University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel fired by board after investigation

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The University of Michigan Board of Regents has unanimously fired school President Mark Schlissel for cause following an investigation into a relationship with a subordinate,the board announced Saturday.

In a letter to Schlissel posted on the school website, the board spelled out its concerns and said his conduct was “particularly egregious considering your knowledge of and involvement in addressing incidents of harassment by University of Michigan personnel, and your declared commitment to work to ‘free’ the University community of sexual harassment or other improper conduct.”

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For example, the letter said, citing a recent scandal involving the university’s highest academic officer: “With regard to the actions of Martin Philbert, on August 3, 2020, you sent an email to the entire University of Michigan community, writing that: ‘The highest priority for our regents and leadership team is to make our community safe for all.’

“You also declared to the community that your leadership would ‘determine what we need to do to address the fear of retaliation in our community and build a culture that does not accept misconduct or harassment at any level.’ Accordingly, there can be no question that you were acutely aware that any inappropriate conduct or communication between you and a subordinate would cause substantial harm to the dignity and reputation of the University of Michigan.”

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According to emails posted by the university on its website, Schlissel wrote to the female employee regularly, including in October 2019 when he emailed about receiving a box of knishes. The woman said in reply that she liked the doughy snack food. Schlissel replied again: Can I “lure you to visit with the promise of a knish?”

Schlissel sent “dozens” of inappropriate emails and texts, the regents said, including a link to a New Yorker magazine story entitled “Sexual fantasies of everyday New Yorkers.”

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The decision to fire him was made behind closed doors Saturday morning, without a public vote. The Free Press left messages with Schlissel seeking comment.

Former U-M President Mary Sue Coleman will return to campus as the interim president, the board also announced. Coleman was president from 2002 to 2014. During her time at the helm of U-M, she was known for the growth of the campus as buildings were remodeled and new ones were built.

“While saddened by the circumstances, I am honored to be asked to again serve the University of Michigan,” Coleman said in a statement. “When I left the U-M campus at the end of my presidency in 2014, I said serving this great university was the most rewarding experience of my professional life. I’m happy to serve again in this important interim role.”

The board had hired an outside firm to conduct an independent investigation into chlissel’s actions, including whether he had violated the university’s supervisor relationship policy, according to a statement posted on the university’s website.

The regents said they received an anonymous complaint on Dec. 8 that Schlissel may have been involved in an inappropriate relationship with an employee of the university. The information released Saturday night did not identify the person.

“After an investigation, we learned that Dr. Schlissel, over a period of years, used his university email account to communicate with that subordinate in a manner inconsistent with the dignity and reputation of the University,” the regents said in their release.

In a letter to Schlissel notifying him of the firing, the board revealed those emails, including:

  • “On July 1, 2021, you exchanged emails with the subordinate using your University of Michigan email. In this exchange, she states that her ‘heart hurts’ to which you respond ‘i know. mine too.’ You state that ‘this is my fault’ and that you are ‘in pain too.’ You finish with ‘I still wish I were strong enough to find a way.’ “
  • On January 9, 2021, you responded to an email from the subordinate’s official University of Michigan email address. In her email, the subordinate had said ‘Oh yes!’ In your response you wrote: ‘Love it when you say that.’ You made a similar remark in an email dated April 25, 2020.
  • On September 1, 2021, you wrote to the subordinate’s official University email address and referred to her as ‘sexier.’
  • On November 4, 2021, you emailed the subordinate with regard to a University of Michigan basketball game you were scheduled to attend as part of your official duties as President. In that email you expressed disappointment that you were potentially not sitting with the subordinate, stating ‘the only reason I agreed to go was to go with you. there is a conspiracy against me.’
  • On December 3, 2021, you responded to the subordinate regarding the Big Ten Championship ‘President’s Suite briefing Info’ stating that ‘You can give me a private briefing.’ “

The relationship policy was put into place in July 2021 following revelations that Philbert, the former provost, had been using his position for years to coerce women who worked for him into sexual relationships.

The policy says “a Supervisor may not, implicitly or explicitly, initiate or attempt to initiate an Intimate Relationship with a Supervisee over whom they exercise supervisory authority.” The policy also says that relationships can develop in the workplace that aren’t because of coercion or abuse of power. In those cases, the policy says, they must be disclosed and a management plan put in place and monitored. Failure to report the relationship “is a serious offense and cause for discipline, up to and including dismissal from employment.”

Schlissel’s contract has what is commonly known as a morals clause in it. It says, “Your conduct and comportment shall at all times be consistent with promoting the dignity, reputation, and academic excellence of the University.”

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel fired by board after investigation

Like other presidents, Schlissel is a tenured faculty member as well as president. It’s unclear whether his tenure will be revoked. His contract says: “In the event such Cause termination is not also Cause under the University’s tenure policies, you shall have your rights as a tenured faculty member.”

His contract says that if he is fired for cause, his contract voids.

Schlissel was hired in 2014. In 2018, the board extended his contract for five years.

However, in the fall of 2021, Schlissel announced he’d be stepping down as president one year early, in 2023. While he said he was doing so in order to make a smooth transition in leadership, it came amid deep divisions on the board about his performance.

The Free Press earlier reported that the board gathered with Schlissel in an outdoor meeting in the president’s backyard in the fall of 2020, where multiple regents raised concerns about his handling of the university’s response to COVID-19, including a strike by the Graduate Employees’ Organization and a walkout by student residence hall staff, along with issues of communication and transparency between Schlissel and the board. Among other things, the board was upset Schlissel didn’t meet personally with the student residence hall staff.

Some board members also were not happy about Schlissel’s handling of the Philbert case.

Tensions rose again in the summer of 2021, when news broke that the university’s new expansion project in downtown Detroit — the Detroit Center for Innovation, as originally pitched to the regents — was dead in the water. The board learned that Schlissel had kept them in the dark for months while he talked with the university’s top donor about the troubled project.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel fired by board after investigation

Schlissel has been praised for his work around access to the university for low-income students. He implemented the Go Blue Guarantee, which covers the entire tuition cost for students whose families make under $65,000 a year.

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