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A week after Schlissel's firing, UM activists reflect on past grievances

 Several students were arrested after a sit-in at the University of Michigan administration building.
Photo provided by Jonathan Morris
/
Several students were arrested after a sit-in at the University of Michigan administration building.

Four years ago, a University of Michigan graduate student knelt at the Block ‘M’ for nearly 24 hours.

The student, Dana Greene Jr., was mirroring former NFL player Colin Kapernick’s own protest against police brutality and racial inequality across the nation. And after seeing several racist and anti-Black incidents on campus, Greene wanted to grab the administration’s attention.

“When I was kneeling there for the whole time, I wanted you to ask why,” Greene said to the student newspaper at the time. “Why do I put myself through such excruciating pain just to get a point across?”

Greene started at 7 a.m. and held momentum for hours on an unusually hot fall day. A small crowd of students gathered around him. A tent was set up to provide shade. Food and water were passed out. He said several Black administrators came to greet him.

After his protest, Greene was able to meet with the school's then-president, Mark Schlissel. Greene was prepared. He wanted to talk about the university's diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative. He wanted to advise administrators to take activists more seriously. He wanted the chance to meet the football team.

But he was nervous. Greene asked his partner, Jordan, to accompany him.

The first thing Schlissel said to him was regarding Jordan, Greene said. He recalled the first question he was asked was about Jordan’s presence: Who is this? Are you going to leak this to the press? Do I have to be worried about that?

“That was very disarming and off-putting to me. Because here I was: I'd just come off an almost 24-hour protest. (I) was in a lot of pain, very tired, hungry still, and that was really the first thing that he had to say to me,” Greene said this week.

Greene, who wanted to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, said he felt like the meeting was a formality.

“I actually left that meeting feeling more almost as if I failed. This was what some people might consider to be a successful protest. I feel like I kind of came out of it with nothing as far as tangible results or changes on campus,” Greene said.

Four years later, Schlissel was fired by the Board of Regents for violating a campus policy he installed — specifically, having an inappropriate relationship with an employee.

“The variety of situations that have happened on campus since my protest also contributed to my anger,” Greene said, referencing revelations of sexual assault by the late doctor Robert Anderson, and the university’s response to COVID. “Just the way campus climate has been, in general, during his tenure has been a mess.

“It’s kind of clear to me that his first priority wasn't always the students.”

Along with the notice of his firing, the Board of Regents also released on Jan. 15 more than 100 pages of emails between Schlissel and the unnamed employee.

The news of his firing and his emails shocked many on and off campus. However, the reaction is a little more complex for those familiar with the university’s many public controversies.

Claire Hao, the former editor-in-chief of the independent student newspaper The Michigan Daily, expressed her concerns with the firing in an op-ed, highlighting what she saw as the university’s ongoing lack of transparency.

“Initiatives by community activists, such as divestment of the University of Michigan endowment from fossil fuel investments, are cans kicked down the road for years and years, until one day the administration makes a grandiose announcement adopting parts of the activists’ demands and celebrating its own progressiveness. Yet when motivated enough, the regents mobilized to fire Schlissel in just one month,” Hao wrote.

Hao appeared on Stateside Friday:

In response to an email from Michigan Radio laying out the concerns of the University of Michigan students and graduates in this story and seeking comment from the university, U of M spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen replied to Michigan Radio, “The university always listens to activists, but we will not always agree.” She also pointed to the policy Schlissel violated.

But Hao’s essay encapsulates what some U of M activists, from labor organizing, to racial justice, to climate protesting, feel: vindicated but ignored.

Amytess Girgis is a recent graduate who was an organizer for the lecturer’s union.

“As validating as it is, to see the regents finally, finally let go of somebody who has been a problem for so many years, I just mostly felt sick to my stomach,” she told Michigan Radio. “I felt really sad that the very man who is running press conferences, talking about the university's response to sexual misconduct was himself violating the very rules that he set forth.

“And more importantly, that I just felt sad that he had been in power for so long, and it took this for the regents to finally publicly say that he was a bad leader, even though they knew it for many years before that.”

Sasha Bishop, a Ph.D. student and climate activist, said without addressing Schlissel’s fraught relationship with many students and faculty, it could give the university license to hire a new president with the same attitudes towards campus activism.

“The specific way in which he was fired allows for it not to be a turning point, right? That the firing did not acknowledge a lot of these underlying issues,” Bishop said.

“The price that I paid personally was kind of steep.”

Greene said he has not publicly talked much about the aftermath of the 21-hour kneel.

At first, he was proud. But later, he felt the stress of a well-known demonstration falling on his shoulders. The protest was in the first semester of his two-year program — and the first year felt like a blur.

“I struggle with the feeling like I didn’t do enough, and I wasn’t able to sustain any type of activism after that.”

He said he and his friends tried to get people to sit during the Michigan State game’s national anthem. They also handed out flyers that night. Alumni had insulted them, pushed them, and spit on them, Greene said.

He has mixed feelings about the results of his activism. He also said that students still come up to him to talk about his protest. Professors and deans emailed him. He got to talk in classes and share his story. If you walk on campus, you might see a flyer with his face on it.

