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UM president talks data, diversity, and "exuberant party culture"

University of Michigan

The University of Michigan’s President made his first appearance at the Detroit Economic Club Tuesday.

Mark Schlissel addressed the promise of “big data,” the importance of increasing student diversity, and his efforts to tamp down the school’s sometimes “exuberant party culture.”

Schlissel said university data shows that much—though not all—of that party culture stems from Greek life on campus.

He said those organizations make many positive contributions too. But he added that some need to dial way back on “risky behaviors,” like binge-drinking.

If not, Schlissel said the UM Greek system could start to naturally “wither away.” He also thinks it’s fostering a public “misimpression” of the school.

“It’s not a party school, it’s the University of Michigan,” Schlissel said.

Schlissel also stressed the importance of student diversity. “We can’t be a great university without being diverse,” he said.

Schlissel says legal challenges to programs like affirmative action have made that more challenging to implement, but not impossible. He said there are “lots of other ways” to look at the diversity question.

“There’s nothing about the law that says we can’t focus geographically,” he said, noting the university should focus on pulling more students from Detroit and other under-represented parts of the state. “And to me, diversity is way more than race and ethnicity.”

To make that happen, though, Schlissel called on Lansing to re-up its commitment to higher education, especially to low-income students. He said Michigan is near the bottom when it comes to providing state-funded scholarships.

Schlissel also committed the university’s academic resources to addressing a broad range of “modern challenges.”

He pointed to a $100 million dollar data sciences initiative announced last month, saying “big data” has the power to transform transportation, medicine—even the university itself.

“We want to use our 43,000 students as a laboratory to figure out what’s the best way to teach and learn, using data-intensive approaches,” he said.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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