When the University of Oregon published this term’s course list, I was excited to see a class titled “Higher Education in the United States: An Introduction to Key Issues and Challenges.” That excitement faded when I saw who was to instruct the course — UO President Michael Schill. If I had ever seen convincing evidence of his interest in putting student well-being above the capitalist profit motive, maybe I wouldn’t have been so discouraged. But looking at his track record, I remain unconvinced.
The course’s description says it “will survey a number of different forces and issues facing the higher education sector.” The class is divided up into seven weeks, each week focusing on a new topic. They bounce from the purposes of higher education, to different critiques and common issues that stem from higher education, to the First Amendment and free speech on campus. I would’ve taken this class in a heartbeat. It’s a topic I feel all students should explore no matter how many years they’ve been at their university. However, I didn’t register because Schill is teaching it.
The class topic isn’t the issue here; in fact, it would benefit us to prioritize courses that promote thinking critically about the institutions in which we participate. It’s a smart class to offer to students who face issues stemming from their university. Students stand to gain quite a lot from understanding the values and calculations that go into the decision-making process at the administrative level. Surely these insights will make the outcome of those decisions seem less random and more coherent. Students and faculty members who seek institutional change are particularly well positioned to benefit from a class like this, since understanding the fundamentals of a problem helps pinpoint which area needs reform the most. It’s valuable content. It’s a valuable lesson. But I fear Schill isn’t the right person to teach those lessons.
I spoke with Schill to learn what his views are on the key issues and challenges. He emphasized three main issues: correlations between in-state assistance and increase in tuition and fees, a lack of inclusion and the avoidance of controversial subjects among students and faculty — all great subjects to focus on.
But while it seemed Schill was hopeful for the future, he has repeatedly shown a lack of growth or effort to improve these exact topics. The UO community can pull evidence from the past couple years alone. In 2019, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, the union that represents graduate employees at UO, had to fight tooth and nail in its contract negotiations with the university administration. The administration resisted the workers so much that GEs nearly had to strike to prevent the university from gutting their health insurance. UO’s initial offer was “way under any kind of reasonable expectation of inflation,” then-GTFF President Ellen Gillooly-Kress told the Daily Emerald.
In June 2020, anti-racist activists tore down the Pioneer and Pioneer Mother statues on the UO campus, statues that many students said celebrated the history of colonization and the subjugation of Indigenous people the U.S. has committed. That view is substantiated by an article from the UO Humanities Center that says the Pioneer statue was created by an artist who saw “Indian killing” as a necessary aspect of frontier life. Despite the history and emotion surrounding the toppling of the statues, Schill condemned the “acts of destruction” the activists had engaged in. Rather than offering empathy and an understanding of the frustration felt by Indigenous students, Schill penned comments like, “What happened Saturday evening was unacceptable,” and, “Nevertheless, we need to move forward as a community.” No empathy, just damage and image control.
Another example is Schill’s defence of the former Deady Hall. The hall was named in honor of Matthew Deady, a pro-slavery federal judge and first president of the UO board of regents who once wrote, “If we are compelled to have the colored race amongst us, they should be slaves.” In 2015, when the Black Student Task Force called for the university to dename Deady Hall, Schill recommended against it. And while he did vote to rename it in 2020 amid the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, he sees this tension between monuments to the university’s racist past and the creation of a welcoming learning environment for its current students as part of a university’s climate.
“Just because we disagree with each other doesn’t mean that we’re either bad or ignorant people,” Schill said. “It means that we disagree with each other, and that's what the university is all about.”
While I agree that university students should engage with ideas that challenge their worldview, Deady supported slavery. He was a bad person. Schill protecting Deady’s legacy while preaching inclusion is intellectually dishonest.
“Obviously the fact that I’m president of the university has an impact on the class,” Schill said when asked about how his position would affect how he teaches. “I don’t think it’s so much power. I think I have a set of experiences that are different from maybe some other folks that teach classes — and they have experiences that are different than mine.”
But the fact is, Schill isn’t just another professor with a unique teaching background. His decisions affect students and faculty more than theirs affect him. He occupies a position of power whether he sees it that way or not. These factors will influence the way he instructs the class. His students will learn only about the “issues and challenges” the president faces, not those of research assistants that make 5% as much as his base salary, nor those of students who are juggling raising children with online classes, nor any of the other myriad identities that make up the university.
It falls back to this: the head of the institution should not teach a class on what’s wrong with that very same institution. That’s not an educated decision; it’s dangerous irony. I understand that people make mistakes. But, after making those mistakes, students and faculty will be waiting to see some acknowledgment of growth. Nonetheless, Schill continues to repeat the same mistakes while preaching that he wants — needs — to be better. Until actions follow his words, he needs to focus less on teaching about the challenges of higher education and more on learning how to not create them.