ranked No. 2 in the country for startup company formation, behind only MIT.

Our successes include Blue Conduit, a startup from the Ross School of Business that uses machine learning to help towns identify and replace lead-contaminated water lines.

And earlier this year, the startup EVOQ Therapeutics announced a $240 million collaboration with Amgen for the redevelopment of novel drugs for autoimmune disorders.

UM-Dearborn reports that researchers have been awarded more than $4 million in outside funding for the first two months of this fiscal year – which is more than half of last year’s annual total.

The boost has come from federal sources, primarily the National Science Foundation, which is a change for a campus whose largest funder normally has been industry.

Well done!

Last month, we celebrated the dedication of the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building, which extends what we consider a model industry alliance in higher education.

It advances U-M research, provides exceptional opportunities for students and is the first university-private sector collaborative building in our 200-year history.

In addition to our existing research efforts across the university, we are working to align information about future government programming, philanthropic interests, and faculty expertise to stimulate new important collaborative work on federal research priorities.

You’ll hear more about this from Vice President (Rebecca) Cunningham in the coming weeks.

Biosciences Initiative

Our Biosciences Initiative enters its fifth year with a new coordinating committee comprised of stellar U-M faculty.

Its successes thus far include creating nine major scientific research initiatives in areas such as RNA biology, climate change biology, and infectious disease threats.

We’ve also created or improved eight research cores and started five new competitive funding programs.

The initiative has enhanced synergy across the life sciences and related disciplines, with involvement from 14 of our schools and colleges.

Hiring for the 30 new faculty positions we allocated will continue in the months ahead, and funds that have been allocated will be put to work.

Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention

Our Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention we launched two years ago is off to a successful start, as well.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded a $6 million grant to support the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center.

Based at U-M, the center is one of only five National Centers of Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention.

The grant will support researchers partnering with communities on innovative projects that seek to reduce youth firearm violence.

It also adds to our leadership, as U-M researchers have secured more federal funding to study firearm injury prevention than any other academic institution in our nation.

Poverty Solutions

In 2016 at this event, we announced the creation of the Poverty Solutions initiative, based on recommendations made by faculty in a report earlier that year.

I remember their ideas and conclusions well.

They found that while research on poverty was being conducted in many of our departments, the scholars were often working wholly independently and unaware of each other.

And not all of our work was having the impact it deserved.

Five years later, that has changed.

Recent Census Bureau research has shown a 30 percent decline in food insufficiency for adults with children and a 43 percent decline in food insufficiency for low-income households.

These hopeful declines in hardship are the result of the payments that went out this year under the expanded Child Tax Credit ­– an expansion The New York Times and Time Magazine report was motivated in part by the work of Professor Luke Shaefer and Poverty Solutions.

Dr. Shaefer and his colleagues advocated for the expanded credit, providing analysis that demonstrated its benefits, and in July 2020, testified before Congress.

The CTC expansion was signed into law by President Biden on March 11, 2021, as part of the American Rescue Plan.

After it passed, Poverty Solutions joined Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and a broad Southeast Michigan coalition to connect families to the CTC and created a website with step-by-step guidance for parents to ensure they receive it.

The White House has called it one of the strongest outreach efforts in the nation.

And Dr. Shaefer was back in the House of Representatives last month to testify on the benefits of making the CTC permanent.

A policy brief by Poverty Solutions faculty members Natasha Pilkauskas and Patrick Cooney provides even more promising data.

They note that collaborators at Columbia University estimate that the expanded CTC has already reduced child poverty by nearly 30 percent.

That’s 3.5 million children lifted out of poverty, and this number is expected to grow even higher as more families receive payments.

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.

And we’re seeing the benefits during a time when our work was so desperately needed.

Poverty Solutions’ impact does not end there.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators cited 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.

The initiative helped shape a $50 million eviction prevention fund here in Michigan that U-M researchers found cut the number of evictions to a tiny fraction of what they were the previous year.

We are a university whose work matters.

Academic Innovation

As leaders, we are all aware of trends that are shaping the future of higher education.

There are fewer graduates from our high schools, public funding is viewed as a political fight rather than an investment and many communities have less access and opportunity throughout their educational journeys.

We are strategically tacking through the headwinds, and as we have throughout our history, Michigan is leading the field.

Helping us navigate this journey is our Center for Academic Innovation.

In discussing their book, “Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education,” Josh Kim of Dartmouth and Eddie Maloney of Georgetown “point to what is going on at Michigan as an example of a larger trend, one of colleges and universities creating new organizational structures — and committing significant resources — to drive the advancement of student learning.”

The Center for Academic Innovation is regarded as a leader in higher education.

Since its launch in 2019, we doubled our MOOC enrollments to 16 million – with unique learners accounting for half that growth.

They come from all around the globe, and there are more learners in India than in the United States.

We’re transforming residential education, as well.

Ninety-six percent of U-M undergraduates and more than 100 other institutions are using educational software developed by the center.

