Advice for Schlissel: Talk to faculty

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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! 

Piotr Michalowski | Contributed

Piotr Michalowski | Contributed

Since 1981, Piotr Michalowski has been working as the George G. Cameron Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations at U-M. His teaching and research encompasses all aspects of the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia, which flourished thousands of years ago in the area that is now Iraq. His main interests lie in literature, religion, languages and history, but he has also written and taught about matters of ethnicity, economics and music.

The wonderful thing about a good university is that no two of its professors will agree on important issues. This is how it should be among scholars, but university administrations know us too well and ignore our complaints. So while I will indulge the editors of this magazine and answer their call, I know that the opinion of one professor is but harmless whistling in the wind.

There are limitations on university presidential power, but there is much that a new leader can do quickly to improve our place of learning. Prof. Mark Schlissel comes from the outside and that has advantages, but he might want to avoid some of the mistakes of his predecessor, who also came as a stranger to the university, and in many ways stayed that way.

President Schlissel has said many good things about reestablishing a sense of academic mission and the primacy of intellectual matters in the institution, and this kindles hope for better days. Among my suggestions, the first item would be a restoration of proper faculty governance and a creative curbing of the powers of a central administration that is often unresponsive to faculty, staff and student concerns. President Schlissel could accomplish much by sidestepping intermediaries and simply talking directly with the faculty.

If he really does mean to reset the focus of U-M on academics, he could begin by working on funding new faculty positions. Too many jobs have been cut during the past few years and this has created gaps that hinder proper research and teaching. New hires would make it possible to rely less on large lectures and to provide students with more small classes better suited to proper learning. Brown University once initiated such a project and it should be repeated here; no more gimmicks, no fostering of joint research, just more faculty where needed.

Public relations could also play a role in reinvigorating the university: A president speaking about knowledge, as opposed to just business and sports, would go a long way to restoring a sense of intellectual mission within and without the institution. A renewed intellectual focus should also permeate university outreach efforts. Reading many university publications, one would hardly know that the humanities, arts training and social sciences exist here, but one learns constantly about the business and medical schools as well as football — that is, only about those issues that attract money.

Most important, the president could do something to bolster and recharge graduate education. Undoubtedly, graduate training will be changing very soon throughout the academy, but for now there is a dire local need for more fellowship funding in areas that are not dependent on grants. Students cannot spend a high proportion of their time as teaching assistants when there is so much to learn and the highly bureaucratized administration of the Graduate School is obsessively pushing the lowering of time to degree at the cost of educational quality. Some deregulation may also be in order; I, for one, would like to think that there are ways of improving graduate studies without miring us all in a constant barrage of unnecessary directives.

Finally, our new president could make us all a present and ax the nefarious Administrative Services Transformation project that is distancing staff from faculty by creating a centralized administrative hub in an off-campus building with many bad consequences and only limited financial savings. There is so much more to say, but my time is up. Now, back to reality ….


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