Schlissel touts building high-speed transit at UM

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel said Monday a high-speed connector could be built to link the school’s central and north campus, which has space to expand over many decades in the future.

“One of the things that limits how easily and how vibrant we can make the north campus is how long it takes to get back and forth and how convenient or inconvenient it is,” Schlissel said.

“We’ve been thinking and talking for a number of years and we are continuing to plan and also talking with the city of Ann Arbor about some kind of higher capacity, high-speed connector. Right now, we have buses traveling on city streets and you can saturate that. We’ve basically saturated that.”

Schlissel said school officials are exploring transportation options and he would not say what form the connector would take or what the timetable would be for a decision.

“The world of transportation is changing,” he said, adding “I don’t want to invest in yesterday’s technology. I want to think about tomorrow’s technology.”

As part of formulating a plan, Schlissel said officials have spoken with the Detroit automakers to see what new modes of transportation and vehicle technology is being developed that could influence a decision. He said the school also reached out to MCity, where driverless vehicles are being tested on the UM campus, and the school’s mobility transformation center for ideas.

The north campus encompasses almost 1,000 acres and is home to engineering and arts facilities.

“We have the land for another 50-100 years of gradual, typical expansion,” Schlissel said. “Very few universities have this advantage of essentially contiguous, multi-decade expansion space.”

Schlissel, UM’s 14th president, made his remarks as the university prepares to add more buses to the north campus this fall during peak times to accommodate students, who brought the issue up to him in fireside chats last year.

He spoke about the issue with The Detroit News editorial board during a visit to meet with media outlets in Detroit following a year serving at the helm of the state’s flagship university.

During the hour-long interview, Schlissel reflected on the past year and outlined future priorities, including increasing diversity among students, keeping the university affordable, addressing overconsumption of alcohol and finding ways to solve problems through collaborative faculty research.

Among the issues, diversity remains crucial, Schlissel said. And that includes geographic, religious and politically diverse student recruitment in addition to racial and ethnic diversity. A campus-level strategic plan is under development and a meeting will be held Sept. 9.

“The real motivation is we can’t be an excellent university without being diverse,” Schlissel said, adding he has been doing outreach to schools in Detroit and in the western and northern parts of the state.

“People learn from each other. ... We want to have our students have the advantage of having these magical years at the university while they are learning with all different levels of input.”

Schlissel said the university is also very concerned about affordability.

“We want to make sure that regardless of the circumstances a student comes from, that if they are talented and hard-working and have potential and want to apply themselves, that the University of Michigan is their public university,” Schlissel said. “They want to come there, and we can find a way to do it financially.”

He said UM has worked to limit increases in tuition, which rose 2.7 percent this fall to $13,486 for in-state undergraduates, and boosted financial aid spending.

The university is committed to improving the climate around social issues such as sexual assaults and over-consumption of alcohol, Schlissel said.

“I feel responsible for the health and safety of our students,” he said.

On an academic level, Schlissel said one of the biggest resources of the university is its breadth.

“What I’d like to be able to do is identify issues that are important and impactful to the public, particularly here in Michigan, southeast Michigan but also around the nation and the world where tapping into that breadth of excellence we can do something unique,” Schlissel said.

He pointed to UM’s Mobility Transportation Center, which involves 10 schools and colleges on campus.

That center is working to lay the foundation for connected and automated vehicles, which could potentially reduce auto crashes by 80 percent, slash gas consumption, cut carbon emissions, reduce congestion and more.

The center, Schlissel said, involves not just engineers, but public policy people, lawyers, business people, social workers and public health officials.

During Schlissel’s first year, he faced numerous controversies that started almost immediately in the university’s athletic department. They included an uproar over the handling of an injury to quarterback Shane Morris, a failing team and the replacement of UM’s athletic director and head football coach.

In one of his first major decisions, Schlissel hired retired Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett as interim athletic director after Dave Brandon resigned under fire Oct. 31; Hackett, in turn, fired football coach Brady Hoke after a 5-7 season and landed one of the most sought-after coaches in football, former Wolverine quarterback Jim Harbaugh, to replace him.

Schlissel faced other challenges, including vandalism at two northern Michigan ski resorts by UM fraternity members on the same January weekend.

The incident reverberated for months and led to numerous repercussions, including the suspension of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity from campus and criminal charges against three members.

Meanwhile, demonstrators affiliated with By Any Means Necessary shut down Regents meetings in November 2014 and again in April, protesting the lack of student admissions from Detroit schools and slipping minority enrollment at UM. The spring incident resulted in eight arrests.

Nationally, UM drew scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights for its handling of a sexual assault complaint by a student, joining about 100 universities under federal investigation.