Letter to President Schlissel #SchlisselWYA
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President Mark Schlissel,
We are disappointed in you.
Your lackluster leadership has continued for too long. When students marched to your house in the middle of the night following an attack and hate crime that threatened to kill members of our campus community, we expected you to lead us with strength. This is not to say you can never be vulnerable-- good leaders must be. Good leaders, however, do not say “I feel helpless” when they have not done their utmost to enact change. You have not put in the necessary work and effort into improving our campus, and until you do, it is a disservice to students to hear you say “I feel helpless.” If we as an institution are truly committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, where is your creativity for making the things you say you value a reality?
When we, Students4Justice, speak about accountability, we recognize the importance of personal accountability. In September 2016, you had a conversation with us over dinner, saying “I myself have never taken a class on race.” How is it, then, that you can require that students educate themselves about privilege and power, yet you have never done the same? As per the University of Michigan’s accreditation website, “The mission of the University of Michigan is to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.” As the Leaders and Best, we value education, yet we do not value social justice education. You do not believe this education is as important as other educational disciplines, and that in itself is unacceptable.
How are you challenging the present and calling for a more just future?
As the President of this University, you have ample access to multiple courses on campus throughout the day and into the evening. Your lack of commitment to bettering yourself means you do not hold yourself accountable to the same principles you say are important. As you have said yourself, “if this Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan fails, then that means I have failed as a President. The DEI Plan is my legacy.” Your failure here is indicative to what you find important to your legacy.
You need to understand your own identities and the power you have in creating a culture that is not oppressive for marginalized students. Instead, you lean on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan to prove your commitment to diversity. You need to show a commitment to your students, especially those most marginalized. As you said yourself, “We cannot reach our full potential as a university when there are so many among us who are unable to fully share in all this great university has to offer.” So what have you personally done to make all the opportunities the university has accessible to those most marginalized? What have you done to create more resources for these students, allowing each and every one of our community members to reach their full potential as well? What have you done to keep your students safe?
“Ensuring that U-M is an environment free of discrimination is one of the most important goals of the process we have undertaken to improve diversity, equity and inclusion at U-M,” you stated. We fully understand that an environment free of discrimination and hateful acts is not in our control, and realistically, not possible in the world we live in today. However, as the president, we believe one of your most important goals should be protecting the safety of your students. After the anti-black, alt-right flyers were posted across campus in late September, there was no formal police investigation into finding out who had flyered. You have even stated that you would not look into the videotapes from cameras surrounding the Fishbowl because you did not want to make the university a “police state.” Students, fearing for their own safety, investigated themselves. We found the person who admitted to posting these flyers on our campus: a man named Shawn Michael McCaffrey, who goes by the name Shawn Michael. We are not asking for a police state, but we are asking for safety on our campus-- where we live and where we learn. How is it that we found this information on our own, no thanks to the university?
On November 13, 2015, in an email to the university community, you stated, “I agree that we must work together to end racial injustice in higher education. Racism and discrimination have no place on our college campuses or elsewhere in society.” While this statement is important, you have not actually proven that you are committed to doing the work necessary to change this campus culture. You do not regularly attend meetings for identity-based organizations on this campus or reach out to them, your office hours are inaccessible for most because there are so few of them, and you are dismissive to students when they present you with ideas on changes that can be made. You go on to say, “I stand behind you as you reach out in support of your fellow students here and on other campuses around the country.” We need a leader who will not stand behind us. We are calling for a leader who will stand next to us in solidarity, helping us fight the various oppressions we face each day. We need a leader who sees the importance in engaging with our communities on a regular basis, and a leader who actively listens to us no matter how we express what we have to say.
We’ve been told you called us rude.
As we know, our protests are not the only protests that you have condemned. Stand Up for Grad Students at Brown University published a letter in the Brown Daily Herald to University of Michigan students. In it, they state, “Last but not least, Schlissel opened his tenure at Michigan by condemning Brown undergraduates, graduate students and Providence community members who protested former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s lecture on campus one year ago today. Students spoke out against Kelly’s unconstitutional ‘stop-and-frisk’ policies and raised larger challenges to institutional racism in the United States.” When asked why you did not come to the sit-in on Thursday night, you said that you did not come because “demands are rude.” The fact of the matter is, student protest happens when students believe their voices are not heard, acknowledged, and accounted for. You failed to acknowledge our first demand, and frankly, you blatantly ignored your students. Deciding not to come and acknowledge these students was, in fact, rude and dismissive, yet again. Moreover, it was racist. We see a pattern from you, where you place less value on student voices when they are not on your terms. This means that you wish to maintain a power dynamic in which notions of civility are more important than addressing injustice on the campus you are meant to lead.
Furthermore, your claims to want to help race relations on campus do not match with your dismissiveness of our demands. When our demands were first presented to you over dinner, the demands were glossed over and forgotten. Interestingly enough, according to your post-election interview with NPR in Fall of 2016, you reached out to the students who supported President Donald Trump after a simple Google document, #NotMyCampus, was sent out. It is very frustrating as an activist to not be acknowledged despite the time we dedicate to change on this campus for marginalized groups, whereas it takes a single Google document for primarily white students with oppressive opinions to grasp your attention. On a positive note, you acknowledge that “[your] role as the leader of the community was to stand up for our community’s values [...]”, but there is little to no evidence of what you did to “stand up”. This poses a different question: what do you actually do?
We do not look to invalidate your occupation, but it is hard to understand what actions you personally take, especially when student groups advocate for change, and you in turn take credit for this. It is hard for us to decipher whether or not you truly care about social justice, or if you use these opportunities for positive publicity for the university’s image. As we have said before, “The University of Michigan’s DEI plan was conveniently announced after the incident at the University of Missouri, and after Harvard and Yale’s commitments to increasing funding for diversity.” This can be seen again after Students4Justice’s Sanctuary Campus Walk Out for undocumented folx’s rights on November 16, 2016. When you agree to the same values such as your support for international students in your public statement in January 2017, it is important to acknowledge the work of students. As students who are already under attack, we do not need you to demonize us, but rather celebrate us. We highlight inequities on campus so that they can be addressed. Historically, we have seen that student protests that centered equity have only made this campus better-- as such, you need to acknowledge the work and sacrifice of student activists. You need to hold yourself accountable and actively counter white supremacy and the various forms of oppression present in our society and on our very own campus. Your complicity is unacceptable.
President Schlissel, please be sure to read our University’s vision statement. http://www.accreditation.umich.edu/mission/
“We are a community of learners”, and we are calling on you to educate yourself.
“We gladly accept the challenges and opportunities confronting us and understand that the University of Michigan must change, adapt, and grow to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving society. We will always focus on the horizon.”
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