I’ve received many emails in the wake of University of Michigan President Dr. Mark Schlissel’s announcement last week that this spring he will be ordering all 19 deans and directors of the various colleges and centers at U-M to map out a strategic plan to achieve student diversity on campus. He said there will be a measuring standard to hold those colleges and institutions accountable. Most of the emails came from African American alumni who have been painfully pleading with the university through their own connections to find creative ways to advance the course of diversity in the wake of declining Black enrollment after affirmative action was gutted.
For instance, one email from a Black business executive who worked in state government as a top economic advisor detailed his own difficult crusade to get some diversity at the U-M College of Engineering. Another prominent African-American judge sent me a text on the day of Schlissel’s announcement to say it is an important decision.
When Schlissel took over the helm in Ann Arbor I wrote a column, “Diversity Memo to U-M’s Schlissel,” urging him to act “with all deliberate speed,” reflecting the spirit behind the Brown v Board of Education decision 50 years ago, and explaining why our higher educational institutions need bold and courageous leaders willing to break new ground on diversity.
It was time to set a tone for the good of all students regardless of color. Because I knew he was standing on the threshold of history with the option to make a significant difference after Black students demonstrated for the rest of the world to see that all is not well on U-M campus that which is considered well by others.
I must admit I was unclear about what direction the former provost of Brown University, who is now the 14th president of U-M, will take concerning the need to create a diverse student campus.
That is why in my correspondence with him three months before he officially took over the reigns of leadership at U-M, I raised the issue of access to education. He clearly pointed out to me in a letter that this is going to be one of his core items as president, and that he was looking forward to a dialogue on it.
I did not take his letter for granted even though I’ve seen a number of leaders, some of whom often tell you what you want to hear, or what appeals to readers and then walk away without creating any positive change.
In the case of Schlissel, I took his letter as a promissory note to make real the promises of educational opportunity through diversity for all students who aspire to enter the gates of the University of Michigan.
It is important to keep the issue on the front burner, and that is why when Denise Ilitch, one of the members of the U-M Board of Regents and I appeared for a roundtable conversation on CBS TV 62 Sunday program “Michigan Matters” hosted by Carol Cain two weeks ago, I brought the issue up. We were both asked to give our expectations for 2015 and I stated that I’d like to see our public universities begin to move on diversity, including U-M.
Ilitch agreed with me that the issue of diversity must be confronted.
I know of some members of the U-M Board of Regents like Mark Bernstein who share that opinion. That it is time for diversity to be on the list of the university’s priorities because it is not antithetical to academic excellence. Diversity and academic excellence are mutually inclusive.
So I am encouraged to see that the man who occupies the most important office at the Fleming Administration Building is following through on the promissory note on access to education we talked about.
To create change it is important to lay bare the facts on the public stage as to why so many Black students and other students of color feel that the doors are shut on them when it comes to our leading public universities.
The plan that Schlissel and the entire university leadership is getting ready to unveil this spring comes at a crucial time because if our universities are not stepping up to the plate to address this issue, it discourages aspiring high school students of color from applying to any of these institutions because they will think they are not welcome.
And there is no better place to negotiate the issue in the corridors of academic power where the president holds a lot of sway and to mandate effective change at a moment when the students themselves are beckoning for change.
I have no doubt that in mandating a diversity plan for the university Schlissel and his team will be met with resistance as is the case with any gigantic institution like the one he is heading. But the office of the president carries more legitimacy than any kind of resistance out there that is set to stand in the way of making the university a leader in diversity.
The weight of the office of the president has more standing in fulfilling the moral responsibility of guaranteeing a U-M education to all who seek it regardless of where they come from or what they look like.
There is no doubt that there will be conflict, naysayers will use this plan as a deviation tactic to attack the president, all with an intent to undermine the good cause of diversity. But the university and Schlissel will be better off showing the whole world that it is taking tremendous strides to regain the reputation it earned prior to the fall of affirmative action.
With a bold diversity plan, U-M will be sending a powerful message in concert with the UN that “Education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important development benefits.”
That is why I have ample reasons to believe that once Schlissel uveils the diversity plan it will attract wide support not only in Ann Arbor but around the state, and count me in.
U-M will be sending another message that the leadership is determined to find the right answers instead of excuses for why things can’t be done.
This is Mark Schlissel’s moment. He indicated last week in media interviews that he is ready to step in the ring and fight for diversity. There should be no fear in doing so.
Dale Carnegie summed it best when he said, “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”
Schlissel came to Michigan and is getting busy. He did not allow the stubborness of excuses or “this is the way we always operate here” to dictate his vision.
He is demonstrating that change can only come when men and women use the power of their offices without fear for the greater good of diversity. If Dr. Schlissel continues on this path as a diversity lighthouse, he will be vindicated because history is on his side. Courage rises above any level of fear that holds men and women from creating needed change.