Getting to Know Dr. Mark Schlissel

I had the pleasure of hosting University of Michigan’s President, Dr. Mark Schlissel at last week’s Leaders Connect breakfast.  We had a standing room only crowd of local leaders who are interested to learn more about Mark personally and about the connection of the local community to the university.  The audience was delighted with his presentation and found him to be personable, informative, and inspiring.
Although we were not able to video-tape the presentation, thanks to thorough note-taking by Judy Foy and Pam Sexton we were able to capture many of the key points of his presentation and give them to you today.  It’s with great pleasure we present some of the wit and wisdom from Dr. Schlissel:

Who is Dr. Schlissel:
Mark started his presentation by sharing some of his own history.
Born in Brooklyn, raised in NJ, he was accepted at Princeton.  His background and inclination made him think of studying to become a “Real Doctor” (i.e. MD) so he majored in Biochemical engineering.  He felt a strong connection to science, even as a kid.  The minute he walked into a lab, it was clear that he was a scientist. “That I could do something with my own hands that would create data to be discussed and theorized about….  In Medicine, the length of your white coat told the story …and it could be 14 years before you were really recognized in your field…”

While he didn’t set out to become a president at a university, he found that he was good at leadership responsibilities and he progressed quickly from Dean at UC – Berkley, California to Provost at Brown to the President at the University of Michigan in 2014.  He noted that the in the path of academics, there is a certain expectation that with seniority comes an expectation of giving back.
Recognizing that the university was already great when he got here, he began his job by asking himself, “What will I accomplish to make it even better?” After assessing the state of the university through detailed conversations with multiple stake holders, he selected four objectives for things new and better to happen at his tenure at Michigan:

1.       Access & Affordability: Objective to make the university affordable to all who want to attend, with special emphasis on state of Michigan students whose families cannot afford the cost of education
In 2016, UM initiated the Go Blue GuaranteeThe idea behind the Go Blue Guarantee is:  Median income in Michigan is $63,500.  UM says that if you get accepted and your family income is less than $65K, your tuition is free.  They also work individually with students whose family incomes are higher using grants, work study and other strategies to bring down tuition costs.

Dr. Schlissel goes on to elaborate that it is Michigan’s mission/hope to find talented kids – and there are tens of thousands of them in our state – who we can help become producers instead of consumers.  They may have the high marks and high SATS but, culturally or otherwise, college is just not seen as appropriate for them.  It is so important to change that mind set.  We must find ways to close that gap, and to use the university experience as a way to promote coherence in our society.

2.       Diversity & Inclusion Initiative:  
While the university of Michigan is a meritocracy, Dr. Schlissel believes the university needs to look and go beyond test scores to find talent.  An example would be the Summer Bridge Program which brings students into the university over the summer, helping to familiarize them with the university, for tutoring, for mentoring and for cohort development of a diverse population that may not be ready on the first day of the Freshman year.

3.       Research and Scholarship: U of M is one of the largest research institutions among public universities in the US – 1.5 Billion on research in 2016
Dr. Schlissel feels strongly that research is about talent and aspiration. Therefore, the university is looking at things differently with the way it researches:  how to make a difference – as in the
Poverty Solutions”/National Poverty Center which is a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding and eradicating poverty.  Other innovative research examples are: the campus-to- planet efforts around sustainability  and personalized solutions to improved health, known as Precision Health

4.       The impact of emerging technology on the way we teach and learn today
One of the main points in research, and in teaching:  WHAT ARE YOU EXCITED ABOUT, what turns you on?   The university is actively working to advance from the 19th century straight into the 21st through Academic Innovation initiatives – a sandbox for teaching in new ways:

  • No longer limited by “knowing facts”
  • Commitment to online technology – it has changed the world and certainly needs to change education.
  • More tech overall in teaching
    • Learning Analytics – being led by a Physicist using all the data we have on students who have excelled – or not – at the U.  We can learn How do people actually learn>  How do we help individualize our teaching to help students learn?
    • Applying “big data” to help educate students.
  • Life Long Learning:  Scott DeRue, Dean of Ross School of Business allows alums to come in to any class, filling in seats – to allow them to learn, while bringing in their own practical expertise to the classroom. (Scott will be our speaker at the June 1st Leaders Connect breakfast.)
  • Cutting edge research-driven healthcare.  Michigan Medicine is the #1 trainer of doctors in Michigan and they are working on broadening the Michigan Medicine academic mission: to take discovery right through to the clinical setting.
  • Finding more flexible ways for students and faculty to collaborate around the world, with faculty/student exchanges and more.
  • Establishing a foothold in Africa as an influencer through the African Presidential Scholars program where 10 to 15 early career scholars come for six months to study.

Finally, Dr. Schlissel shed light on his leadership initiatives in the Athletics department.  He said everyone worried that he would have no understanding (or love for) the role athletics play at UM.  This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

He strongly believes that athletics must be about the student athlete, first and foremost.  Their welfare as a student AND an athlete is the top priority.  It is a big challenge to juggle education and athletics.  Michigan is in the top 10% of academic achievement for their 930 student athletes.
Athletics at Michigan are 100% self-funded.  We own the debt on the infrastructure, like the Big House, but they make the payments.  It is not an economic drain on the academic side of the institution.

In summary, the standing room only audience greatly appreciated Dr. Schlissel’s presentation which they found honest, informative and inspiring.  Several people thought it was one of the best ever at Leaders Connect.  While Dr. Schlissel is highly respected and well known at the university and in the world of academia, his presentation last week helped to establish him as a dedicated and important leader who is well aware of the challenges faced by Ann Arbor and Michigan. He is dedicated not only to academic issues but also the application of research to solving societal problems on a local as well as global level.

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