The center has partnered with 11 of our schools and colleges for immersive learning projects under their XR initiative.

Higher education is trending toward a blended future, where the boundaries between residential and online education are blurred.

This is happening at the same time that many careers will require upskilling again and again over the course of decades, and workers all over the globe will be competing in the same job market.

We are envisioning opportunities in lifelong education that are interdisciplinary, interprofessional, and intergenerational, with more pathways for diverse learners in a more inclusive environment.

These opportunities will be bolstered by key U-M strengths in curricular innovation, data and research, and educational technology, as we move toward a global virtual campus that will stand alongside the world-class residential experience we will always offer on our campus.

Carbon Neutrality

​​U- M has never shied from the biggest challenges.

No matter the complexity, we confront them head on, especially when solutions are not yet clear.

This summer’s United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report concluded that some climate change effects accelerated by human activity are already irreversible for centuries and millennia to come.

In March, we announced new strategies pertaining to our endowment and its natural resources investments.

We committed to achieve a net-zero endowment by 2050 – the first such pledge from an American public university.

In May, we committed to achieve carbon neutrality at U-M, based on the detailed recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Carbon Neutrality.

We’re 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.

Progress is well underway.

We look forward to installing U-M’s first geothermal heating and cooling systems for the Beyster Building.

We’re preparing to formally present this project to the Board of Regents for their approval as we consider future geothermal energy projects.

Approximately half of the purchased electricity for the Ann Arbor campus now comes from Michigan-sourced renewable wind energy.

This reduces U-M greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually — equivalent to the annual emissions generated by 12,000 homes.

In the first step toward decarbonizing our vehicle fleet, we’ve purchased four all-electric buses for deployment next year on the Ann Arbor campus with many more to come.

Groups are working toward purchasing more electricity from renewable sources, implementing sustainable building standards, instilling a culture of sustainability, and pursuing other key actions.

Likewise, various units and colleges are taking their own actions.

LSA established a task force to identify immediate and long-term goals that can propel it to carbon neutrality.

UM-Flint established its own sustainability committee, addressing important topics like fleet electrification and energy use tracking.

The campus is also collaborating with the City of Flint on the city’s development of an environmental sustainability plan.

Additionally, we’re expanding the Planet Blue Ambassador program to the Flint and Dearborn campuses to empower community members to live, work and learn sustainably.

Ultimately, our most important contribution will come from our strength as a research university.

That’s why we’re 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, each with dramatic potential to help reduce net carbon emissions.

We all have a role to play in making U-M the most sustainable university that it can be.

Critical to all of this will be a new campus executive leader, tasked with managing and coordinating carbon neutrality-related efforts universitywide.

We’re preparing a national search that we’ll conduct in the months ahead.

In all of our carbon neutrality efforts, we’ll listen and learn from key communities to ensure that what we put into practice is not only environmentally sustainable but socially just.

Climate change and other environmental challenges affect us all, but do not affect us all equally.

Frontline and fenceline communities are bearing the burden of the climate crisis.

I’m pleased to announce an important step we’re taking to advance this value.

The NorthLight Foundation and Dan and Sheryl Tishman have committed an $11.125 million gift 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.

These initiatives will build on U-M’s legacy in the environmental justice field.

We were the first university to define environmental justice as an academic field nearly 30 years ago—elevating the idea that all of us, and especially those most vulnerable, have the right to protection from environmental risks and representation in decision-making.

The Tishman Center will enable the university community to better integrate environmental justice into all solutions for the planet.

Arts Initiative

The last time we gathered for this address in 2019, I announced the start-up phase of a comprehensive arts initiative to unleash imagination and creativity at the University of Michigan.

In the two years since, the challenges we’ve faced have acutely demonstrated why the arts are indispensable to a healthy, functioning society.

To illustrate this point, I’m going to talk about a passion of mine: Immunology.

I promise this will be brief.

A while ago, there was a 13-year-old boy who lived in France.

The CUNY historian Bert Hansen writes that this boy “exhibited a precocious talent for drawing,” and studied for six years under two art teachers.

He would remain “actively engaged in the fine arts throughout his life,” but he was never well-known for these pursuits.

Instead, his legacy is based on what he would later study, disciplines in which he would achieve greatness: Chemistry, physics, microbiology, and, yes, immunology.

Where would we be in this pandemic, and how many more lives would be lost, without the contributions and pioneering vaccine research of Louis Pasteur?

That teenager who studied drawing and whose later pastels were lauded by prominent Parisian artists.

Hansen asserts that the habits Pasteur developed as an artist helped him to see “things without distraction” and “conceptualizing things in three dimensions.”

A fundamental notion behind our initiative is the idea that that the arts are as essential to a university as they are to life itself – making us excellent, complete, and comprehensive; teaching us new ways to visualize, imagine, and understand; and taking us far beyond their instrumental value to a place where we can, as this university has always aspired to do, answer the most profound questions in life.

