Office of the Provost


Remarks to the Senate Assembly

October 23, 2017

Thank you, Robert, and good afternoon everyone. It’s good to have the opportunity to talk with you.

I’m at the start of my eighth week as provost and I continue to learn about fascinating work being done by faculty across the campus. Engaging in that work is, of course, what led all of us to become faculty members. Supporting this work is why I undertook my first administrative roles, as associate chair for research and development in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in public health. The opportunity to support the important work of my colleagues led me serve as associate dean for research. The portfolio expanded when I became dean, allowing me to also support the development of future generations of public health scholars and practitioners and to build the financial stability that would insure that the work of public health in the future.

Now, as provost, I’m doing this work on a much larger scale. It is exhilarating and awe inspiring to see the work of our faculty including: the development of the Gershwin archive in Music, Theatre, and Dance, new initiatives in precision health, and the development of the first-in-the-nation “home lab” at ISR.

Our educational programs are characterized by the same spirit of inquiry. Many exemplify a similar commitment to address societal concerns. Important examples are a new course in political science, Beyond Partisanship, which helps students practice their skills in talking across partisan differences and the Problem Solving Initiative in the Law School. This course draws students from many of our professional schools together to work on complex challenges in business and society such as regulatory issues for autonomous vehicles and identifying victims of human trafficking in health care settings.

Becoming familiar with the depth and breadth of the activities on campus in our bicentennial year has led me to think about the foundations of the enterprise. We’ve been fortunate to have far-sighted leaders who worked hard to build the institution we have today and who, over decades, were guided by a shared set of values. These include:

  • Integrity
  • World class education for all our students
  • Rigorous scholarship
  • Diversity and excellence
  • Open and free expression
  • Collaboration
  • Stewardship of resources

This fall the need to support diversity of thought and to ensure a welcoming and inclusive environment for all in our community has been especially salient. Our community is built on the shared values of respect for each other and thoughtful dialogue about ideas and beliefs, those we share and those where our views differ. This is fundamental to learning which is, after all, our purpose in coming together.

As I have often told my students in public health, useful things come out of friction. This interaction molds our thoughts and beliefs. It also helps to share public policies that reflect the range of experiences and circumstances of people throughout society. This exchange of ideas helps us to strengthen our skills in respectful listening and to model it for our students.

I want to commend the Senate Assembly for your commitment to the open expression of ideas. The Davis, Markert, Nickerson lecture is an annual opportunity for our community to reflect on the importance of sharing and debating ideas.

It’s customary for new provosts to share their vision and priorities so I’ll take a few moments to do that before inviting your questions.

The university’s commitment to excellence and to the diversity that is essential to excellence are my starting point. Building on that, I envision a university that is a leader in residential education, providing students with structured opportunities to develop skills for work and for citizenship. Our rich mix of disciplines and the strength of our professional schools makes this an outstanding place for learning in both areas. The many programs we offer, including international study and community-based research enable students to grow and to reflect on their experiences. We have an impressive array of student organizations –about 1400 – that are an important part of the educational enterprise as well.

My years at public health were full of interdisciplinary learning and I see our low barriers to collaboration across disciplinary lines as critical to our preeminence today and even more important going forward. ISR is the historical example of how Michigan’s interdisciplinary prowess changed our understanding of the world. The biosciences and precision health are newer efforts with similar potential.

The university has, for more than a decade, demonstrated its commitment to affordability by increasing centrally awarded financial aid at a higher rate than tuition increases each year. The net cost of attendance for in-state students with financial need has actually gone down. This commitment to making diversity and inclusion real is an important statement of our institutional values.

Many things have contributed to the university’s excellence. One of the most important, I believe, is our interest in and work on educational innovation. A decade ago, the digitization of our library collections made us leaders in making our intellectual resources widely available. Today, we’re at a new frontier. Digitization makes it possible for people around the world to not only see, but to touch, materials in our broader collections. A student in rural Africa can now hold, in her hand, a 3-D version of a seed in our botanical collection.

My own experience with innovation was a trip inside a molecule. Yes, inside a molecule. We have an outstanding research enterprise in virtual reality and augmented reality. Recent graduates created the molecule experience. It was totally amazing and it made me realize that I am leaving the classroom just as it has become possible to provide students with new ways to truly understand the workings of a molecule.

This vision does, of course, translate into action and I will close by mentioning my priorities as provost.

Affordability, Access, and Financial Stability – Initiatives such as Wolverine Pathways and the HAIL Scholars program enable us to engage and encourage students who might not have considered Michigan a possibility. The Go Blue Guarantee ensures that many who considered the University out-of-reach due to cost can attend. Our work going forward includes both strengthening programs like these and building our capacity to provide financial support for all students who need such assistance. We are, at a steady pace, making good on President James B. Angell’s commitment to welcome those “whose intellectual gifts entitle them to admission to the goodly fellowship of cultivated minds.”

Leading Academic Innovation – The university is developing new pedagogical approaches across the disciplines and at interdisciplinary intersections. Programs such as Interprofessional Health - a collaboration among five schools - enable students to develop a comprehensive approach to health care, appreciating the expertise of professionals in other fields. Innovations such as teach-outs and micro-masters degrees are providing new models for students, alumni, and others who seek life-long educational opportunities. At the same time, work in learning analytics is helping faculty and students uncover challenges to learning and identify resources that help students overcome them.

Creating New Knowledge – This is fundamental at a research university and it takes many forms – discoveries in labs or in the field, the representation of new insights in performances or exhibitions, new solutions to complex problems like intergenerational poverty. The School of Environment and Sustainability exemplifies our commitment to porous boundaries that enable flexible interdisciplinary teams to come together for critical work. Programs such as M Cubed stimulate cross-disciplinary connections and the testing of new ideas.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – Our institution-wide work to create a deeply welcoming and supportive community is ongoing. The strengthening and sustaining of such a community is key to our academic work. The schools and colleges have completed the first year of implementation of their diversity strategic plans. As President Schlissel has noted, we face many challenges as we strive to live up to our ideals. But we are at our best when we come together to learn, to turn ideas into action, and to contribute to society.

I look forward to working with you and our colleagues across campus to ensure that Michigan continues to be the finest public university in the United States.