Student Life

Have you had a chance yet to chat with the President of the University of Michigan? Once a month during most of Fall and Winter Terms, President Mark Schlissel and Vice President for Student Life E. Royster Harper invite interested students to a Fireside Chat. It’s a special opportunity for students to join a candid conversation with the university’s leadership, on the topics that are important to you.

Fireside Chats are purposefully kept small to allow for interaction and conversation (often 30 students or so). To request an invitation, please send a request to


Read on for the notes from the December 2015 Fireside Chat.


President Schlissel: Thank you all for coming. I have found this is best way to get an understanding of what is going on with students on campus. Even though I have taught at other universities, I have never taught here before. I’ve had to learn how to do my job and learn about the community here through these fireside chats. I’m happy you were all able to come. What are the things that I can do as president so that I can make your time here better? Even with all this discourse going on in the world. Raise your hand, introduce yourself, name, year, and program and that’s how we will get started.


Graduate Student: I am a first year grad student in Philosophy. It seems as if the university’s goal is to only get as much money as possible and work as a corporation?


President Schlissel: It’s difficult not to think of ourselves as a business we are the largest employers in the state, we’re like a non-profit business. The goal is not to accumulate lots of money but it’s to provide a place for students to receive an education. We’re not driven by doing things it takes to make a lot of money. We’re more concerned with developing the resources it takes to provide for a fellowship for a Ph.D. student in Philosophy, or provide financial aid. I worry a lot about money to meet a bottom line.


Student: That’s what anybody in your position would say. It’s just it’s hard to see all the money being spent here and some students worry about how they are going to be able to afford tuition.


President Schlissel: Families that don’t have the resources to pay a $14,000 tuition bill we provide financial aid for those students. We cover a lot of the students’ expenses depending on their family’s household income. Affordability shouldn’t be a factor for students when it comes to their access to education.


Student: I’m going to graduate with $300,000 in debt and in the Medical School. The average debt number is pretty meaningless when there’s people who have a little bit of debt and some with a lot of debt. Undergraduates have mobility and medical students don’t have the ability to transfer. Undergraduates have more mobility than medical students when it comes to the ability of transferring. There’s a shift in student debt that’s a qualitative difference from the past.


President Schlissel: Our focus is more on providing financial aid for undergrads because it’s a general belief that people loaning you the money for professional school believe you’re getting training that ensures you’ll be able to pay the money back. PhD students are on fellowships and receive living stipends as well. We report the average debt based only upon the people who actually have debt.  The average debt at graduation for an undergrad is roughly $24,000. Maybe the medical school does it differently? There’s one thing that we should do is to provide projections for potential students so they see realistic visions of what tuition will be. There isn’t a huge convergence in the cost of medical school. 


Student: I’m an undergraduate and I have a question about graduate school. Are graduate student instructors regarded as employees or students. Are there any opinions on the difference?


President Schlissel: They aren’t employees, seeing as they are here to get an education and an advanced degree. We are training PhDs in part so we can replace this last generation of professors. Professors are teaching their intellectual replacements. It’s important to learn how to do scholarly work and learn how to teach. It also is of secondary value of learning how to teach the undergrads that they may be teaching later on. What’s the other point of view?


Student: I believe that graduate student instructors shouldn’t have a criminal background check.


President Schlissel: If you’re going to be in a classroom with students then the university should do its best to be sure that we are free of any potential problems that one’s background may cause.


Student: I just feel if you’re arrested for marijuana possession when you’re a teenager, you should be able to teach Faulkner.


President Schlissel: Not everything that shows up on a background check would exclude someone from being a Graduate Student Instructor.


Diversity & Achievement


Student: So I went to the Diversity Summit and I was wondering what are the next steps? 


President Schlissel: We have a very far way to go to build this campus into the community that we’re shooting for. We want the university to be representative of the United States, the State of Michigan, that means religious, racial, geographic and economic diversity. We’re a long way from there. We’re doing a better job at increasing the presence of applicants in underrepresented areas. We’ve created a couple of programs such as the Wolverine Pathways Pipeline program. The pathways program is starting to work with students in the Detroit Metro Area starting in the 7th grade to get students ready to be applicants to the University of Michigan. It will be teaching them how to apply to college. When you come from a family where everyone has gone to college you know what you’re doing to get there. We’re trying to reach those students who don’t have those resources. The other program we started is the HAIL scholars program. We work with 400 high schools across the state to help us 1000 identify students from lower socioeconomic status. All those students are guaranteed a full tuition scholarship if they get accepted to U-M, and they also receive free application fee waivers. We took a control group of another 1000 students to see how they fair. I’m convinced that there are similarly talented students in every environment and there are more ways to show they are ready for college in higher SES places. We’re working on ways to identify great students in all types of environments. 


Student: As we continue to diversity the student body, what types of things are we putting in place to help students who come from different backgrounds get acclimated better?


