Schlissel: UM’s diversity efforts will be ‘accountable’

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — University of Michigan officials on Thursday unveiled plans to bolster diversity on campus with its president declaring efforts will be “accountable” and show results.

The five-year, $85 million plan was touted by President Mark Schlissel and Rob Sellers, UM’s vice provost of equity, inclusion and academic affairs, who kicked off the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan with speeches as part of daylong sessions in the university’s Power Center for Performing Arts.

After listening to students of all backgrounds, Schlissel said, “they shared with us what we needed to do to improve” and those efforts have begun.

Among the changes include strengthening support for students in crisis and bias-related incidents, expanding inclusive teaching workshops for faculty, extensive support services for first-generation college students and a campuswide survey on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“As the name indicates, the Strategic Plan For Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is highly strategic,” said Schlissel, who has made diversity a priority since he took over the helm in 2014.

“To those who have been made to feel unwelcome, as president, I want to make absolutely clear that this university is your university as well. Hate and discrimination have no place here.”

Schlissel’s remarks come a week after racist fliers surfaced on campus, spawning student and faculty demonstrations and several denouncements from Schlissel, who made his strongest condemnation Wednesday when he called the fliers an “act of terrorism.”

“Ugly and vile hatred have singled out groups in our community and sought to divide us,” he said Thursday. “Posters and vandalism have attacked African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Jews, Muslims, transgender people and other groups. When members of our community are attacked, it’s a problem for all of us.”

The university’s efforts also come after UM was at the center of a decade-long, national debate around affirmative action in higher education involving the U.S. Supreme Court twice, and campus diversity remains low. African-Americans represent 4.9 percent of the 43,651 students on campus.

The effort follows plans for a new $10 million multicultural center coming soon to the heart of the University of Michigan campus — a response to one of seven points the Black Student Union and UM agreed to in 2014 as a way of increasing black enrollment and improving the campus climate for minority students.

UM also recently launched two concerted efforts — Wolverine Pathways and HAIL scholarships — to reach students of color and those from low-income families, respectively, as an initial part of the plan. Both offer full scholarships for four years at UM, valued at $60,000.

After his speech on Thursday, Schlissel told The Detroit News that he understands if students are cautious about the plans.

“We’re going to be judged on our actions, and we’re going to be judged on the metrics we put out there,” he said. “My goal is to earn the confidence and the respect of the full community, not just our black students or our Hispanic students, our transgender ... we’re going to keep pushing on this until we end up with a community that is as robust and reflective of the diversity of society as we possibly can.”

Sellers, vice provost, said that when he was a student at Michigan 30 years ago, he agitated for diversity inclusion and change as part of various efforts. He said students can trust that change is coming.

“At that point as a student protester, the goal was really to try and get leadership to recognize that there were problems in issues with regards to diversity, equity and inclusion, safety,” he said.

Sellers, who was named Wednesday as the university’s first chief diversity officer pending board of regents approval, said he has been heartened by the support he’s received from the board, the president and provost’s office.

“And that’s what gives me the hope, the excitement that I have today as we move forward, that I believe this is an opportunity for us to make real change,” he said. “And not only change at Michigan, but because we’re Michigan, that change can go and have an impact in higher education broadly.”

Thalia Maya, 23, of Reno, Nevada, who is a graduate student of social work, attended the speeches. While she applauded the efforts, she wants to see action and not talk.

“I found it interesting on how they just started like 12 months ago, but how long has the university been here, how long have they been established, and it’s like just now that they are starting to make specific efforts to make students feel more inclusive and make them feel more appreciated,” Maya said.

“As students of color, it’s difficult to be in the classroom, and to be the only student of color, to be the only Latina student and know that you are underrepresented.”