University of Michigan board fires President Mark Schlissel

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

The University of Michigan Board of Regents unanimously voted Saturday to fire President Mark Schlissel after an investigation found inappropriate conduct with an employee, the board said.

The news rattled the UM community, coming after former UM Provost Martin Philbert left the university amid allegations of sexual misconduct two years ago, said Allen Liu, a UM associate professor of mechanical engineering.

More: Read former UM President Mark Schlissel's 'inappropriate' emails with an employee

"It's a very sad day for the university especially with what happened with the former provost," said Liu, who is chair of UM's executive arm of the university’s central faculty governance system.

"It’s going to take a long time for the campus to heal," he said.

Former President Mary Sue Coleman will serve as interim president. She most recently was president of the Association of American Universities from 2016-20 and led UM from 2002 to 2014. 

The investigation into Schlissel's conduct began after an anonymous complaint on Dec. 8. 

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel

"After an investigation, we learned that Dr. Schlissel, over a period of years, used his University email account to communicate with that subordinate in a manner inconsistent with the dignity and reputation of the University," according to a statement posted on the board's website.

The board said it made the move "with great disappointment."

"We understand the decisions announced today are unexpected and this kind of abrupt change can be especially difficult," the statement said. "We take our constitutional role as a governing board seriously and we all agree that this decision is in the best interest of the University we care about so deeply."

The board's dismissal ends his tenure immediately

The firing also followed complaints about the handling of the Robert Anderson scandal in which the late sports doctor is accused of thousands of incidents of sexual assault and sexual abuse dating back to the 1970s. The university is in mediation with hundreds of the victims, but they have complained about the slow pace of the talks and a lack of cultural change on campus. 

Schlissel, 64, could not be reached for comment Saturday night. Board of Regents chairman Jordan Acker also could not be reached. It was unclear when the vote was taken.

He was named president of UM in 2014. He arrived from Brown University, where he had served as provost, with his wife, environmental lawyer Monica Schwebs. He signed a five-year deal then, and signed another five-year contract on Dec. 4, 2018, that was set to expire on June 30, 2024.

Schlissel, the 14th president of the university, is the second to have been dismissed by the board of regents. More than 150 years ago, regents fired UM's first president, Henry Tappan in 1863 due to" matters both of policy and personality," according to the university's list of presidents.

Schlissel had announced last year that he planned to depart as president one year earlier than planned, and he negotiated another contract that experts said was one of the most lucrative university presidential exit contracts they'd seen.

He earned a base salary of $927,000 as of September. .

In announcing the firing, the board released numerous emails showing an exchange with one person dating back to 2019.

Among the emails were articles from the New Yorker magazine that Schlissel sent from his university email account on Sept. 2, 2019, with headlines, "Sexual Fantasies of Everyday New Yorkers" and "Where Your Personalities Go While You're Having Sex." 

Schlissel wrote: "just for fun." 

The employee, whose name is redacted in all of the emails, responded: “Ha!!”

Schlissel also wrote on Oct. 10, 2019: "i can lure you to visit with the promise of a knish?"

The employee responded: "Laugh."

The board sent Schlissel a letter telling him his termination with cause. In the letter, the board said:

►On July 1, 2021, you exchanged emails with the subordinate using your University of Michigan email. In this exchange, she states that her "heart hurts" to which you respond "i know. mine too."  You state that "this is my fault" and that you are "in pain too." You finish with "I still wish I were strong enough to find a way."

►On Jan. 9, 2021, you responded to an email from the subordinate's official University of Michigan email address. In her email, the subordinate had said "Oh yes!" In your response you wrote: "Love it when you say that." You made a similar remark in an email dated April 25, 2020.

►On Sept. 1, 2021, you wrote to the subordinate's official University email address and referred to her as "sexier."

►On Nov. 4, 2021, you emailed the subordinate with regard to a University of Michigan basketball game you were scheduled to attend as part of your official duties as President. In that email you expressed disappointment that you were potentially not sitting with the subordinate, stating "the only reason I agreed to go was to go with you. there is a conspiracy against me."

►On Dec. 3, 2021, you responded to the subordinate regarding the Big Ten Championship "President's Suite briefing Info" stating that "You can give me a private briefing."

"Your conduct as summarized above is particularly egregious considering your knowledge of and involvement in addressing incidents of harassment by University of Michigan personnel, and your declared commitment to work to 'free' the University community of sexual harassment or other improper conduct," the board's letter to Schlissel said.

The letter pointed to Schlissel's actions amid the scandal involving Philbert, the university's second-highest ranking official. Schlissel removed Philbert temporarily from his administrative post following anonymous complaints about inappropriate behavior.

He also launched an independent investigation and then permanently removed him in March. Philbert, who earned $570,340 annually and worked at UM for 25 years, relinquished his tenure and retired in June 2020. Five months later, the university reached a $9.25 million settlement with eight women allegedly victimized by the former provost. 

The action followed a move in mid-July to institute a new UM sexual misconduct policy that included a ban on supervisors initiating romantic relationships with subordinates and creating a new department to investigate sexual assault and harassment whose director for the first time reports directly to the university president.

"What we are rolling out today is a mixture of policies and structures that are designed to promote a climate where people feel safe and people feel respected and they feel supported so people can do their research, their teaching or accomplish what they are interested in being part of our community," Schlissel told The Detroit News at the time.

"It really is to build trust … We have to be purposeful in building that back up again."

The board in its letter Saturday to Schlissel said the president's actions undermined what he told the university community.

"On August 3, 2020, you sent an email to the entire University of Michigan community, writing that: 'The highest priority for our regents and leadership team is to make our community safe for all,'" the board's letter said. "The regents have been stressing with campus leadership the importance of diminishing sexual harassment and misconduct for many years."

"While saddened by the circumstances, I am honored to be asked to again serve the University of Michigan," Coleman said in a statement. "When I left the U-M campus at the end of my presidency in 2014, I said serving this great university was the most rewarding experience of my professional life. I’m happy to serve again in this important interim role."

The action follows an announcement on Oct. 5 that Schlissel would leave the Michigan presidency a year earlier than the end of his contract, in June 2023.

A new contract Schlissel signed in September could have cost the university as much as $10 million over the next decade and set a new bar for payouts to an outgoing public university president, experts said then.

But if Schlissel is fired for cause, the contract says he needs to be out of the campus residence in 30 days or less.

The new contract also shows that Schlissel will lose $900,000 in contributions to his pension plan, a paid sabbatical and a role as special adviser to the next president.

The contract does not say what he will be paid if he is terminated for cause. But if he hadn’t been fired for cause, he would have returned to the faculty earning no less than half of his base salary, or $463,500.

Schlissel remains a tenured faculty member, but it's unclear if he will return to the faculty. 

He may follow in the lead of Philbert and relinquish his tenure, or the university could start the process to strip him of his tenure, Liu said.

"It’s too early to say," Liu said. 

It’s likely that the university and Schlissel will negotiate a confidential settlement for him to leave the university rather than go through trying to strip him of tenure, a process that could take years and end up in court, said George Mason public policy professor emeritus James Finkelstein.

"They don’t want another public scandal," Finkelstein said. "They would probably like the president to go away as quickly as possible. And they may be willing to pay for that."