Interim University of Michigan president: 'We will come together during this period'

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Interim President Mary Sue Coleman told the University of Michigan community Sunday evening that while she was "deeply saddened by the circumstances of the invitation," she agreed to temporarily replace fired president Mark Schlissel "because of my love and respect for this institution."

Coleman, UM's president from 2002-14, said in an email that "I welcome the opportunity to work with you once again in moving forward with the critical agenda of the University of Michigan."

Former UM President Mary Sue Coleman has been tapped to replaced Mark Schlissel.

The board of regents voted unanimously Saturday to dismiss Schlissel, 64, after an investigation found inappropriate conduct with an employee. He had been the provost at Brown University before taking over as the 14th president of UM on July 1, 2014.

Coleman, 78, was mostly recently the president of the Association of American Universities from 2016-20. She had come to UM as president after nine years in the same role at the University of Iowa.

"I want to express my deep appreciation to all of you during a difficult time for U-M," she said in the three-paragraph email on Sunday. "I know some will feel a sense of loss. What we can do now is to renew our commitment to learning together, as well as to doing research and public service as a collectivity."

Schlissel's conduct had been under scrutiny since an anonymous complaint was received Dec. 8. 

"After an investigation," the regents announced, "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."

The subordinate's name was redacted from an account of the emails that included an exchange on Jan. 9, 2021, in which she said, "Oh yes!" and he replied, "Love it when you say that."

In another of the emails almost eight months later, Schlissel wrote an email to her official UM account that described her as "sexier."

The emails began in 2019. In September of that year, with the advisory "just for fun," he had forwarded articles from the New Yorker titled "Sexual Fantasies of Everyday New Yorkers" and "Where Your Personalities Go While You're Having Sex." 

Also that month, he forwarded the person a revised flight itinerary in business class for a round trip for two to India. The return on the November trip was routed through Charles de Gaulle Airport, and he wrote, "What if we miss our connection and get stuck in Paris......"

The catalog of emails, which is detailed enough to include airline boilerplate on itineraries and the entire contents of articles, totaled 118 pages.

Schlissel was earning $927,000 per year on his second five-year contract. He had already arranged to leave the university in 2023, a year ahead of its expiration.

The contract came with a severance package that experts said was one of the most lucrative they had seen for a university president. The firing will likely cost him some of its money and benefits.

UM has already been dealing with complaints about the handling of the Robert Anderson scandal involving a late sports doctor whose alleged sexual assault and sexual abuse dates to the 1970s.

While the university is in mediation with hundreds of the victims, complaints have arisen over the slow pace of the talks and a lack of cultural change on campus. 

The regents noted that Schlissel was personally aware of behavioral rules, having initiated an investigation into former UM Provost Martin Philbert, who left the university amid allegations of sexual misconduct two years ago. 

Schlissel removed Philbert temporarily, then made the removal permanent as the university's second-highest-ranking figure relinquished his tenure and $570,340 salary in a June 2020 retirement.

Coleman said she was confident UM will be able to rebound from the dismissal and what preceded it.

"I have spent my entire academic career at or advancing public research institutions and their teaching function," she wrote. "My deep and profound belief in the students, faculty, staff and alumni of this institution's three campuses gives me great confidence that we will come together during this period to advance the values and the excellence that define the University of Michigan."

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn