UM President Mark Schlissel to step down in 2023

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel will step down as president in June 2023, a year before his contract is set to expire.

The 63-year-old university leader made the announcement Tuesday and said he came to the decision to exit his post early after discussion with the school's Board of Regents.

"I decided that this timing is appropriate," he said in a statement. "The new horizon gives the board time to consult with our community, think about the future and thoroughly plan and conduct a search for my successor, while allowing us to continue momentum on important and time-critical efforts that are underway."

UM President Mark Schlissel

The last two years of Schlissel's tenure have been marred by sexual abuse scandals and controversies over how the college has responded to the pandemic. Additionally, a $300 million UM innovation center project announced in 2019 and backed by billionaires Dan Gilbert and Stephen Ross in downtown Detroit fell through earlier this year. Ross, who had pledged $100 million toward the project, said his Related Companies will seek a different location in Detroit, apparently leaving Gilbert to develop the former jail site alone. 

For subscribersThe ups and downs of Schlissel's time at UM 

Regent Sarah Hubbard told The Detroit News on Tuesday that "I don’t think that he needed to leave early. I think he decided to leave early. He wanted to exit at the right time that is right for the university." An agreement signed Sept. 23 gives Schlissel a raise from $900,000 to $927,000 as of Sept. 1 and stipulates that he will be paid his presidential salary for up to two years after June 2023. He'll serve as university special advisor from July 1, 2023, to June 30, 2024, and get the title of president emeritus beginning in June 2023, among other perks.

Schlissel came to UM in 2014. His second five-year contract was set to expire in 2024. He revised his timeline for departing the university last month, officials said.

"This is the eighth year of my presidency and an important time to strategically consider the future of our university,” Schlissel wrote in an email message to the university community. “We are emerging from an historic global pandemic and adjusting to new and still evolving ways of working, learning and living, both as individuals and as a university.

“We’re planning our next fundraising campaign and developing the longer-term strategies that will continue to drive our academic excellence and enhance our societal impact. And we’re working on our campus culture and climate to help us to live up to our highest ideals.

“Each of these important priorities will require commitment and leadership that extends into the next decade and beyond.”

Regent Ron Weiser praised Schlissel, saying: “As a Republican leader in the state, I have nothing but positive things to say about President Schlissel."

Regent Jordan Acker added in a release Tuesday that "I appreciate the leadership of President Schlissel throughout his term and know that he is going to continue to work hard to advance our great institution."

Acker noted the board would "come together to discuss how we will consult our community, think about the future and thoroughly plan a search for the next leader of the university.”

Some faculty members who have been outspoken critics of Schlissel were pleased to learn the UM president is leaving his position.

"I believe the University of Michigan has become a less humane workplace under President Schlissel's scandal-plagued leadership," said Silke-Maria Weineck, a UM professor in German studies and Comparative literature. "As his term progressed, he became less and less engaged with the community, less and less concerned with the well-being of the community and increasingly isolated from the very people he was meant to serve."

Rebekah Modrak, a UM professor in the Stamps School of Art & Design, echoed similar sentiments.

"During his time at the University of Michigan, President Schlissel has perpetuated a climate of fear, top-down governance and has rooted a legal and corporate mindset into all areas of the university so that risk management and public image take precedence over integrity, intellectual honesty, compassion and fair treatment," Modrak said. "We have 21 more months with him as president, and a long road ahead to remedy the toxic culture he has enabled."

But one faculty member, radiation oncology physicist Scott Hadley, expressed gratitude for Schlissel's tenure on Twitter. "Thanks for your leadership and all you've done," tweeted Hadley. 

Defining his presidency

Schlissel left his post as provost of Brown University to lead UM in July 2014, becoming UM's 14th president. He succeeded former UM President Mary Sue Coleman, who served for 12 years.

Early in his UM career, he was lauded for the Go Blue Guarantee, which rolled out in 2018 with the aim of providing access to the prestigious Ann Arbor campus to students from low-income families and adding economic diversity to the student body. The program provides free tuition to students from families with incomes of $65,000 and assets of $50,000 or less.

