In a letter posted online, the Board of Regents wrote that Schlissel had violated his contract by interacting with a subordinate in ways “inconsistent with promoting the dignity and reputation of the University of Michigan.”
According to the letter, the regents received an anonymous tip that Schlissel, who’s married and has four grown children, was having an affair with a subordinate. They also posted 118 redacted U-M emails between Schlissel and the subordinate, who was identified only as “Individual 1.”
“Never have so many undergraduates been this motivated to do primary source research on a Saturday night,” one Reddit user wrote.
“This event is for meme culture as the steam engine was for the industrial revolution,” observed a U-M graduate student, in a similar vein.
While far from steamy, the messages clearly went beyond friendship. When Schissel forwarded a message promoting ice cream delivery, Individual 1 replied, “Oh yes!”–to which the president responded, “Love it when you say that.”
A grad student the Observer spoke to says they felt “giddy” upon hearing of the firing. Online, the prevailing student mood was one of hilarity and jubilation. Long a target of student ire because of the university’s Covid-19 policies, the former president was ridiculed on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms.
But after the laughter began to subside, a more serious conversation emerged around the event’s implications for the university moving forward.
“It’s interesting to me that we can find it as funny as it is, given all of the pretty bleak scandals that have happened throughout Schlissel’s tenure,” says one recent U-M alum and Ann Arbor resident. Schlissel’s offense, this person says, “honestly, to a lot of people feels relatively benign, compared to everything else that’s happened … I don’t know if it would have felt [funny] if it was the Anderson case that led to the firing, or Philbert, or arresting climate protesters, or suing grad students. There isn’t a lot of humor in a lot of the things that have been frustrating about Schlissel over the years, and for this to come out of nowhere was a strange gift.”
The firing comes as an unanticipated culmination to months of heightening tensions between the former president and the board. In a September Detroit Free Press article, David Jesse wrote that the disagreements “began around Schlissel’s handling of the case of Martin Philbert–who held the position of provost, the school’s top academic officer–and Philbert’s long history of sexual misconduct at the university.” According to Jesse’s sources, the regents were also unhappy that Schlissel had “kept them in the dark” about setbacks at a university project in downtown Detroit.
Soon after, Schlissel and the regents announced that he would retire a year early, in June 2023–though with a new contract that promised him a full two years’ salary following his departure. All of that is void now, leading some to speculate that the regents wanted the president gone, and welcomed an opportunity to force him out sooner.
“In light of what’s happened, it makes you really wonder about the early leave negotiations,” says one recent U-M alum. “Obviously we won’t know, but it’s starting to seem like the board asked Schlissel to leave early, they negotiated whatever package, and [then] saw the chance to rip it from him and really stick it to him.”
“Reading into it, I can’t help but come away with the conclusion that this was done to tarnish Schlissel’s reputation, because I don’t think releasing 118 pages of emails is necessary,” says Sammy Sussman, a U-M undergrad and Michigan Daily investigative reporter. Sussman broke the story of music prof Stephen Shipps’s sexual abuse of students, but nothing similar was done in that case–or, he notes, that of former provost Philbert, which was far more severe. “And so it’s very strange.”
The Free Press struck a similar note in an op-ed headlined, “University of Michigan regents seemed bent on humiliating lovestruck Schlissel.” In the view of editorial page editor Brian Dickerson, their “decision to publish the record their lawyers uncovered may reveal as much about their vindictiveness as it does about Schlissel’s perfidy.”
Though Sussman wonders about the regents’ motivations, he’s “also very happy that we’re in a position where the university has to act in twenty-four days and take immediate steps to address what Schlissel is alleged to have done.”
“For many, this represents swift and decisive action, removing a leader that was acting inconsistently with Michigan’s values,” emails computer science prof Wes Weimer. “I worry that Michigan’s external reputation, however, will be primarily impacted by the existence of misconduct, not the response to it … I think the burden is on us to communicate how Michigan lives up to its stated values.”
The regents recruited Schlissel’s predecessor, Mary Sue Coleman, to return as interim president. According to university spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald, Coleman began working remotely immediately, transitioning to a “hybrid schedule on campus and remotely” once the executive offices move to the Ruthven Building at the end of January.
In contrast, Schlissel was ordered to return all university property associated with the presidency immediately, and vacate the presidential house within thirty days.