“I did feel like in a lot of ways my message was heard. I just didn't see the changes on an institutional level,” Greene said. “As successful a protest that was, some of the things that came out of it were traumatic.

“I'm thankful for that experience. But it definitely shaped me in a way that I wasn't necessarily expecting.”

Greene said he is in a better place now. He and his partner Jordan married. They now have a nearly six-month-old daughter.

He still works for the university, but he said, “I think often, the administration does a disservice to itself. Because I think people leave here, wanting to stay away.”

Greene said he hopes the next president is receptive to student activism — some, he said, are “often ignored until we graduate.” He hopes they reach out to past activists and bring innovation, and adopt a less dismissive attitude toward dissidents.

Greene said he also hoped the president would be a woman — and a person of color.

As for Schlissel’s firing? Greene thinks it has the potential to be a turning point.

“I also think it has the potential to maintain the status quo.”

“What happens when the university doesn't really listen to unions “

Nearly 4,000 miles from Ann Arbor, Amytess Girgis woke up to hundreds of Schlissel-themed posts on her timeline.

She was in England as a recent winner of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Girgis graduated in May 2021, and after her work as an organizer for the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, she thought she was done with all things University of Michigan.

But the news about Schlissel struck her and her fellow alumni harder than they realized. It didn’t take much, she said, for them to relive all the frustrations and exhaustion they felt on campus. All of the dismissal and neglect — not just from Schlissel, but from the administration, too, she said.

She had to write it all down. To make sure that their experiences are recorded for future students, she said.

In a Twitter thread, Girgis pointed to a warning letter from the graduate student union from Schlissel’s old campus, Brown; legal action in the 2020 graduate strike; and Schlissel’s controversial comments on extending a program for low-income students at U-M Dearborn and U-M Flint.

“The firing of Schlissel shows me and so many others that the Board of Regents is perfectly capable of taking actions on things when it feels like it. The speed with which the board went from hearing the tip about Schlissel back in December, to publicly firing him and also publishing 118 pages of emails and shaming him in the process very publicly. That speed is faster than I have seen them do anything else in my entire time at the university,” Girgis said. “(T)he fact that the university claims that their hands are tied, and that they need to move slowly on every other issue that is really, really urgent to the university community.”

Girgis said she wants the new president to be an ally to groups on campus. She wants a structure that gives unions a seat on the table for important discussions, like decision-making around the school’s COVID response. And she wants to see more transparency from the administration.

Girgis said she is immensely proud of the people she got to know at Michigan. But she is not proud of the university itself.

“That institution went on to put my face on every request for donations it could after I won the Rhodes, even though I spent most of my time fighting them in undergrad,” she said.

“It's really hard to be a student activist.”

On March 17, 2019, students across the world walked out of their classrooms to protest the lack of response to climate change.

Ann Arbor saw its own rally — and activists eventually made their way to the U of M president’s office, where they conducted a sit-in, asking for a meeting with Schlissel to discuss their demands.

Ten people were arrested and charged with trespassing, which was later dropped to a civil infraction.

RayOnya Dukes was 15 years old at the time. As a Black teenager, they recalled being very scared as they were forced to wait for their parents with the police.

Dukes was not charged, but they were banned from campus for a year. As someone who lives in Ann Arbor, that chafed. The university campus is almost impossible to avoid in Ann Arbor, and Dukes was scheduled to go on a campus tour.

“I was just wondering, ‘How is this going to affect my future, if I did want to apply to them?’” they recalled.

“It made me not want to go to U of M.”

 University of Michigan gathered in the administration building in 2019.
Photo provided by Jonathan Morris
/
University of Michigan gathered in the administration building in 2019.

Lawyer Angie Martell represented the protestors. She said when she started off as a young attorney in the '90s, she knew the university as a historical place of student activism.

“I was very shocked before I took the case that the president's response, Mark Schlissel, was authoritarian. That he, rather than simply hear the students, chose the strongarm approach of weaponizing his resources, to shut down the opposition by arresting them and then threatening them.

“I don't recall any instances ever that the University of Michigan went in this direction that was so authoritarian,” she reflected. “I felt like it was a David versus Goliath.”

Some of the arrested students told Michigan Radio they were deeply disillusioned with the university during the experience.

“I found it extremely stressful,” said Ph.D. student Noah Weaverdeck. “Going against the university, in court, having the university press charges against you, while you're also trying to, in my case, and in several of our cases, trying to work for the university and also do research and have put in this years and years of effort to sort of achieve this degree and feeling like that is potentially going to be threatened.”

The university did ultimately announce its divestment from fossil fuels.

But the students wanted to see more immediate goals that they felt could hold the university accountable to its promise.

Alice Elliott graduated from U of M in 2018. She said the bonds she forged as a student while engaging with other climate activists helped shape her – but she’s not optimistic her alma mater will change.

“You talk to any group of organizers, whether it's around climate, whether it's around racial justice inequity, whether it's around the sexual harassment and assault cases. And you just hear this same line of being stonewalled and rejected and ignored and dismissed.”

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