U-M President Mark Schlissel's firing in dinner-time email was years in the making
A few weeks into Mark Schlissel's tenure as University of Michigan president, a crowd gathered in front of his on-campus house, chanting, waving signs and demanding the new president do something about the school athletic director.
Upset about a litany of issues from the handling of a quarterback's concussion to a marketing promotion offering football tickets for the purchase of Diet Coke, the crowd agitated for the firing of Dave Brandon.
Eight years later, on Saturday night, a smaller group of students stood in the same place, this time celebrating Schlissel's dismissal.
As much of Ann Arbor sat down to dinner Saturday evening, the school's Board of Regents was emailing Schlissel a letter firing him following an investigation into his relationship with a subordinate.
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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."
Schlissel was immediately done as president, replaced on an interim basis by Mary Sue Coleman, Schlissel's predecessor. He has 30 days to vacate the president's house. He is still a tenured professor at the school. The school's faculty must now decide whether to start tenure revocation proceedings. Schlissel could also resign his tenure.
The decision to fire him was made behind closed doors Saturday morning, without a public vote. Schlissel was hired in 2014. In 2018, the board extended his contract for five years.
He leaves with a mixed legacy dominated by two headline issues — the university's response, or lack thereof, to sexual assault scandals and the university's response to COVID-19 and conflict caused by his decisions during it, which led in September 2020 to the faculty senate's first vote of no-confidence in a president in U-M history.
Not many on campus bemoaned his departure, largely because of whatever missteps he took, his management style and his personality, which some people criticized. In an era when a university president must be a cheerleader and comforter, inspiring leader and donor charmer, Schlissel was, some said, more interested in being a provost than a president — more interested in running the day-to-day academic operation than a job that is more politician than professor.
Management style issues
In 2018, as Schlissel's first contract was nearing its end, U-M's board hired an outside firm — The Miles Group of New York City — to perform an evaluation of the president. The university paid just over $30,600 for the work, awarded on a no-bid contract, according to records obtained by the Free Press under an open records request.
Then, in fall of 2020, the board gathered with Schlissel in his backyard for a meeting. The outdoor meeting was necessitated by COVID-19 protocols. One after another, board members dressed Schlissel down, telling him he needed to improve his management of the university. Board members were incensed by Schlissel's refusal to meet with student residential hall workers upset with having to work in dorms they said were full of COVID-infected students without proper safety protocols.
Shortly thereafter, in October of that year, the board returned to The Miles Group, an executive coaching firm. The university contracted with the firm for one year at $50,000. The contract called for meetings with Schlissel every two to three weeks for the first couple of months and then monthly meetings.
"Time is of the essence in this Agreement," a document describing the scope of services said.
Before Schlissel was fired, university spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told the Free Press it was common for the university to provide professional development to its employees and this contract was just that.
Board chairman Jordan Acker did not answer an inquiry about why the board hired the firm.
It's not common for university presidents to have executive coaches.
"It is notable that the Regents were willing to invest in an executive coach and that Schlissel agreed to the arrangement," said James Finkelstein, a professor emeritus at George Mason University who studies higher education presidents. "It would be interesting to know how much pressure he felt to do so and if there were any implied threats if he didn’t. There is a big difference when the board requires a president to work with a coach and when a president takes the initiative on their own."
In April 2021, Coleman, Schlissel's predecessor, co-authored an essay calling for more presidents to use coaches and noting not many places do it.
"Although executive coaching is common in the corporate sector, higher education has been slower to understand the benefits that external coaching and expertise can bring to bear — and the reasons why an experienced, outside perspective is so valuable," she wrote.
As the Free Press reported exclusively in September 2021, several members of the board had long been disappointed in Schlissel's approach to the job, including his lack of skills with regard to certain responsibilities: meeting donors, setting a climate for the school and engaging with students, faculty, staff and the community as the figurehead of the university.
Only three current board members — Democrats Mark Bernstein, Denise Ilitch and Katherine White — were on the board when Schlissel was hired. The other five board members won elections since then. The Free Press reached out to each board member individually Sunday, but none were willing to comment for this story.
During Schlissel's tenure, any dissatisfaction with him has not played out in public. Rather, board members have saved those discussions for private meetings.
Schlissel was unable to be reached for comment Saturday and Sunday.
Schlissel had no experience with high-stakes athletics before coming to U-M. Then-Athletic Director Brandon was a former U-M regent and popular Republican often rumored to be ticketed for high political office. But in the fall of 2014, the athletic department was in shambles. Morale was bad. The football team was struggling. There had been a high number of employees forced out. Finances were shaky as donors scaled back giving.
