Flint — Michigan president Mark Schlissel said he will take time to evaluate the athletic department, and the Regents said they will support his approach in light of recent criticism and scrutiny.
What is at issue, though it was not specifically addressed by the president during Thursday's Regents meeting at the school's Flint campus, is whether athletic director Dave Brandon will keep his job.
Brandon did not attend the meeting.
While the Regents will have input, the decision ultimately rests with Schlissel.
"I don't think it's the appropriate role of the board to make a personnel decision like that," Regent Mark Bernstein said after the meeting. "But we are going to work in partnership with the president to think about this in a thoughtful, balanced, fair way."
While Regent Andrea Fischer Newman said Brandon has her support, Bernstein declined to comment when asked if he supports the embattled athletic director.
Brandon, former CEO of Domino's and a former Regent, has been athletic director since March 2010. He apologized this month for the mishandling of quarterback Shane Morris, who suffered what was later diagnosed as a "probable mild concussion" Sept. 27 in a home game against Minnesota.
After a hard fourth-quarter hit, Morris remained in the game for a play, although he wobbled after the hit while reaching for a teammate to steady himself. He returned shortly after for one play. Two days later, coach Brady Hoke said that based on the information he was given, Morris did not have a concussion. Nearly 12 hours later in an early morning statement from Brandon, he said Morris did have a concussion and blamed a miscommunication with the medical staff.
Since then, Brandon has been the focus of an on-campus student rally and an online petition authored by Zeid El-Kilani, a Ford School graduate student. He appeared at the Regents meeting and spoke during the public comments session. El-Kilani said there currently are 11,100 signatures asking for Brandon's dismissal.
"It is clear that change is necessary, and that is why I and 11,000 other students and alumni respectfully request the university relieve Mr. Brandon of his duties as athletic director," El-Kilani said during the meeting. "Cultural change begins at the top."
If Brandon were fired, he would collect $3 million based on his contract that was extended in 2012 through 2018.
Schlissel opened his remarks to the board saying he was disappointed in the athletic department's handling of the Morris situation, which apart from the player-safety angle, has been a major public relations gaffe.
"I was deeply disappointed in the department's initial response in the handling of the situation," Schlissel said. "We must be accountable for the facts, with a response that is timely and takes responsibility for errors. Without this, we break trust with our stakeholders. There are a number of additional issues facing our athletics department that will require a longer-term approach as we work to establish the right balance between competitiveness, financial stability and the athletic traditions we hold dear.
"Being thoughtful and deliberative in examining these issues, this university deserves nothing less than my careful, deep consideration. There are many, many stakeholders when it comes to Michigan athletics, and it is my job to reach out and consider the perspectives and interests of all of them. I'm in the midst of discussions with students, faculty, staff, alumni and others, and this engagement has been very valuable already. Just last week I had an extended fireside chat with students, and athletics was first on the agenda. I've met with the student-athlete advisory council, coaches, alumni and other supporters. I also attended a football practice to offer my support to our student-athletes. I still have work to do to build a more complete firsthand picture of Michigan athletics, to understand our community's sense of connection, as well as the serious concerns that have been expressed, and then to chart the way forward."
Bobby Dishell, president of Michigan's central student government, also addressed the Regents, supplying results from a recent student survey about athletics. He described an "us versus them environment."
Newman challenged Dishell on the survey because only 5,200 students — 12 percent of the student body — responded.
But Dishell said he and Brandon, whose name was not part of the survey questions but was mentioned 1,208 times mostly in a negative sense, have been working with student central government to lower student season-ticket prices for next season.
Michigan students had to pay $295 for season tickets this season, highest in the Big Ten, for a largely unattractive home schedule. Ticket sales among students have dropped the last few seasons, to a low of 13,000 this year after the athletic department failed last season with a general admission policy. A healthy student section boasts about 22,000 season-ticket holders.
"There will be a significant price decrease for football tickets next year," Dishell said. "This is a big step forward in the right direction, but this is not the final solution. We will continue to meet with and work with athletics."
Citing the survey, he said students offered single words to describe the athletic program. Among them — disappointing, corporate, bad and embarrassing.
Bernstein was asked about the bigger picture with students demanding Brandon's dismissal and expressing their lack of trust in the athletic department.
"It's a very important, valuable piece of information in a larger process," Bernstein said. "It's essential, absolutely essential, certainly this board, absolutely the president, respond to this issue in a very deliberative way.
"You can't make important decisions like this in a rash way. That can be frustrating when people are pounding for something immediate. But the qualities of our president, that's not in his constitution. He's a methodical, thoughtful person. And his decision-making process will be like that. For that reason, this is a circumstance that requires patience but also a degree of urgency."
Four goals to be addressed
These have been challenging weeks for the football program aside from the 3-4 overall record.
Brandon and the program have been the subject of intense scrutiny since the Sept. 27 game against Minnesota and the fact Morris continued to play.
After the story appeared on various national networks two days after the game, Brandon authored a lengthy statement after piecing together the events of that night and the aftermath. The statement was released just before 1 a.m. Tuesday.
"I would like better communication," Newman said. "I would have liked statements to come out earlier. That was a general fault of the university."
Students then protested Brandon during a rally, and the online petition gained steam.
Brandon conducted a series of one-on-one interviews Oct. 2 with a number of media outlets. He was apologetic and said there was a breakdown in communication with the medical staff regarding the Morris injury. He absolved the coaching staff.
Schlissel said he will move forward with his evaluation and concentrate on at least four goals.
"First, we must thoroughly address player-safety, which I am confident we are doing," he said. "We must continue to operate all of our athletic programs with the highest levels of integrity and with the focus on the best interest of our student-athletes. We must continue to listen to the concerns of those who care so deeply about achieving the right balance for Michigan athletics.
"Finally our athletics program must work to build a stronger more positive connection with our university community and all of its stakeholders. These are important goals, and I'm committed to taking the time to fully understand the underlying issues, including our needs to maintain traditions and the qualities that make Michigan athletics truly unique in the world."