With considerable fanfare, the University of Michigan announced late last month that it had selected Mark Schlissel, the provost of Brown University, as the school’s next president. This is worthy of attention: U of M is the most important academic institution in this region, and has thousands of Toledo-area alumni.
From its founding in 1817, the university has evolved into a huge educational corporation. It has nationally ranked law and medical schools, 42,716 students in Ann Arbor, and satellite campuses in Flint and Dearborn.
Dr. Schlissel has a stellar history as a biomedical researcher and university administrator. He succeeds Mary Sue Coleman, who is retiring after a dozen years in which she earned high marks for steering U of M through financial crises and wars over affirmative action.
The president-elect, who takes office in July, has won rave reviews. But there are also reasons for concern.
The role of a major university president these days is more that of a corporate executive than a scholar. Dr. Schlissel will be paid a salary that, when benefits and deferred compensation are counted, will be close to $1 million a year.
Meanwhile, it is becoming steadily harder for even middle-class students to attend U of M. The cost of tuition, room and board, and books for four years averages more than $108,000 for Michigan residents, and $219,000 for students who come from out of state.
Partly as a result, the number of minority students at U of M has steadily dropped — a legitimate subject of concern. There is also the constant need to keep athletics in their proper place, in a state where too many people define the university by its football and basketball teams.
These are challenges Dr. Schlissel has not faced; until his final interview last month, he had never been in Michigan before. That doesn’t mean he won’t succeed — there is something to be said for bringing a fresh eye to old problems.
The basic test is whether he can help the state’s top university live up to its name: the University of Michigan, a place that serves all the people, which the state’s brightest students from every walk of life can hope to attend.