President Schlissel: There’s the Summer Bridge Program where these students come onto campus the summer before they would start their first year here and they take three regular classes, learn about the resources on campus, and also bond with one another before the regular semester starts, when they might be taking four or five classes. Since they have been here for a couple of months it gives them a head start so they can start of right for their first year. As the year goes by they are fully blended into the cohort of students who did not participate in the program. We try to identify students who have potential challenges based upon numerous things. What other programs are there Royster?


Vice President Harper: Comprehensive Studies which the Bridge Program comes out of, Blavin Scholars which serves students who were part of the foster care system. We have the Michigan Learning Communities they do a great job creating a bonding experience. There’s also the Gates Millennium Scholars, but outside of those programs there’s also help for every student on campus they sometime just don’t know where it is or how to ask for it. Like the Writing Lab, or the Math Lab, or the Science Learning Center. It’s ok to ask for help. Everyone here is used to being the helper it’s not easy to be the one who gets help. It typically dawns on you later that you need extra help. We need to try to normalize help-seeking behavior, and find a place for students to learn about it where they naturally cluster.


President Schlissel: I agree. Does Michigan feel like a very competitive place?

Student: I am a part of the School of Nursing and I’ve talked to other students in LSA and some are reluctant to study with their peers to get better. Nursing doesn’t have that bell curve that other colleges have. I feel very supported, and I haven’t felt that is immensely competitive.


Student: I am majoring in Sociology and I always feel like I’m in competition with other people. I have been able to make friends in my major, but I have a friend in Biology, and they don’t foster those connections with others because you’re competitive all the time.


President Schlissel: Do you think there would still be this competition if there was an absolute grading scale?


Student: My sociology professor says if you’re performing the way you’re supposed to the grade should be reflective of that. Your level of understanding shouldn’t be dependent on test scores.


Student: I believe grades should be absolute. I’m in Medical school, and if you’re standards are high enough getting a grade shouldn’t put students against each other.

Student: I think the school is competitive because of the lack of exams.


President Schlissel: You think there should be more exams?

Student: Yes we could get better grades if we could practice taking exams more instead of having a few to determine your entire grade.


Student: I want to learn more about the Bridge program. Is there a similar thing for graduate students? If you’re an international student there’s only a two hour orientation. I went to a small liberal school for undergrad but if I came straight here from another country it would be pretty difficult to learn the campus and a new culture all at the same time. The Bridge Program would create a way for graduate students to know the campus better before classes start.


President Schlissel: No we don’t have anything like the Bridge Program for graduate students but we could look into that.


Student Support


Student: I work with the Collegiate Recovery program for students who are in recovery from substance abuse. I believe that social support is big and how do we as students create access to those safe spaces for students on the weekends or at nights. We need to advocate for more social support for students.


President Schlissel: I have met with a lot of students. Every one of those things that you’ve suggested is important. One of the concerns is that we need to balance all of the things you’ve mentioned as well as the cost of education, financial aid, and maintaining a broad goal of keeping an ethical value.


Student: So I know that we have a very large endowment and it’s made up of a huge number of investments from investors who want to spend money on something particularly. All of the money is targeted towards something specific. A lot of it is financial aid and scholarships. How do we get the endowment to provide those safe spaces for students?


President Schlissel: We need to find donors who see these safe spaces as a need so they will invest in them. Most of endowment comes from a few people who have the ability to give away a lot of money, so it’s important to find philanthropists who care about this.


Divest (Fossil Fuels)


Student: Do you intend to divest from those fossil fuel companies?


President Schlissel: The University has a good set of sustainability goals that we work hard to achieve. We’re working as hard as we can so that the university can conduct its own business in a sustainable fashion. For example, we’re making an 80 million dollar investment into a turbine that will allow us to decrease carbon emissions from electricity we use. Divestment would be a symbolic action, a statement about whether we think a company is good or bad. We’re sitting here with the lights on and the heat running. What if the lights went off and we were huddled here in the dark and cold. Although coal is bad it’s not completely bad. The same companies that are mining coal are also investing in research and converting to renewables. I’d rather see students advocating for government regulation. If the state of Michigan required energy companies to use more renewable resources, then it would make a real difference. Shifting away from fossil fuels is critical but it will take many years. Government action can speed that up. Divestment cannot.


Also, the ability of the endowment to generate investment returns is essential for the operation of the university. For our ability to provide financial aid. We have made a commitment to donors to invest their endowed funds to generate the highest yields. Divestment of any type places limit on our flexibility in investing and can diminish returns and hurt the university.


Student: I believe it’s important to change people’s habits, which the university has already tried to do. We need to ignite a cultural shift, so it extends to the real world not this bubble of college. We need the change the way we spend money so it could become a big culture shift. You have a big influence as to how donors give money.


President Schlissel: Fossil fuels are a big part of the economy. They are in everyday things that we need to contribute to have this transition from fossil fuels to renewable resources. We should have them lobby instead of promoting this divestment. Campaigning for divestment may actually be a distraction from the type of advocacy that can make a tangible difference for the health of the environment.