U-M President Schlissel

U-M President Schlissel

As president of the University of Michigan, Mark Schlissel oversees 27 schools and colleges across three campuses (19 in Ann Arbor) and 100 graduate programs ranked in the nation's top ten. Schlissel, an MD and former provost of Brown University, spoke to Findings about his vision for the university and how public health fits into the picture:

What kind of personal connection have you had to public health?

The first time I was exposed to public health in any organized way was as a medical student at Johns Hopkins. The man who gave the introductory lectures to public health was the dean of the Hopkins School of Public Health, Donald Henderson, who was famous for having led the World Health Organization's effort to eliminate smallpox from the earth. Now, if you think about having an impact—eradicating a disease from the earth? So the power of the public health concept was really driven home.

I'm also a pretty data-driven, evidence-based kind of person, and during the era that I learned medicine, it was the public health practitioners who were trying to use data and mathematical models and analyses to shape medical treatment and figure out the precursors of good health and contributors to ill health. It's that sort of quantitative, logical approach to thinking about disease that I found so attractive as a student. Another thing I like about public health is it sits between the social sciences and medicine, and that's a very interesting niche for an academic discipline to fill.

One of Michigan's historic strengths is the social sciences. We also have a distinguished medical school and a top-ranked public health school. How would you deepen the connections among these disciplines?

Individual faculty at Michigan are incredibly collaborative. Where I'm not sure we're as good as we could be is strategic collaboration at a much higher level—between schools.

So, for example, when public health develops a plan for what it wants to invest in over the next five years, it might make sense to include folks from the Institute for Social Research and the folks from medicine or other disciplines. When we invest in new space, we do it one school at a time. Maybe we should think about space as a campus-wide asset and make investments with an awareness of one another's strategies. That's something I hope to contribute—to develop ways to have our 19 schools and colleges end up being more than the sum of 19 really good parts.

What might this kind of strategic collaboration accomplish in the wider world?

We should have a seamless network of expertise across large problem areas. If we consider human health a problem area, for example, then each of our schools and colleges that have something to contribute should function together strategically. It's not just public health and medicine—it's engineering, pharmacy, nursing, public policy. There are lots of ways to combine these outstanding schools with a problem focus, as compared to a disciplinary focus. The excellence we can unleash can propel Michigan to be almost the very most important university there is.

How do we make this happen?

My challenge, and the provost's challenge, will be to figure out the ways to call people together and promote their working together without having the deans of individual schools feel like they're giving up their independence—and to do so with a light touch, where nobody knows that I did it. If I can do that, I will be sitting in my office, smiling.