“He championed the Go Blue Guarantee that makes our university more affordable for Michigan families, and his commitment to carbon neutrality makes our university a leader in combating climate change," said Regent Mark Bernstein of Schlissel's leadership in a statement issued by the university on Tuesday. "Just one of these successes would justify recognition as one of the most successful presidents in our history, but there are many more accomplishments to celebrate."

The four-year scholarship valued at around $60,000 led to The News naming Schlissel a 2019 Michiganian of the Year, awards given annually by the newspaper to citizens making Michigan a better place.

But the program came under fire in December 2018 by One University, a coalition of UM students, faculty and community members. They argued that UM students attending the Dearborn and Flint campuses take on more debt and come from families earning a much lower median income than students attending the UM campus in Ann Arbor. Two and a half years later, the Regents approved expanding the program to UM students attending the campuses in Dearborn and Flint.

David Potter, a UM professor of Greek and Roman history, said he thinks the turning point for Schlissel began when former UM Provost Martin Philbert, the university's second in command, was accused in 2020 of climbing the ranks despite accusations of sexual misconduct during his 25-year tenure.

Potter said Schlissel inherited a culture where there was "little administrative accountability." Someone needed to say there was a real problem at UM, and "he wasn't willing to say that," Potter said.

Schlissel initially placed Philbert on administrative leave after the allegations emerged, pending results of an internal investigation. The president removed Philbert from his post three months later. UM also hired the law firm WilmerHale to do an independent investigation, which concluded that Philbert had a lengthy and pervasive history of sexual harassment and misconduct before and during his time at UM.

Also in 2020, Robert Julian Stone, a former student, became the first man to publicly accuse former UM Dr. Robert Anderson of sexual misconduct nearly 50 years after an alleged incident. Stone shared his story exclusively with The News. That brought to light an 18-month UM investigation of Anderson that began in 2018 but had not been publicly announced.

UM is now in mediation with more than 850 former UM students and others who claim they were sexually abused by Anderson.

University of Michigan officials knew as early as 1975 that Anderson had been accused of sexual misconduct, according to a report commissioned by the university that was released in May.

The report from WilmerHale showed more than two dozen UM employees were told about Anderson's alleged behavior over his nearly 40-year career. While several employees reported Anderson after learning of complaints, the majority of the people his patients told — including some of the most powerful people on campus — did not act to stop the doctor, the report found.

Anderson was able to retire from the university in 2003. He died in 2008. 

UM apologized after the allegations emerged and asked other potential victims to call a hotline to report complaints. The university also offered free counseling and promised an investigation.

What Schlissel gets

For his service as president emeritus, Schlissel will get an office on central campus, parking and $36,000 annually to be used at his discretion, according to the agreement. 

Other perks include contributions of $300,000 each year to his retirement plan on June 30, 2022, June 30, 2023, and June 30, 2024; use of the presidential house on campus until he is no longer president; and a $5,000 monthly housing allowance during his year as a university special advisor.

Schlissel will also be entitled to up to 18 months administrative leave, with his presidential salary, if he serves as president through June 30, 2023. After that date or his administrative leave, he will be a tenured faculty member, get laboratory space, $2 million in start-up funding and receive no less than 50% of his presidential pay, or $463,500 annually. 

Schlissel's agreement with the board also calls for him to receive a vehicle for business and personal use, a driver for security and transportation, travel accommodations and business and entertainment expenses.

It also includes a retirement package "that includes participation in the university's retirement plan, which currently provides that the university will match the president's 5 percent contribution with a 10 percent university contribution on salary of up to $290,000."

For his part, Schlissel said he was “very proud of all the university has accomplished thus far during my term as president and remain excited about what we are currently planning for the years ahead."

“Thanks to you, UM is addressing major societal challenges such as poverty, firearm injury prevention, inequality, human health and the climate crisis with interdisciplinary strength," he wrote Tuesday. "We’ve enhanced affordability on all of our campuses through the Go Blue Guarantee, expanded the reach of our world-class health care, and set a record for private support of a public university."

Schlissel will outline his plans for the coming year at his annual Leadership Address on Thursday.