University of Michigan won't 'do work of police' to track DACA students

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University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel on speech that offends: “We can’t sew a person’s lips shut, but we can … help build more resilience into our community.”

Bridge Magazine sat down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel on Wednesday as students moved into their dorms in Ann Arbor. Here are five key exchanges on everything from hate speech and professor salaries to undocumented students and social media.

With the violence between protesters and counter-protesters that occurred in Charlottesville and Berkeley, how do you balance free speech with safety concerns on campus?

It’s one of the keep-you-up-at-night challenges. (The) university can’t function if it’s not truly a marketplace of ideas, and if we don’t adhere with all seriousness to freedom of expression and speech, we can’t do our job — so people are going to have to live with that. However –  and the big however that played out in Charlottesville this summer –  is, I feel directly responsible for everyone’s personal physical safety. So we have to balance when controversies break out on campus, how to allow this necessary and protected speech –  even enormously unpopular, aggravating, insulting, annoying things that are against our values –   while at the same time protecting people’s physical safety.

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Protest changes the world. It’s not a bad thing. I think the bad thing is if our fear of protest or of being exposed to ideas that we find offensive ends up dropping a net over free speech in a sense that diminishes our ability to exchange ideas, we don’t serve our mission anymore. And helping a 20-year-old understand that, that’s hard work, and the way we’re approaching this is to proactively build community on campus and to discuss our shared values so that when the inevitable threatening poster or email or difficult event elsewhere makes its psychic presence known on campus, the students can look at each other and say “this isn’t us,” and that we reject racism and hate.

We can’t sew a person’s lips shut, but we can … help build more resilience into our community.

President Donald Trump is considering rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that allows undocumented residents who were brought to the U.S. when they were children to stay here without fear of deportation. Are there students on campus who are DACA-protected undocumented residents? And what would the university do if the policy was reversed?

I’m sure based on our scale that there are DACA students on campus, but we don’t keep a list (and we) don’t solicit or record that information in any interaction with students. Although we follow court orders, we don’t do work on behalf of law enforcement agencies on campus. The idea is that all of our students can pursue their educational ambitions without outside worries.

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Two recent polls, one by Pew and one by Gallup, showed that Americans’ perceptions of universities have gone down. Why do you think that’s happened?

If I recall (the polls) right, on the Democratic side, it’s the cost of access to higher ed — they can’t get their kids in –  and on the Republican side, it has to do with a perceived liberal bias, and issues around free speech and political correctness that led to this decrease in esteem. It’s extremely troubling.

RELATED: Four reasons why Michigan college prices have skyrocketed.

That’s one of the things that we want to make a concerted effort on. We want to make sure the public does understand that people educated after high school do better than people who are less educated. People educated through a four-year college degree make hundreds of thousands of dollars more through their lifetime. The University of Michigan itself, our data ten years out, our graduates make twice the income of the average citizen. Your life span is longer, and I’d argue, although it’s hard to measure, you lead a richer life intellectually and culturally - a richer life for having gone through college. You have the potential to understand people more broadly than if you had not been through higher education.

I can understand the argument that higher education isn’t necessarily for everybody, but I think everyone should consider at least trying to further their life prospect through higher ed.

Why are professors paid so much?

We compete for talent. (U-M faculty) is paid as well as other great public universities, but our faculty is getting paid 20 percent less than at private universities. So my challenge is, how do I retain world-class faculty when I can pay them 20 percent less than Harvard and Yale and Princeton can pay them?

I could pay them less and be a less-competitive university, have less successful and important research and a lower volume of it, train students who are not quite the best students in their state and give them an OK education but not the best education I possibly can, and save money. Or I could try to strike a balance between responsibility to the public to use their money wisely and still strive for excellence.

So if I want to hire someone, I have to compete in the market or set my aspirations lower. And I’m not willing to set my aspirations lower. That’s the way I feel about it.

How has social media changed your job?

I’ve learned that students don’t read my emails. But when I put something on Facebook or Instagram or tweet, they tweet back. We have to continuously stay up to date on our targeted audiences about how they get information. The only thing I haven’t been able to understand yet is something called Snapchat. Are you familiar with that? They send me pictures that disappear. I can’t stand it.

About The Author

Ron French

Ron French is Bridge senior writer, based in Lansing. He can be reached at rfrench@bridgemi.com

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