Why U of M fired President Mark Schlissel on Saturday night

Emails to subordinate included references to travel and a ‘conspiracy’ against him, as well as New Yorker articles

By: - January 16, 2022 10:16 am

The University of Michigan | Susan J. Demas

The University of Michigan Board of Regents on Saturday night made a surprise announcement that it had fired President Mark Schlissel and replaced him in the interim with former President Mary Sue Coleman, noting in a statement that it had “full confidence that she will provide the leadership our University community needs during this critical time of transition.”

The board said members will affirm these actions during its Feb. 17 formal session.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel | Wikimedia Commons

The process moved fast after receiving an anonymous complaint on Dec. 8, according the the board’s statement, that Schlissel “may have been involved in an inappropriate relationship with a University employee.” An investigation showed Schlissel used his U of M email account to “communicate with that subordinate in a manner inconsistent with the dignity and reputation of the University.”

The subordinate’s name was not released by the university.

“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,” the board wrote in a letter to Schlissel.

The board tapped an outside firm to do an independent investigation. One issue was whether Schlissel violated the supervisor relationship policy, which was put in place in July 2021 after another investigation had found that former Provost Martin Philbert had sexually harassed women. In 2018, U of M reached a $9.25 million settlement with eight women.

The board noted Schlissel’s 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.”

In October, Schlissel announced he would be retiring a year earlier than planned in June 2023. He also had inked a deal to receive his full $927,000 salary for two years after stepping down, per the Michigan Daily. He was to serve as president emeritus, have a campus office funded, as well as pension contributions assorted perks that could have cost U of M about $10 million over the next decade, per the Detroit News. The contract does not state if he will be paid if he’s terminated for cause.

The board released dozens of emails from his U of M email to support the firing starting in October 2019, which included references to travel and New Yorker stories.

In a July, 1, 2021 email, the subordinate writes her “heart hurts” and Schlissel responded, “i know. mine too.” He also wrote, “this is my fault,” that he is “in pain too” and “I still wish I were strong enough to find a way.”

In a Nov. 4, 2021, email to the subordinate about a University of Michigan basketball game, Schlissel expressed disappointment they wouldn’t be sitting together and wrote that “the only reason I agreed to go was to go with you. there is a conspiracy against me.”

Schlissel could not be reached for comment. His Twitter account was locked down as of Sunday morning.

Coleman, who previously served as president for 12 years after leading the University of Iowa, said in a statement, “While saddened by the circumstances, I am honored to be asked to again serve the University of Michigan. 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.”

The University of Michigan has been engulfed in a scandal over Dr. Robert Anderson, the former head of the University Health Service and a physician for the University of Michigan Athletic Department for 35 years who died in 2008. Hundreds of former patients have since come forward to allege he sexually assaulted them. Many have sued U of M, asserting that the university knew of Anderson’s actions and aided in covering them up.

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Former U of M football player Jon Vaughn said he and other young people were “abused, assaulted and raped” while they were supposed to receive a medical examination from Anderson. He launched a sit-in at Schlissel’s house and is now running for the board of regents, but hasn’t said which party’s nomination he will seek.

“We trusted our doctors, and especially trusted U of M doctors, who wouldn’t?” Vaughn said. “I feel a deep shame because there were Michigan personnel who knew about this abuse. What seem like routine checkups for most adults have become traumatizing for me.”

The board of regents has also faced controversy. In April 2021, the board censured Regent Ron Weiser — who signed onto Schlissel’s firing — and stripped him of his committees. Weiser, a former ambassador also is the chair of the Michigan Republican Party who has given millions to the school. As he was elected, the board cannot remove Weiser.

in March 2021, Weiser told a local GOP meeting that the three top three female Democratic leaders in the state, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, were “witches” that Republicans need to defeat in 2022 by “burning at the stake.” He also said of U.S. Reps. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids) and Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), who both voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, “other than assassination, I have no other way … other than voting [them] out.”

Weiser later apologized “to those I have offended.”

Michigan GOP Chair Ron Weiser | Michigan GOP photo

A letter from 343 U of M faculty, students, staff and alumni asked Weiser to resign from the university’s board because of his role in the Michigan GOP, citing the Jan. 6 insurrection. Afterward, Weiser wrote to Vice President and Secretary of the University Sally Churchill, as well as copied the board of regents and Schlissel, saying it “might be nice if some or all of my fellow board members say something about my service or largess to the University.”

“Silence has historical consequences. Remember Germany in the 1930’s,” Weiser wrote.

Weiser last year also copied his fellow regents on emails he sent, including a photo of a woman in a bikini and one that included: “I’m not the one you are mad at. You were already mad. I was jealous. Rightfully so. Now I calm down and you won’t answer my call. Are you with her? Is that why? Are you working it out with her? I’m blind over here, remember? You blocked me? This is crazy.”

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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