Schlissel navigates controversies with candor at UM

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Not long after University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel took office, a faculty member asked him at a forum if there could be more integration of the Dearborn and Flint campuses with the Ann Arbor campus.

The new leader of the state’s flagship university could have talked around the politically charged question, recalled Scott Masten, chairman of the UM Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs. Instead, he responded directly, essentially saying it would not work.

“It was not what the person who asked the question wanted to hear,” Masten said. “He has always been very candid with faculty. There have been other questions he has faced that he could have talked around, but he has been very direct and the faculty really appreciates that.”

Schlissel, who became UM’s 14th president five months ago, has endured a tumultuous beginning to his tenure, most of which he has handled frankly — an approach that backfired at least once.

The physician and biomedical researcher, who arrived last summer from Brown University in Rhode Island, faced turmoil almost immediately.

From the failing football team to an athletic department coming unglued to civil rights protesters halting a regents meeting, Schlissel has been forced to address divisive issues.

In one of his first major decisions, Schlissel hired retired Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett as interim athletic director after Dave Brandon resigned under fire Oct. 31; Hackett, in turn, fired football coach Brady Hoke after a 5-7 season and landed one of the most sought-after coaches in football, former Wolverine quarterback Jim Harbaugh, to replace him.

Harbaugh’s return earned cheers from UM football fans, but his salary, which starts at $5 million a year, also raised some eyebrows. Since taking office, Schlissel has emphasized that academics take priority over athletics.

The new president has earned a range of marks for navigating the upheaval.

“He’s handling the crisis admirably — hard to imagine someone doing it better,” said Andrea Fischer Newman, a member of the Board of Regents. “His hiring of Jim Hackett was truly a stroke of genius. Agree or disagree, Jim has brought stability to the department and a renewed enthusiasm to football.”

Others say Schlissel has more to learn. “You come to Michigan, you’ve got to learn about Michigan,” said Jamie Morris, a former UM and NFL football player who’s an entrepreneur in Ann Arbor. “You don’t learn it, then you are going to be in trouble. But I think he is going to learn it.”

With attention focused on football, another festering issue burst into the open last last fall. During a chaotic regents meeting Nov. 20, protesters angry over UM’s declining black enrollment confronted officials, including Schlissel, leading the regents to leave and finish meeting elsewhere.

And last month, Schlissel faced another controversy after professor Susan Douglas wrote a column that expressed hatred for Republicans, sparking a backlash among conservative groups and regents from both parties. In a statement released by UM, the president called for a “welcoming and respectful campus environment.”

“Let me take advantage of my own right to speak freely by saying that expressing hate toward any group, rather than focusing on ideas and issues, is not up to Michigan’s standards of discourse and civil behavior,” Schlissel said.

Schlissel touched on some of the other issues in a letter posted online last month. He outlined Hackett’s credentials and pledged a universitywide strategy to address diversity, with metrics to measure progress.

“This remains a top priority for me,” he wrote. “I know we have a lot of work to do to be our best in this area, and those efforts are underway with several new leaders and programs in place.”

Empty stadium seats

Schlissel began his post quietly in July but things soon heated up.

On July 17, days after he took office, the regents refused to allow fireworks at two home football games. Schlissel didn’t vote but stressed that academics take precedence over athletics.

Yet athletics quickly took center stage as the football team lost four of its first six games. Empty seats could be seen at Michigan Stadium, and as the losses mounted, so did student grumbling about higher ticket costs.

An injury to quarterback Shane Morris brought the discontent to a boil. In a Sept. 27 loss to Minnesota, Morris took a hard hit but participated in two more plays before being removed for good.

He was later diagnosed with a probable mild concussion. Brandon and Hoke made conflicting statements about the incident.

Schlissel told the regents on Oct. 16 he was disappointed with how the case was handled. Soon Brandon quit and Hoke was fired.

It’s too bad Hoke got booted, said D. Randall Gilmer, a UM Dearborn alum who’s a Las Vegas attorney. Still, he understands why the changes were made.

“He seems to be the perfect coach regarding his care and concerns for the athletes as men first ... just wish he could have won more,” Gilmer said. “(But a) decision had to be made. I don’t think Brandon got a raw deal.”

Before Hoke’s firing, Schlissel found himself the focus of controversy. Addressing the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs on Nov. 10, the president pointed to a gap between the graduation rate for UM football players and its students overall.

“We admit students who aren’t as qualified and it’s probably the kids that we admit that can’t honestly, even with lots of help, do the amount of work and the quality of work it takes to make progression from year to year,” he told the group.

Two days later, through a spokesman, Schlissel expressed “regret” for not giving context to his remarks, saying: “I have a great deal of respect for the efforts of our student-athletes. ...”

UM has claimed to be a prestigious academic school while touting its athletes match other students academically, said Murray Sperber, a visiting professor in graduate education at the University of California, Berkeley. But many have told him this isn’t necessarily true, Sperber said.

“The new president upset people the most when he called out that contradiction,” said Sperber. “This is not something (UM) really wants the world to know.”

Sperber suspects Schlissel didn’t expect his comments to become public. “I don’t think he is off the hot seat,” Sperber said. “He might have a much shorter term as Michigan president than he thought.”

But former UM President James Duderstadt said context is needed to evaluate Schlissel. “The problems with the Athletic Department had been building for several years,” he said.

“Mark took a very thoughtful and courageous approach, with due diligence by considering options with many people, and then took courageous action to ‘retire’ the AD and put in a new leadership team,” Duderstadt said. “He gets an A+ in my book for addressing a major problem he inherited from others.”

Another hot seat

At the November regents meeting Schlissel faced more pressure, this time from activists demanding higher minority enrollment at UM. Black student enrollment has fallen since the state’s voters banned affirmative action in college admissions eight years ago, dropping from 6-9 percent to 4.8 percent last fall.

After protests in January led by the Black Student Union, UM agreed to initiatives aimed at boosting African-American enrollment. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the affirmative action ban in April, Schlissel affirmed the need to attract minorities, saying in an email: “Campus diversity is a critical component of academic excellence.”

Bobby Greenfield, treasurer of UM’s Black Student Union, said Schlissel “has been put in the hot seat in a lot of different areas.”

“I don’t think it’s fair to assume he’ll have an automatic response to sports (or) to declining black enrollment,” Greenfield said. “How he utilizes the administration’s response is the issue. There doesn’t seem to be an effective reallocation of resources to attend to the different things students are concerned with.”

Duderstadt said Schlissel can’t solve diversity or other issues overnight.

“Again, Mark inherited these challenges, is deeply committed to addressing them, and is approaching them with both energy and wisdom,” he said. “I think he is doing a very good job here to address a long-standing challenge, but this will take time to see results.”

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com