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Mark Schlissel welcomes students

Schlissel's Deadline

At odds with the regents, Mark Schlissel announced in October that he will step down by June 2023.

by Eve Silberman

From the November, 2021 issue

"Everybody was surprised" at the announcement, says a veteran professor-who, like many others interviewed, asked for anonymity.

Although the faculty had sometimes chafed under Schlissel's leadership-most recently when some resisted returning to in-person teaching this fall-this prof had assumed the president still enjoyed the confidence of the regents. When his contract was renewed in 2018, then-board chair Andrew Richner declared that "by all important measures, the university is doing exceedingly well." A year ago, when the faculty senate voted "no confidence" in Schlissel over his handling of the pandemic and the sex-abuse scandal involving provost Martin Philbert, they issued a statement of support.

But behind the scenes, it seems the regents, too, had issues with the president. In mid-September, Detroit Free Press higher education writer David Jesse predicted trouble ahead. Citing "seven university insiders," Jesse wrote that some regents were especially irked that Philbert's misconduct wasn't uncovered sooner, and that Schlissel hadn't alerted them to developing problems with the planned Detroit Center for Innovation.

In a statement announcing his departure, Schlissel referenced post- pandemic priorities like the next fundraising campaign and long-term strategies to "drive our academic excellence." And he confirmed that he would leave before the end of his contract "to support a smooth and thoughtful presidential leadership transition."

It's a disappointing ending for Schlissel's Michigan tenure. A classic high achiever, he'd previously succeeded everywhere from Princeton (BA), MIT (MD/PhD), Berkeley (dean), and Brown (provost).

What went wrong? One of Schlissel's faculty critics says he seemed indifferent to their opinions. His style of leading, the person says, is "autocratic." His predecessor. Mary Sue Coleman, "listened to our ideas. He doesn't."

Others describe Schlissel as "aloof." Even groups that won victories during his tenure-the activists who pushed for the U-M's commitment to carbon neutrality, the lecturers who won unprecedented raises-seemed to regard him more as an adversary than an ally.

But Schlissel did win some fans. Social work professor Luke Schaefer says he appreciated the president's support for

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the school's Poverty Solutions initiative and a dinner invitation with other faculty to discuss social issues. Schlissel, he says, seemed to "embrace the idea that a great public university should tackle some of the challenges like poverty and [social] mobility." He also championed the "Go Blue Guarantee," which provides free undergrad tuition to Michigan residents whose families make less than $65,000 a year.

But then there were the sex scandals. An outside investigation determined that Philbert had sexual relationships with multiple female subordinates and propositioned or harassed many more. He was fired, and the university agreed to pay $9.25 million to eight women.

U-M may have to pay much more to the victims of University Health Service head and athletic department physician Robert Anderson (see My Town, p. 27). Dubbed "Dr. Drop Your Drawers" because of his penchant for performing unnecessary rectal exams, Anderson lost his health service position after students complained, but the athletic department kept him on until his retirement in 2003.

Anderson died in 2008, but a decade later, amid the #MeToo movement, survivors began to share their stories. They talked to U-M officials, to the media, and to lawyers-who are now busy signing up the hundreds of people with potential claims against the university.

A former close colleague points out that Schlissel can't be blamed for the Anderson mess-"he was teaching biology at Berkeley at the time"-but the scandal, like the pandemic, soured the mood on campus. This person blames those "two pieces of bad luck" for triggering "a shift in the attitude between one in which he was generally well liked and trusted across the university to one in which a large number of people came to be very critical."

None more so than author and commentator John U. Bacon. Retweeting David Jesse about Schlissel's departure, he added: "There are many reasons for the University of Michigan to let President Schlissel go, but ultimately the best was the simplest: he never liked the place, nor the people. Eventually, they returned the favor.

"He will not be missed."

Asked to elaborate, Bacon emails, "If I were to re-write my tweet, I'd excise the last sentence, which might have given some the false impression that this is personal for me. It is not. My relationship with President Schlissel has always been cordial. I'd also have qualified my tweet to say, 'He never seemed to like the place, or the people,' as I can't claim to know what's in his heart.

"But I would keep the rest. I didn't write my tweet flippantly, or without evidence. It was based on eight years of observations and hundreds of conversations with current and former Regents, Deans, faculty, and students … The overwhelming response to my tweet-both public and private-suggests my perspective was shared by many. I don't think my tweet changed anyone's mind, but merely confirmed their own impressions …

"If President Schlissel does like U-M and its people, the perception many people have perhaps can be explained by the line from 'Cool Hand Luke': 'What we have here is a failure to communicate.' But that presents him with a tremendous opportunity. As some regents have observed, when you're the president of the University of Michigan you possess magic pixie dust. People want to see you, wherever you go. President Schlissel should spread it freely.

"If President Schlissel can communicate that he loves the place and its people, his remaining time could be his finest hour."     (end of article)

 


 
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