During the start-up phase, the Arts Initiative has helped us find ways to heal from the pandemic.

In partnership with our University Musical Society, YoYo Ma spent a six-month residency alongside our students and local artists to develop a “Travel Guide for Talking Hearts.”

One aspect of this guide called on participants to reflect through writing, drawing and conversation on questions such as “What must we remember about this past year, and what must we forget?”

Our Arts Initiative has also launched several pilot projects, including “Envisioning Real Utopias,” a collaboration across the social sciences and architecture.

The project demonstrates the promise of a new form of creative collaboration to address urgent problems.

By borrowing from arts practice, this pilot will envision alternative housing arrangements and wealth distribution to provide a blueprint for how we can build a more equitable society.

Another Arts Initiative project united a team of data scientists, artists, designers, curators, and digital collection experts.

They applied face-recognition algorithms to examine UMMA’s entire collection, assess how it represents humanity, and examine how data science and the arts can amplify one another to advance social justice.

The Arts Initiative has a new managing director, Christopher Audain, and it’s moving into an accelerating phase in its work to more deeply weave the fabric of the arts into our entire university mission, experience, and identity.

There are several more impactful projects already underway for the year ahead.

For instance, the initiative is establishing 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.

Additionally, the UMS presentation of Fiddler on the Roof will provide a unique opportunity to explore the impact of how our communities and traditions are impacted by surrounding socio-political upheavals.

This is a new model partnership that brings together performative and scholarly elements. 

Collaborators include SMTD (School of Music, Theatre & Dance), LSA, the Grand Rapids Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

We will examine Fiddler through a broader lens, embracing a diverse cast of individuals affected by oppression and displacement, and telling a vital Jewish narrative in a contemporary global context.

As we 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.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Over the past several months, the University of Michigan community has responded to the inequities and injustices in our society with an impressive breadth of actions of advocacy.

U-M research has helped us understand the disproportionate harms of COVID-19, the rise of xenophobia and the impact of police violence on mental health.

We’ve provided support and healing when we’ve felt the painful effects of white supremacy, racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and hate.

Members of our community have directed their service and scholarship to advance equality and justice through university efforts that include Academic Innovation, Faculty Public Engagement, and the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship.

The pandemic has had a disparate impact on members in our community who have disabilities.

So we will continue to rethink and promote equitable access and opportunities for all – as we are with the Toward an Anti-Ableist Academy conference that is taking place throughout October.

One of the goals of our Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion was to ensure that our highest values are built into our decision-making and the work we do in units all across our campus.

DEI is forged into our teaching and learning, research, patient care, budgeting, hiring, student recruitment, and campus events.

We’ve also more explicitly engaged in a larger dialogue about inclusivity and racism – questioning not only policies and actions, but also the structural foundations of many institutions in society, including our own.

Though we’ve made tremendous progress with our initial five-year DEI Strategic Plan, there is still much work to be done and this requires constant vigilance and a commitment to continuous improvement.

At next week’s summit, we’ll have more to share on DEI 2.0, including the planning underway to shape the next initiative.

This 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 our community.

I hope that you will join me in participating in the month of activities associated with the summit.

We’ll be continuing our work to advance DEI over the next year.

The Provost’s Office’s Anti-Racism Initiatives are moving forward.

This includes the faculty hiring initiative and implementation of many 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.

They will explore both the systemic and interpersonal racial inequalities to ultimately inform actions to achieve equity and justice.

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.

This includes actions that were taken and structures that caused harm to groups in our community and questioning “common sense” that actually represents systematic inequity.

Many of these factors continue to influence U-M generations later, and a fuller reckoning will help to make us a more equitable and inclusive campus and steer our direction in the future.

I’ve been having conversations with many on campus about what this examination should look like, and we’ll have more to announce on this in the months to come.

We will also continue our pressing work to transform how the university prioritizes the principles of care, support, and education in the prevention and adjudication of sexual misconduct – including the cultural journey group led by Sonya Jacobs and Dean Patricia Hurn.


In the ceremonial sense, my Michigan journey began seven years and one month ago, as my inauguration kicked off in this very room.

Back then, it was called Blau Auditorium.

We hadn’t yet opened up the Jeff T. Blau Hall next door to here.

That day, we held symposia on the future of the biomedical research enterprise and privacy and identity in a hyperconnected world.

Those symposia addressed problems that were both generations in the making and changing by the day.

Problems that demanded the attention of not just physicians and computer scientists, but also historians, engineers, attorneys, biostatisticians, neuroscientists, and behavioral scientists.

And that day, they were all up here on this stage, demonstrating the breadth of excellence and depth of thought that few places have.

Of course, we have that here at the University of Michigan.

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 (and) 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 – with my full support, deepest gratitude, and eternal admiration – because as long as challenges remain in our society, the University of Michigan’s work will remain unfinished.

Thank you for your commitment to our great university.


Mark Schlissel, MD, PhD


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