UM's Schlissel talks achievements, 2023 departure in annual speech

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel told a crowd that he announced his plans to step down a year before his contract was set to expire in June 2023 "to avoid uncertainty" and said he hasn't formalized plans for what he'll do after he leaves his role.

Schlissel during his annual leadership address Thursday spoke publicly for the first time about why he announced his departure earlier this week and spent nearly an hour highlighting the accomplishments of the university over the past two years.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel gives his leadership address to the crowd at the Ross School of Business on campus in Ann Arbor on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021.

"I announced my decision Tuesday to step down as president at the end of June 2023 in an effort to avoid uncertainty, and to be in keeping with the precedent that the best transitions occur at the right time and are thoughtful and deliberate," Schlissel, 63, said.

"I’ve discussed this with our regents and feel that an announcement a couple years out allows for a smooth transition, which I will support in every way I can while ensuring that we can continue the important work we’re doing," he continued.

In response to a question about what he plans to do after his presidential tenure ends, Schlissel emphasized that he is still going to be president for nearly two years and said he wanted to support his successor and their transition "to keep the momentum of the university."

"I have no specific plans," Schlissel said. "I am very proudly a tenured member of the Michigan faculty. Before I started doing academic leadership work, I was just an old biology professor. And I taught undergraduate and graduate students and medical students at different institutions. I ran a research lab trying to understand the mechanisms of the immune system.

"If nothing more interesting comes along, I am going to go back to what I know how to do and love, which is teaching and research," Schlissel said. 

Schlissel, who announced Tuesday he was stepping down from his presidency a year early, made the comments to a roomful of UM guests in the Robertson Auditorium in the Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor.

Schlissel said in a statement Tuesday that he came to the decision to step down in June 2023 after discussion with the school's Board of Regents.

During the speech, he highlighted initiatives such as the university's progress in coming up with solutions for alleviating poverty in the community; the upcoming installation of UM’s first geothermal heating and cooling systems for the Bob and Betty Beyster Building; and numerous arts initiatives, including a presentation of "Fiddler on the Roof" that "will provide a unique opportunity to explore the impact of how our communities and traditions are impacted by surrounding socio-political upheavals."

"We are a university whose work matters, and in the years to come, I pledge to you that our important work will continue together – with my full support, deepest gratitude and eternal admiration – because as long as challenges remain in our society, the University of Michigan’s work will remain unfinished," Schlissel said.

Geoffrey Thun, UM's associate vice president for research, social sciences, humanities and the arts, said after the speech that he has been inspired by Schlissel's leadership.

“I find the messages ... that the president has been able to advance during his period of leadership to be truly compelling,” said Thun.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel gives his leadership address to the crowd at the Ross School of Business on campus in Ann Arbor on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021.

“The interactional dialogue across arts and innovation, diversity, equity and inclusion, the research enterprise and academic innovation under a period of extreme hardship and challenge has been extremely inspirational.”

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.

The last two years of his 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.