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Dr. Mark Schlissel

University of Michigan

The University of Michigan Board of Regents fired its president, Dr. Mark Schlissel, Saturday after investigating an anonymous complaint that he was having an affair with a subordinate.

“As you know, the regents received an anonymous complaint regarding an alleged sexual affair between you and a subordinate. An investigation has revealed that your interactions with the subordinate were inconsistent with promoting the dignity and reputation of the University of Michigan,” said a letter to Schlissel signed by the regents.

The letter cited numerous examples of the interactions, including emails between Schlissel and the subordinate, which the board made public, along with the letter, on Saturday.

“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.’”

The emails “demonstrate that you were communicating with a subordinate through the University of Michigan email system using an inappropriate tone and inappropriate language,” the letter to Schlissel said. “They also demonstrate that you were using official University of Michigan business as a means to pursue and carry out a personal relationship with the subordinate.”

He was ordered to return all property “associated” with his presidency and to vacate the presidential mansion within 30 days.

The Detroit Free Press reported Monday that the university is investigating whether Schlissel “misused university funds in support of his relationship with a female employee.”

Schlissel announced in October that he would step down from the presidency in June 2023, a year earlier than the end of his previously announced term. His announcement came slightly more than a year after faculty members narrowly voted no confidence in his leadership and amid recent tensions between him and faculty members, as well as the university’s Board of Regents. The Free Press reported at the time that tensions “have been building for more than a year and may have reached a boiling point this summer.”

The Emails

The regents said they felt it was in the public’s interest to explain why they acted.

“In the interest of full public disclosure, we have released dozens of Dr. Schlissel’s communications that illustrate this inappropriate conduct, as well as the letter that we sent to Dr. Schlissel explaining our decision. All this information is available on the university’s website. Our community and our state deserve as complete an understanding of this situation as possible.”

Mary Sue Coleman, a former president at Michigan, will serve as interim president. She is a former president of the Association of American Universities.

“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.”

Schlissel could not be reached for comment.

Schlissel’s firing comes in the wake of the firing of another top Michigan administrator accused of sexually harassing subordinates. The university agreed in November 2020 to pay $9.25 million to eight women whom Martin Philbert, a former provost, harassed during his tenure.

Michigan released Philbert from his duties in January 2020 and later released an outside report finding that he’d harassed women over two decades, starting when he was an assistant professor. While he was dean of the School of Public Health, prior to becoming provost, Philbert engaged in sexual relationships with at least three staff members, using university offices to do so and storing explicit photos on his university-owned devices, Michigan’s inquiry also found. As provost, Philbert was in simultaneous sexual relationships with at least two university employees, according to the investigation. Philbert did not participate in the inquiry, which also found that some university officials knew about the behavior but did not formally look into it.

The Board of Regents’ letter to Schlissel cited the Philbert case.

“For example, 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. The regents have been stressing with campus leadership the importance of diminishing sexual harassment and misconduct for many years.’”

The regents added, “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.”

After the Philbert incidents, the university adopted a relationship policy that said that “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 Detroit Free Press reported that the policy also says that relationships can develop in the workplace that aren’t based on an abuse of power. In those cases, the policy says, they must be disclosed and a management plan put in place and monitored. Failure to do so “is a serious offense and cause for discipline, up to and including dismissal from employment.”

Faculty and Student Reactions

Allen P. Liu, chair of the Faculty Senate at Michigan and an associate professor of mechanical engineering, said, “I was shocked, as I am sure many of our colleagues were. It was another sad day for our university, and it will take our community time to process this and to heal.”

He added that he “would thank the board” for its “swift and decisive actions to remove Dr. Schlissel as president of the university for his misconduct.”

Other faculty members have been pushing Schlissel on issues related to Philbert, the former provost, demanding tougher enforcement of the rule against sex harassment, and raising questions about why faculty members have been ordered to teach in person this semester, even as other colleges have allowed for a period of online teaching.

“The man was a disgrace and an embarrassment and has done untold damage to the university,” said Silke-Maria Weineck, professor of German studies and comparative literature, “but he should have been fired for treating faculty staff and students with naked contempt, not for an apparently consensual affair.”

Weineck added that “regents who think nothing of forcing immunocompromised faculty into classrooms teeming with Omicron pretending to be scandalized by a bunch of mash notes? Give me a break. And as glad as I am to see him gone, posting the correspondence on our main website is a classless and dickish move.”

Rebekah Modrak, a professor in Michigan’s School of Art & Design, said she doubted that Schlissel’s firing was truly related to the alleged inappropriate relationship.

“Mark Schlissel put Martin Philbert, an alleged sexual predator, in office as our chief academic officer, knowing the allegations against him … And yet, the regents didn’t fire Schlissel when they finally had no choice but to publicly acknowledge Philbert’s abuse in 2020,” Modrak said. “Last year, the regents ignored the university being in the national press three times for mismanaged planning around COVID, and they paid zero attention to the faculty vote of no confidence, which was a significant and historic vote. Considering their disregard for such serious infractions, why would the regents suddenly care about Schlissel having an inappropriate relationship?”

She added, “Mark Schlissel was arrogant and dismissive of faculty and student voices, even of his own COVID council. So it’s understandable that many are enjoying his fall. But, in the fun of mocking Schlissel’s correspondence with his girlfriend, I hope we don’t lose sight of the real victims,” the students and faculty at Michigan.

The president of the Central Student Government at Michigan, Nithya Arun, also called for changes to the rules on sexual misconduct in the search for a new president.

“I think the reasons for which Mark Schlissel was terminated are emblematic of the larger, systemic issues with sexual misconduct at the University of Michigan. With the firing of Dr. Schlissel, I hope that student voices are centered during the presidential selection process. When thinking about the future of the University of Michigan, broadly, I would like the new university president to reform current sexual misconduct policies, keeping in mind the needs of survivors.”

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