Dr. Mark Schlissel, who was provost at Brown University will become University of Michigan's 14th president when he takes over Monday. (Charles Tines / Detroit News)
When Dr. Mark S. Schlissel picks up the reins Monday as president of the University of Michigan, he will step into a powerful role navigating one of the nation’s premier public universities at a crossroads.
Schlissel will take charge of an institution striving to be diverse, affordable and accessible while pursuing research to help promote development in a state that is trailing in population growth, employment and college attainment.
“This is a university that is in a transformative moment in every area of our work — health care, research and academic enterprise,” said UM Regent Mark Bernstein. “So he steps into an institution that faces great challenge in every direction, and that’s a very difficult position. But I think he is ready to go.”
Schlissel, 56, will be UM’s 14th president. His official UM Twitter account, @DrMarkSchlissel, emerged earlier this week but as of Thursday he had not tweeted yet.
When he was appointed by the university’s Board of Regents in January to replace retiring President Mary Sue Coleman, Schlissel told The Detroit News that UM must promote academic excellence while remaining accessible and affordable to students from all backgrounds.
“That, to me, is the key essence of being a public institution,” he said.
Schlissel also said it was important to support faculty research and help the public understand the importance in investing in higher education.
Beyond that, he has not shared a vision for how he will shape the state’s most prestigious university. Despite several requests, university spokespeople declined to make Schlissel available for an interview for this story.
A distinguished biomedical researcher who climbed through the ranks of academia and administrative posts, Schlissel comes to UM from Brown University — an acclaimed, Rhode Island-based Ivy League institution where he served as provost since 2011.
His challenges at UM, many say, include transitioning from a leadership position at a small private school to overseeing a large public university.
Brown has 8,619 students, including 6,182 undergraduates. By comparison, UM has 43,710 students, including about 6,000 incoming freshmen.
Meanwhile, Brown’s $2.6 billion endowment is a fraction of UM’s $8.3 billion.
Other challenges for Schlissel: keeping UM affordable for students, increasing minority enrollment and leading an unprecedented $4 billion fundraising campaign.
Schlissel also will have to adapt to UM’s highly diffused culture, said former UM President James Duderstadt, who led the school from 1988 to 1996.
“Michigan is probably the most highly decentralized public university in the nation, with not only most authority over resources and leadership decentralized to the level of deans and directors, but unusually dependent on new ideas and innovation bubbling up from the grassroots level of faculty and staff rather than through top-down initiatives,” he said.
“This decentralization has been key to its ability to adapt and thrive even during the most difficult of times,” Duderstadt said. “Actually, the only university with comparable decentralization is Harvard (University).”
Andrea Fischer Newman, chairwoman of the UM Board of Regents, believes Schlissel’s biggest challenges will be managing the school’s $1.79 billion general fund budget and controlling tuition, now at $13,158 a year for in-state, full-time students.
“They are always the biggest challenges,” Newman said. “You are taking into consideration people’s lives and how they pay for higher education. And we are pricing ourselves out of the middle class. I really believe that.
“I know we do all we can for in-state financial aid,” Newman continued. “Every student that is accepted and wants to come here, we work very hard with them to make sure they can come. But still, it is very, very hard. And as tuition goes up, it makes it harder for more people to come. That is the biggest issue we have going forward.”
Schlissel also will have to balance Michigan’s ban on affirmative action with demands from the university’s Black Student Union to increase the percentage of African-American students on campus.
He affirmed the importance of attracting minority students in April when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the voter-approved ban, saying in an email: “Campus diversity is a critical component of academic excellence.”
Bobby Dishell, UM’s student body president, said he hopes Schlissel will stay true to the beliefs and goals that he talked about when he was introduced to the campus community — especially diversity and student involvement.
“Michigan is a unique school given its size, academic and athletic reputation, and student engagement on and off-campus,” Dishell said.” Coming to a school like this can be challenging and it can be difficult to adapt. However, I have full confidence in Dr. Schlissel.”
Schlissel’s arrival has created a buzz around campus, which is typically quiet during summer. He and his wife are expected to move soon into the campus presidential residence, which is being renovated.
Though some faculty have only met Schlissel briefly, many are impressed by his credentials and have high hopes for his tenure.
“He clearly appreciates and prioritizes scholarship, so my hopes are that he’ll work to ensure that UM maintains its top academic credentials,” said astronomy Professor Sally Oey, who is vice chairwoman of the school’s Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs. “This will be more challenging than it has been in the past, since there are so many rapidly changing pressures, including budgetary, political, regulatory, technological, etc. But he’s obviously a very smart person and I’m optimistic that he’s up to it.”
Before Schlissel’s time at Brown University, he was the dean of biological sciences in the College of Letters & Science at the University of California at Berkeley.
UM will pay Schlissel $750,000 a year in base salary. His contract also calls for a retention incentive of $100,000 a year that would become vested after five years.
He will be inaugurated Sept. 5.
The new president will then formally step into the shoes of Coleman, beloved and respected for many accomplishments at UM during her 12-year tenure. Among them: navigating UM through one of the state’s worst economic storms and positioning the school, along with MSU and WSU, to lead the state’s transition into a high-tech, research-based economy.
M. Roy Wilson, the president of Wayne State University for almost a year, recently met Schlissel and believes the UM community will experience a new type of leadership.
“He’s very different from Mary Sue but I think he is going to be very effective,” Wilson said. “He is a lot like me in being kind of quiet and thoughtful.”
Schlissel is also bright, personable and engaged, said Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon.
He’ll have many challenges on a statewide level, Simon added. But chief among them will be dealing with the “new normal” of universities as enterprises and continuing to grow while reducing costs.
“Mostly you have to have imagination,” Simon said. “He really has a good sense of the world and this new normal but he also appreciates that you have to translate that every day to our students. We have to make sure they are being prepared for their sixth job, not their first ... Those are big challenges. But there are enormous opportunities.”