Errors in Judgment

Public university presidents are advised not to put anything in writing that they wouldn’t want released publicly. Former Michigan president Schlissel likely knew this, higher education experts say.

January 19, 2022
 
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Dr. Mark Schlissel had promised to help fix the culture of sexual misconduct at the University of Michigan.

Four days after the University of Michigan Board of Regents fired president Dr. Mark Schlissel, the higher education world is poring over the salacious emails that led to his dismissal. Many are wondering, how could a public university president carry out an affair via a university email account that’s subject to sunshine laws?

Higher education experts say it should have been common sense not to use a university email account to conduct personal business. Though the Harvard Seminar for Presidential Leadership—well-known as the pre-eminent crash course for new college presidents—does not provide any formal training in how to use email, such information is typically conveyed through informal mentoring, said Judith Block McLaughlin, educational chair for the seminar.

“Often, the experienced presidents who teach in the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents will remind the new presidents that anything they put in writing is going to be closely scrutinized, whether it be emails or blogs or formal talks,” McLaughlin wrote in an email.

Schlissel likely knew that, McLaughlin added.

“He had been in office long enough to know about open records legislation, and so his misjudgment in this area was probably not a lack of awareness or training,” she said.

All University of Michigan employees receive training on university policies, according to Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesperson for the university. The “responsible use of information systems” policy includes university email accounts.

“Users are solely responsible for their personal use of U-M information resources as well as the content of their personal communications,” the policy states. “For faculty and staff members, such personal use must not interfere with the employee’s obligation to carry out job-related responsibilities in a timely, effective, and appropriate manner.”

The emails released by the regents include dozens of exchanges between Schlissel and the unnamed employee. In one message, Schlissel referred to the woman as “sexier.” In another, he asked her a hypothetical: “What if we miss our connection and get stuck in Paris …” She replied, “I know a bistro.”

“These emails demonstrate that you were communicating with the subordinate through the University of Michigan email system using an inappropriate tone and inappropriate language,” the regents wrote. “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.”

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Emails obtained by The Washington Post reveal that Schlissel may not have understood the full extent of public records laws. In an email conversation with Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Schlissel suggested that Blank could delete emails to avoid potential FOIA disclosures.

“Mark and others—please note that anything that arrives in or is sent from my email can be requested as a public record. I know I’m not the only one for whom this is true,” Blank wrote in an email, according to the Post report. She was alluding to the fact that each state has different sunshine laws that dictate which records can be made publicly available.

In response, Schlissel said, “becky, if you simply delete the emails after sending, does that relieve you of FOIA obligations?”

While it can be easy to know which records in any given state are subject to public request, what to write in personal communications is up to individual judgment, said Bill Mullowney, vice president for policy and general counsel at Valencia College in Florida.

“Typically, people run into problems when they’re irritated or angry and they write an irritated and angry response,” Mullowney said. Later, “They’ve calmed down and they wouldn’t write it the same way. The problem is, it’s out there, and it’s a record.”

Whoever requests those records and reads them later doesn’t get the full context of when and why an email was written, Mullowney added.

“When you look at it out of the context of the frame of mind the person was in, it could look pretty inappropriate or pretty bad.”

‘Lonely Schliss’

While higher education professionals are scratching their heads over Schlissel’s email practices, many students are rejoicing in his departure, seeing it as a fitting end for a president they have disliked for years. Students pushed back on Schlissel’s COVID-19 protocols for months, upset that he did not grant exemptions to in-person teaching for some at-risk faculty members. They also disapproved of him booting students from dorms during the pandemic and raising tuition each year.

Critics have turned the former president’s emails into tweets, memes, a BuzzFeed quiz and even “Lonely Schliss” merchandise that can be purchased online—and at a discount using the code MARYSUE, a reference to Mary Sue Coleman, the former University of Michigan president who has been appointed Schlissel’s interim replacement.

In a Medium post, Michigan student Claire Hao reflected on the students’ collective glee.

“Saturday night, the large University of Michigan community came together like they rarely do. Students gathered outside the President’s house, playing instruments and shouting the lyrics of ‘Mr. Brightside’ and ‘Pump It Up’ to celebrate his firing, akin to how they celebrated Michigan football’s historic victory against Ohio State and its first Big 10 Championship win earlier in the year,” Hao wrote. “At a school known for its spirit, I can honestly say Schlissel’s sacking was the most camaraderie I’ve felt among my peers in my four years here.”

Hao also urged students and onlookers to pay attention to what she considers a core hypocrisy of Schlissel’s presidency: that he promised to help eradicate the culture of sexual misconduct at the university, only to be fired for having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate employee.

“This moment may resonate painfully with survivors and survivor advocates on campus, even as they may also find the situation funny. After all, it’s the pinnacle of how hollow our leaders’ statements really are,” Hao wrote. “And for survivors, a group of people who know exactly what it’s like to be gaslit and in many cases are still healing from it, here’s evidence they were being gaslit by the president of the university himself.”

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