Today’s meeting of the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents didn’t have the fireworks that the build-up portended, but it definitely offered a clear view of new university President Mark Schlissel’s plan to navigate very treacherous waters.
Schlissel didn’t mince words when it came to the Michigan athletic department’s mismanagement of Shane Morris concussion incident. Evaluation of the breakdown in procedures and adoption of enhanced safety measures took place weeks ago, but the task of assessing the department’s broader issues and the job performance of athletic director David Brandon is an undertaking he hasn’t yet completed.
"I was deeply disappointed in the department's initial response in the handling of the situation," Schlissel said. "We must be accountable for the facts with a response that is timely and takes responsibility for errors. Without this we break trust with our stakeholders. There are a number of additional issues facing our athletics department that will require a longer term approach as we work to establish the right balance between competitiveness, financial stability, and the athletic traditions we hold dear. I'm being thoughtful and deliberative in examining these issues. This university deserves nothing less than my careful, deep consideration."
The capacity crowd consisted of students whose displeasure is resonating loudly in the president’s office. One of the most audible voices has been that of Ford School graduate student Zeid El-Kilani. He authored the petition that calling Brandon’s removal that to date has received over 11,000 signatures. His appeal to university officials at Thursday’s meeting was direct and to the point.
"We are nauseated by the double-speak, public relations gaffes and outright contempt many (students) have toward the athletic department," El-Kilani said. “It is clear that change is necessary, and that is why I and 11,000 other students and alumni respectfully request the university relieve Mr. Brandon of his duties as athletic director. Cultural change begins at the top."
A substantive case for change was made by Central Student Government President Bobby Dishell in a thorough report that presented the results of a survey of the student body. It gauged their feelings of 5,208 student participants on “various factors, including ticket price and seating policies, in students’ decisions to buy tickets. It also discusses the source of student frustration with the athletic department and the athletic director.”
The report also provided a recipe for how the department can mend fences with its angry student base.
“We conclude from the report that the Athletic Department needs to make drastic changes to improve its relationship with the student body,” Dishell said in the report. “These would include significant price decreases, regular meetings between students-at-large and the Athletic Director, a commitment to transparency, and a focus on Michigan tradition over commercialization. However, based on student responses to this survey, it is not clear whether Mr. Brandon’s relationship with the current student body is repairable.”
That’s input that Schlissel will certainly consider, but he reiterated that numerous other voices will be taken into account as well.
“There are many many stakeholders when it comes to Michigan athletics and it is my job to reach out and consider the perspectives and interests of all of them,” said Schlissel. “I’m in the midst of discussions with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and others, and this engagement has been very valuable already. Just last week I had an expanded fireside chat with students and athletics was first on the agenda. I’ve met with the student athlete advisory council, coaches, alumni and other supporters. I also attended a football practice and offered my support to our student athletes.”
"I still have work to do to build a more complete first-hand picture of Michigan Athletics, to understand our community's sense of connection as well as the serious concerns that have been expressed, and then to chart a way forward.”
The input of the regents will certainly help determine that path. Regent Mark Bernstein (Democrat) offered no comment when asked if he supported Brandon, but he did reveal his serious reservations about Brandon’s leadership.
"Students feel like the athletic department has been taken away from them," Bernstein told Detroit Free Press. "It's our job to get it back. I think the students make a lot of good points."
At the same time he made clear his belief that his approach to “getting it back” needed to be measured.
"You can't make important decisions like this in a rash way,” Bernstein told the Detroit News. “That can be frustrating when people are pounding for something immediate. But the qualities of our president, that's not in his constitution. He's a methodical, thoughtful person. And his decision-making process will be like that. For that reason, this is a circumstance that requires patience but also a degree of urgency."
Bernstein’s apparent opposition of Brandon was countered an endorsement from the embattled athletic director’s longtime political ally, Andrea Fischer Newman (Republican).
“He has my support,” Newman told Mlive.com. “I would like better communication. I would’ve like to have seen statements come out earlier. But there are reasons for all of those things, why they’re delayed, what happened, how the conversations take place."
“And that was a general fault for the university. We’re the board, it’s our job to review these things with the president, work with the administrators and work with the university.”
Where each of eight board members board stand on Brandon’s future isn’t yet clear publicly, but eventually their collective position will be expressed to Schlissel (if it hasn’t already). The onus will then be upon him to incorporate their suggestion in a decision-making process that is ultimately his, and his alone.
“These conversations will lead me to concentrate on at least four goals moving forward,” Schlissel said. "First, we must thoroughly address player-safety, which I am confident we are doing. We must continue to operate all of our athletic programs with the highest levels of integrity and with the focus on the best interest of our student-athletes. We must continue to listen to the concerns of those who care so deeply about achieving the right balance for Michigan athletics.”
"Finally our athletics program must work to build a stronger more positive connection with our university community and all of its stakeholders. These are important goals, and I'm committed to taking the time to fully understand the underlying issues, including our needs to maintain traditions and the qualities that make Michigan athletics truly unique in the world."
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