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Advice for Schlissel: Tear down this wall

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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! 

Sabra Briere near the Diag | Benjamin Weatherston

Sabra Briere near the Diag | Benjamin Weatherston

Sabra Briere, Ward 1 Ann Arbor City Council member, has lived in Ann Arbor for 41 years.  She’s married and the parent of an adult son who lives in California. She studied and later worked at the University of Michigan, has served on the council for nearly seven years and been re-elected three times.

The University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor should be tightly connected. There is no moat around the university. The students, faculty and staff live in the city; the university and the city depend upon each other in so many ways.

But instead of a synergistic relationship, there’s almost a rivalry — with the big, bad university frequently ignoring the concerns and the needs of the city. The figurative wall grows higher each year as the university expands its staff, its student body and especially its footprint.

So, here’s my advice to the new U-M president: Mr. Schlissel, tear down this wall.

While city services can always benefit from more revenue, the community will benefit more from U-M staff, student and faculty engagement. This is a wonderful community, made richer by the university — richer in intellect and opportunity and creativity. But, as is true for many moderately successful communities, we have problems, and those problems are ones the university can help us solve.

How does a Midwestern city build an infrastructure that can stand the freeze and thaw cycle, especially as the climate changes? How do we design safer streets, so traffic travels at the best speed for the conditions, and bike riders and pedestrians (many of whom are going to and coming from the university) are safe? How do we meet the (sometimes conflicting) need for quality of life and new development? How do we address a growing need for housing affordability? What new opportunities are there for reducing our energy consumption?

I know the university has encouraged some staff to work in impoverished communities to help solve problems — and Ann Arbor is certainly not impoverished. But Ann Arbor is close and convenient, a community that can serve as a testing ground for innovative solutions.

This relationship is not a one-way street. Many of us actively engage the university for work, for culture, for the entertainment offered by athletics. But there is always room for more. Note how many residents eagerly signed up for the driverless-car studies. Consider how many others are just waiting for an opportunity to help the community and the planet by engaging new ideas developed by the university.

Your neighbors want you to respect our needs and to honor the very qualities that make the people choose to study and work here — the great neighborhoods, vital downtown, amazing parks and strong economy. Mr. Schlissel, we have a unique opportunity to develop a positive and nonconfrontational relationship. But it’s your move.

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