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Advice for Schlissel: public accountability

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Today, Mark Schlissel is installed as the 14th president of the University of Michigan. We welcome him to Ann Arbor. In the time-honored tradition of busybody neighbors, we want to give him some advice. He didn’t ask for it, he might not want it or need it. But we hope he’ll take a few minutes and read it. Ann Arbor’s full of hypersmart, outspoken people. That’s a big part of what makes this place amazing. Enjoy, and join in the fun! 

Steve Friess on the front porch at the Wallace House | Benjamin Weatherston

Steve Friess on the front porch at the Wallace House | Benjamin Weatherston

Steve Friess is a veteran freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor who got his start covering the education beat for the Las Vegas Review-Journal at a time when it was the fastest-growing school district in the nation. His work over the years for The New York Times, Newsweek, Wired, Politico and other publications frequently examined education policy in the U.S. and abroad as well as the way technology has changed student and family life in America. He first came to U-M as a Knight-Wallace fellow in the 2011-12 academic year.

Public accountability. That is my greatest hope for U-M, Ann Arbor and the state of Michigan as the era of President Mark Schlissel begins. It is very much what was missing in the tenure of his predecessor, who was generally impossible to reach outside of controlled settings and channels. And all three of those entities will be better off if he feels his administration owes it to the world to be transparent, forthright and responsive.

The U-M presidency is by far the most influential appointed position in the state. In some ways, it’s more powerful and certainly more insulated from politics and the whims of a fickle populace than any elected post. Yet in recent decades, the ability of the media to know what occurs under the president’s watch and how decisions are made has been diminished. Part of that is because the press corps keeping watch has thinned as the media industry atrophies and becomes less aggressive, but that’s still no excuse for not being proactive and accepting that the position is one of the public’s trust. It is true that the Board of Regents holds the yoke, but it’s not their job to micromanage something as vast as this university.

So here’s what Schlissel must do: Make himself available. Hold regular press conferences or meetings. Grant more interviews. Hold town halls for Ann Arborites to attend and ask questions. Instruct his staff to become more communicative, to spin a little less, to explain more. Questions that mystify and frustrate the public — How is tuition set? What is the university’s grand development plan for its city? How can the racial climate of the campus be improved? — should be answered as often as people ask them.

It sounds simple — even intuitive — but evidently it’s quite difficult. It really shouldn’t be.

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