Schlissel, a medical doctor and Ph.D., will become U-M's 14th president this summer, succeeding the retiring Mary Sue Coleman. (Charles V. Tines / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor— The University of Michigan’s incoming president is no stranger to crisis.
As a science dean at the University of California-Berkeley in 2010, Mark Schlissel found himself squarely in the middle of a controversy over genetic testing.
Schlissel, the head of biological sciences for the school’s College of Letters and Science, and another professor proposed that incoming freshmen voluntarily offer swabs of their DNA for genetic testing as part of a university research program.
The idea caused a backlash from state lawmakers and privacy advocates. Despite the uproar, Schlissel defended the program and carried it out, said Robert Birgeneau, chancellor emeritus at U-C Berkeley.
“It went quite well in the end and the students learned a lot,” said Birgeneau, who was chancellor during Schlissel’s tenure. “I think the controversy was valuable because it raised issues that maybe Mark and I hadn’t thought about. I thought Mark handled that whole thing as well as it could be handled. He didn’t panic.”
Schlissel, named U-M’s 14th president on Friday, will succeed the retiring Mary Sue Coleman on July 1.
“I will bring to Michigan a fierce commitment to the importance of public research universities, a strong and personal belief in the ability of education to transform lives and the understanding that academic excellence and diversity are inextricably linked,” Schlissel said Friday during a news conference at U-M announcing his appointment.
Schlissel, 56, a medical doctor and Ph.D., brings a long resume of experience as a researcher, instructor and administrator at three of the nation’s most prestigious universities.
Schlissel has been provost of Brown University in Rhode Island since July 2011, serving as the Ivy League school’s No. 2 official, overseeing academic programs, budgetary functions, and the university’s graduate, medical and engineering schools.
“Mark has applied a rare combination of energy, thoughtfulness and discipline to strengthen every aspect of Brown,” Christina Paxson, the school’s president, said in a statement.
Paxson says Schlissel served on the school’s University Resources Committee, where he crafted budgets while “promoting transparency and fiscal responsibility.”
Schlissel joined UC-Berkeley in 1999 as a professor and moved his way up the leadership chain. Birgeneau and the university’s provost promoted Schlissel to letters and science dean in 2008.
“He was dean during what most people would regard as the most difficult time period for Berkeley. The state took away half of our money,” said Birgeneau, who stepped down as the university’s chancellor last May. “You got to see what people were made of, including Mark.”
According to Birgeneau, Schlissel saved the school tens of millions of dollars a year as co-chairman of a project that scrutinized university purchases. He said Schlissel also “worked fanatically” to find funding for the college’s Biology Scholars Program, which provides aid for underprivileged students who plan to attend medical school.
Schlissel began his career at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as a faculty member in 1991. He earned his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees there and did his residency training in internal medicine at Hopkins Hospital. He earned a bachelor of arts in biochemical sciences at Princeton University in 1979.
As he was introduced as U-M’s incoming leader, Schlissel said he understands how important research is to the university, comparing it with his own experience.
“My own life and career was forever altered by the opportunity to do biology lab research as an undergraduate at Princeton and the relationship I developed with my faculty mentor,” he said. “I will work hard to find ways to learn how students feel about their Michigan education and involve them in key decisions that affect their experience here.”
Schlissel has been married for 29 years to Monica Schwebs, an environmental and energy lawyer. They have four adult children.
Birgeneau said he and Schlissel became close friends over the years and stayed in touch even after he took the position at Brown.
“If you read his Christmas letter, here’s a man and his wife who appear to have a very great marriage and they are deeply committed to their kids,” said Birgeneau. “It’s really a whole family that’s coming to Michigan.”
Kim Kozlowski and Shawn D. Lewis contributed.