Brandon resigned under pressure. Schlissel moved quickly, hiring Jim Hackett, the former U-M football player and Steelcase CEO, who in turn lured Jim Harbaugh away from the NFL and back to his alma mater, where he had been a star quarterback and was still a fan favorite. When Hackett eventually stepped down, Schlissel in 2016 hired Warde Manuel, also a former football player, as athletic director. Since the hiring, the athletic department has stabilized and a number of programs, including football and men's basketball, have had tremendous stretches of success. Even through COVID-related losses of ticket revenue, the department has stabilized.
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It's one of Schlissel's most effective moves as president.
Insiders also credit him for work at the U-M medical system, where he has navigated the pandemic and a rapidly changing hospital landscape in the state marked by mergers and acquisitions. Schlissel, a medical doctor and researcher by training, has been key in guiding the health system, which brings in more revenue to the overall university than the actual university.
He also worked to increase the academic reputation of the university in its hiring and started the Go Blue Guarantee, which repackaged existing financial aid programs into a single, easily marketed program guaranteeing free tuition for Michigan students whose household income was under $65,000 a year. That, and other similar programs, has helped U-M increase the number of low-income students attending the flagship Ann Arbor campus.
Sexual assault response
In January 2020, Martin Philbert, U-M's provost and highest-ranking academic officer, was placed on leave while an investigation into sexual misconduct was completed.
A month later, more troubling news arrived. The university was conducting an investigation into allegations of sexual assault by longtime football team doctor Robert Anderson, who had died in 2008.
For the rest of Schlissel's time at U-M, these two investigations would dominate the headlines and draw heavy criticism to the school.
An independent investigation found Philbert had engaged in sexual misconduct with female employees over the length of his decades-long career at U-M. Despite some administrators having received complaints, Philbert climbed the ladder from faculty to dean to provost. He was recommended for the provost job by Schlissel.
The investigation found Schlissel had some warning about Philbert.
The investigation report detailed a meeting in which an unnamed now-former regent tried to warn Schlissel about Philbert. That regent told Schlissel about a lawsuit, settled years earlier by the university, that raised questions about Philbert's conduct.
The report also told about a survey through which faculty submit anonymous feedback to high-level university leaders. "President Schlissel’s survey, which included 161 comments totaling 27 pages, included a comment stating, in part, 'Re: your administrative appointments: Martin Philbert was/is a notorious sexual predator, physically cornering and emotionally coercing his female graduate students in his toxicology lab.' President Schlissel did not recall having reviewed the comment, and there is no indication that he (or anyone else at the University) did,” the report said.
In Anderson's case, Schlissel was not at the university when Anderson, who another independent investigation found had sexually assaulted hundreds if not thousands of athletes, was an employee. However, Schlissel's reaction to the revelations about Anderson have drawn a number of complaints.
More: Report: U-M could have stopped Anderson sexual assaults on athletes
Those complaints came from all over, including from the board, which had to push Schlissel to offer free counseling to Philbert's and Anderson's survivors, according to previous Free Press reporting.
Many in the U-M community have expressed anguish over the handling of these problems.
"For the past 12 years, at least, the university's Office of Institutional Equity (now the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX office) has been a sham, with its directors more invested in covering up abuse than in investigating and prosecuting it," said Rebekah Modrak, a U-M professor and critic.
She noted that about 2% of the allegations that are made are found to be violations of the school's misconduct code.
"Philbert oversaw the OIE and, after he was removed, Schlissel put the ECRT under his purview and described that as a significant change for the better. And he said this as he was violating university policy on employer-subordinate relationships.
"This is a cultural problem, not just a Schlissel problem. Whistleblowers and those of us who report violations are routinely stonewalled. Schlissel was a huge part of this but it's bigger than him."
In 2021, the Board of Regents hired an outside firm, Guidepost Solutions, to help put together a series of policy and culture changes to help address these issues.
More: U-M creates new office, makes changes to how it handles sexual assault complaints
Among the policies drafted and implemented — a policy coming out of the Philbert scandal dealing with supervisor relationships with subordinate employees.
The violation of that policy cost Schlissel his job.
David Jesse was a 2020-21 Spencer Education Reporting Fellow at Columbia University and the 2018 Education Writer Association's best education reporter. Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj. Subscribe to the Detroit Free Press.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: U-M President Mark Schlissel's firing was years in the making