This week marks the one year anniversary since Dr. Mark Schlissel became the University of Michigan’s 14th president.
He took over the job in a somewhat tumultuous time: complaints over high tuition costs, the university’s handling of sexual assaults, and an athletic department under heavy scrutiny.
The cost of higher education
Schlissel acknowledges that higher education is expensive, but suggests it’s also enormously valuable and worth what it costs. He says access is his main concern.
“I think we’re obligated, certainly as a public institution like the University of Michigan, to provide access to a Michigan-caliber education for talented people no matter where they fall in the socioeconomic spectrum within our society,” he says.
Schlissel says U of M is one of the few public institutions that takes a need-blind approach to student admission. That is, the school doesn’t look at how much financial aid a student might require before they are considered for admission.
From there, he explains that the amount of financial aid a student will require is calculated and provided in the form of grants, scholarships, work-study jobs, and loans.
Schlissel says it’s important that students who do receive financial aid don’t leave school with loans that will limit their ability to perform in the real world, “so we’re working hard to increase the fraction of scholarship and decrease the amount of loan in our financial aid package.”
He adds that although U of M has experienced “relatively modest” tuition growth over the past few years, the university has increased the amount of financial aid available so as not to change the financial burden on the student.
“We want them to be able to finish their education and go off and be successful and take advantage of all the things that Michigan has to offer,” he says.
Sexual misconduct on campus
Schlissel says one of his main concerns, both as a parent and as a university leader, is to find ways to make the campus a safer place for its students.
“You’re not free to learn and get as much as you can out of college if you feel like you’re under threat of assault of any kind,” Schlissel says.
But, he says sexual assault is not a problem unique to U of M’s campus.
Schlissel says the incidence of sexual misconduct on campus is no different than it is in society at large within the same age group.
“This isn’t a university problem, it’s a societal problem,” he says. “It’s up to us, it’s up to the students and this whole generation to say, look, this is not behavior, this isn’t my society.”
Schlissel says U of M is a highly visible school across the nation in both good times and bad, so he was not surprised when the federal government named Michigan among the group of universities improperly handling instances of sexual assault and launched an investigation into the matter.
He eagerly awaits the results of that investigation, and says in the meantime the university is constantly trying to improve the way it handles the issue of sexual assault.
U of M’s lack of diversity
When Schlissel came to Ann Arbor, there was a spotlight on the lack of diversity in the university community, and it’s an issue he takes seriously.
“I think it’s real, and I think it’s one of the biggest challenges confronting the University of Michigan, to be honest,” he says. “I think we cannot achieve the level of excellence in education and research we aspire to without being more diverse than we are.”
Schlissel says a huge part of a good college education happens between students, and being able to draw on a greater variety of viewpoints teaches students to be more effective members of society.
“We have to build a learning community that looks more like the society that we serve in order to be truly excellent,” he says.
Schlissel says the university is working to find ways to encourage every talented person in Michigan to apply to U of M, regardless of their economic status and quality of their primary and secondary education.
Athletics at U of M
Schlissel says despite coming from Brown University, “where we’re not on national TV playing football every week,” he’s no stranger to sports.
As a kid growing up, he says he was surrounded by sports.
But even as a life-long sports fan, he has learned a few things about sports culture at U of M.
“There’s an intensity and a passion and a sort of culture here where athletics, I’ve heard people describe it ... as some of the connective tissue that holds the community together,” he says. “So whether you’re here on campus as a sophomore, or … you’re an alum who graduated 40 years ago, you care about how the team’s doing. You get excited, you want to talk about it with your friends. You live and die with the maize and blue.”
Listen to Dr. Mark Schlissel tell us more about his experience at U of M so far in our conversation above.
-Ryan Grimes, Stateside