Take a Seat, President Schlissel

Atop the Fleming Administration Building, tucked neatly away from the raucous protests and controversies of campus life, hides President Mark Schlissel.  A reputation marred by anti-Trump rhetoric and yet another email scandal from a public official, I imagine the thought of returning to Brown has crossed his mind a few times.

Who can blame him?  Since assuming his position in 2014, Schlissel has received criticism for both action and inaction under the microscopic glare of the public eye.  It’s the type of double standard that might drive a person crazy, let alone damper their ability to lead a multi-billion dollar research institution.

In this political landscape — a hotbed for directionless anger and a creeping mob mentality — Schlissel somehow appears poised to take the fall for any campus controversy.  Be it a controversial speaker on campus to alleged “failures” to catch perpetrators of racist acts on campus, Schlissel sits atop the list of individuals staring down the barrel of criticism.

How can that be?  How can one man possibly be held responsible for the entire breadth of problems that plague the university?  Is Schlissel truly the inept yet tyrannical despot his critics label him as?  

Of course not.

Schlissel instead appears to have fallen victim to the violent process of social change across the country, particularly concentrated amongst our nation’s best and brightest universities.  In times of social upheaval, students turn to strong leaders to guide them safely to the light at the end of the tunnel.  For many, that leader is President Schlissel.

However, those who levy such aggressive accusations against Schlissel and his administration for shirking from their duties as a “leader” grossly misunderstand the scope of their responsibilities to begin with.  For proof, let us take a closer look at the University’s handling of a speaking request from Richard Spencer — a controversial white supremacist and self-proclaimed “father of the Alt-Right” whose speaking tours have led to several lawsuits and even a state of emergency in Florida.

Following confirmation of the request, student groups on campus took no time to express their disdain.  Representatives from Michigan Hillel, the Black Student Union, and the University’s NAACP chapter all wrote letters to the administration demanding they deny the request.  Even further, a student-led petition to ban the request has reached nearly 6,000 signatures at the time of writing.

The University’s response?  An admittedly blasé, non-committal acknowledgment that amounted to “we’ll think about it.”  “The university will carefully consider this request, paying close attention to the safety and security of our community,” said U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.

Schlissel cannot be justifiably faulted for simply accepting a request.  It’s his job.  This leads to an interesting question, though: what exactly is President Schlissel’s job?

On the whole, such anger does not appear completely unfounded.  Spencer has advocated for “peaceful ethnic cleansing”, argued on behalf of turning the US into a white ethnostate and infamously offered a Nazi-esque salute to a crowd of supporters.  Students impacted by his callous remarks have reason to be apprehensive about his potential appearance.

But how does a request for such an individual to speak somehow inherently reflect poorly on Schlissel and his administration?  It appears many amongst the student body fundamentally do not understand what a request is.  It is simply that, a request.  It does not guarantee Spencer will appear, nor does it somehow implicitly signify that the University supports his abrasive message.

Schlissel cannot be justifiably faulted for simply accepting a request.  It’s his job.  This leads to an interesting question, though: what exactly is President Schlissel’s job?

As a student, Schlissel’s tenure as president has consistently perplexed me.  An enigmatic figure, he exists simultaneously as an omnipresent force on campus, yet appears to purposefully distance himself from the trials and tribulations of student life.  His role on campus remains almost explicitly undefined, leaving room for ambiguity in his interactions with the public.

In a ceremonial capacity, Schlissel flourishes under the spotlight.  From the unveiling of a new art piece on campus to bold admissions of the university’s historical missteps, the role of “chief cheerleader” adorns Schlissel’s public stature quite well.    

But amidst a campus climate teeming on the edge of a protest-laden meltdown, Schlissel finds himself suffocating under the pesky microscope of public scrutiny.  When it comes to controversial issues like the C.C. Little renaming effort, he shirks away from responsibility, claiming he “[tries] not to have a personal opinion”.

The way I see it, Schlissel has two choices.  He can either embrace his role as a makeshift political activist, responding to student criticism and taking an active role in moderating this university’s political climate, or he can step aside, let social change take its course and spend his valuable time and energy ensuring the university functions properly.

You can’t have it both ways though, Mr. President.

By inconsistently inviting and removing yourself from the spotlight, you invite undue criticism that weights poorly on your reputation.  From remarks against Trump supporters to inaction toward building renaming efforts, your actions as president have caused nothing more than bitter criticism and division.

For students on campus, we must recognize that our campus is not a microcosm of our country, and President Schlissel is not our infallible leader.  Social change happens on a far greater scale than the confines of one college town.  We cannot expect one man to moderate such change, even in the unfortunate face of violence.  Blaming Schlissel for all campus problems solves nothing and fundamentally misunderstands the inner workings of our university.

Freedom of speech is often a bitter pill to swallow, and Spencer’s speaking request is no exception.  In spite of his morally repugnant views, legal precedent seem to imply that Michigan should swallow that pill.

President Schlissel, your job is to run the university, not run our lives.  You are responsible for making Michigan live up to the bombastic claims made in our football promotional videos.  You are responsible for ensuring this institution lives to see another 200 years.  You must wrangle with the frighteningly boring realities of bureaucracy, setting tuition rates and authorizing the budget.

Unfortunately for you, your job also requires you to make the ultimate decision on Spencer’s request to speak.  When faced with a dilemma between freedom of speech and campus safety, I cannot imagine any option that appeases either party.  As a legal scholar from Wayne State University suggested, your decision must remain neutral toward the content of the speech.  Furthermore, according to the Newseum’s First Amendment Center, while public universities constitute a “limited public forum”, public universities bear “a constitutional responsibility not to interfere” with speaking requests, so long as the speaker does not advocate for direct violence against the government or host institution.  

Freedom of speech is often a bitter pill to swallow, and Spencer’s speaking request is no exception.  In spite of his morally repugnant views, legal precedent seem to imply that Michigan should swallow that pill.  Schlissel, should you choose to give free speech a chance, I only hope your administration also ensures the safety of the community at large.

Your job is to make sure things are run fairly, not to take stances on social issues.  You are to ensure students are safe, not indoctrinated.  You are to ensure that all students have a voice on this campus and that no one voice crowds out the rest.  That voice certainly should not be yours.

Your job, President Schlissel, is to take a seat.  

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About Jake Thorne

Jake Thorne is Editor-in-Chief of the Review, studying Honors Political Science and Economics at the University of Michigan. He has been an active contributor to the Review since 2014. He can be reached at jnthorne@umich.edu