University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel says the school is in good shape for the next century.
Speaking Monday at the Detroit Economic Club to celebrate U-M’s bicentennial, Schlissel addressed topics ranging from its research budget and financial aid, to sexual harassment policies and a pending on-campus speaking request from well-known white supremacist Richard Spencer.
Schlissel says the school moves into its third century as the “top public research university in the nation.”
Increasingly, that research money comes from corporations and other private entities. Private sources combined to make up $142.8 million of the university’s record-setting $1.48 billion research budget in 2017.
Schlissel said that reflects a conscious effort to expand funding sources in the face of dwindling federal research spending, resulting in some “great relationships with major companies that are dependent upon research.”
Schlissel denies this has limited the focus of U-M’s research endeavors. “Just the opposite,” he said. “The breadth of research being done at the university is astounding.
“It’s not really narrowing, it’s expanding. There’s never been a better time to do discovery research.”
Schlissel also touted the university’s efforts to boost financial aid, and draw more students from cities like Detroit and other under-represented parts of the state.
Schlissel pointed to U-M’s new Go Blue Guarantee. Starting next month, it will let students whose families make up to $65,000 a year attend the Ann Arbor campus tuition-free. And he pointed out that around 70% of the state’s in-state undergrads get financial aid, which he says the school is still trying to increase.
“For those students, the cost of attending the University of Michigan has actually gone down over the last 10 years,” Schlissel said. “We consider financial aid to be one of the most crucial investments we can make in the future of our state.”
Schlissel also tackled the university’s controversial decision to accommodate white supremacist leader Richard Spencer’s request to speak on campus.
He called Spencer a “professional provocateur” specializing in “vile, annoying and insulting” racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Nonetheless, Schlissel vigorously defended the U-M Board of Regents decision to work with Spencer’s representatives to organize a speaking event because “the law says I can’t make decisions about renting space based on the presumed content of that speech.”
“If we were to say no, we’d be sued, as he’s done to other universities. We would surely lose, according to all the legal advice I get. And what we do is turn this person into more of a person in his own community. We lift him up.”
But Schlissel says U-M has a legal right to deny Spencer if it can’t negotiate an arrangement that guarantees both public safety, and the university’s right to conduct its business with minimal disruption.
“We cannot be on the wrong side of the First Amendment,” Schlissel said. “So we’ll protect the safety of our students and our community, if we can’t do a safe event we won’t do it, and we can defend that if it’s based on public safety … but we’re also a nation of laws. And the University of Michigan is not going to let that down.”
Asked whether U-M has reviewed or reconsidered any of its workplace harassment policies following the slew of sexual harassment allegations rocking industries across the country, Schlissel expressed confidence that current university rules are up to the task, but added: “This is a big complicated university, and it would be impossible for me to say that there is never an episode that shouldn’t happen.”
Schlissel also offered a qualified defense of Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon, who faces growing pressure to resign over MSU’s response to serial sexual predator Dr. Larry Nassar, as well as other sex assault and discrimination scandals.
“It is a pretty common instinct to look to the leader of an organization and blame them,” Schlissel said. “So as a leader of an organization, I think you have to be very thoughtful and very careful about where you place blame for a challenging problem.”