University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel stuns students

Shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday, life in Ann Arbor came to a halt as news spread: the University of Michigan board of trustees had unanimously fired president Mark Schlissel over an inappropriate relationship with a female employee. .

“Everyone was on the phone,” Mary Walsh, 54, of Ann Arbor, who was eating with friends at a downtown restaurant, told the Free Press Sunday morning. “We were about to leave and it seemed like at every table we passed people were reading the story or talking about it. It was mind blowing.”

The school’s board of trustees sent a letter to Schlissel immediately firing him for the supervisor-subordinate relationship, then posted that letter and dozens of his emails on the university’s website.

Less than 24 hours later, the streets of the small college town were misty with frost and choked with the stillness of a Sunday morning.

The students who were standing and braving the cold were still talking about the shooting.

“Honestly, I was very surprised that it was so sudden, it seemed like it came out of nowhere,” said Eleanor Wang, 21, a student of movement science. “Since I started here (in 2018), everything seems to have gone downhill.”

University of Michigan student Eleanor Wang speaks about the firing of President Mark Schlissel on Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Ann Arbor.

Interviewees and others who issued statements in the university community were pleased to learn of the dismissal.

“President Schlissel has always acted as if he were above the rest of the university community, as if the rules did not apply to him and as if he was answerable only to his own elite circles. “, said the One University Coalition in a statement. The group of faculty, students, and staff across UM’s three campuses advocates for fair funding. “Any progress made toward equity priorities over the past few years has been the result of student and faculty organizing over Dr. Schlissel’s objections. After watching our campuses suffer due to his neglect of our bodies students, our specific assignments, and our staff and faculty colleagues, we welcome this decision with relief and gratitude.”

Schlissel has long been accused of paying more attention to the Ann Arbor campus, where the average household income is much higher, than to the Flint and Dearborn campuses, where more low-income students attend. For example, activists and students have been antagonized by a plan to offer free tuition to students with household incomes below $65,000 who attend school in Ann Arbor. It took a few years of activism to get the program expanded to Dearborn and Flint, and then it was implemented with a GPA requirement, which the Ann Arbor program did not have.

Others said it was ironic that after Schlissel’s other actions that drew criticism — including the university’s response to COVID-19 and handling of the Dr. Robert Anderson sexual assault scandal — his dismissal was due to a relationship with a subordinate.

“When I first heard the news, I thought it would be – for some reason – really inappropriate stuff in the emails, but it was really kind of like college-level flirting. said Anna Anderson, 20, an art and design student. “Posting the emails felt a lot like college when you passed notes to your crush, like the professor caught your eye and read it aloud. That’s what it did.”

Frustration with the university’s response to COVID-19 and feelings that students feel their concerns are being ignored has affected student confidence in campus leadership, Wang said. Students and faculty have been upset about having to attend or teach in person as well as what they say are inadequate quarantine quarters.

“People don’t trust the university,” she said. “I really don’t like it when things are run just to make money. Put more money into resources, like helping students, we come here for a reason, we give you tuition for a reason – don’t spend on trips to India.” Emails released by the Schlissel board to the employee referred to a trip to India.

Coronavirus strategies that allowed in-person classes this school year and soccer games at a stadium of thousands have led to protests over tougher security requirements.

“A lot of it (COVID-19 precautions) was really based on, at least from my perspective, it seemed kind of ego-driven,” said 19-year-old psychology student Jonathan Lovett. “It was just this focus on maintaining an image instead of following what’s best for students, what’s best for faculty.”

Schlissel’s dismissal, while a step in the right direction, is not enough to calm friction between students and university leaders, Wang said.

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In a letter to Schlissel posted on the school’s website, the Board of Regents expressed concern and said his conduct was “particularly egregious given your knowledge of and involvement in addressing incidents of harassment by staff at the University of Michigan, and your stated commitment to work to “free” the University community from sexual harassment or other inappropriate conduct.”

According to emails posted by the university on Saturday evening in a stated spirit of transparency, Schlissel wrote to the employee regularly and in familiar tones, including in October 2019 when he emailed to receive a box of knishes. The woman replied that she liked pasty snacks. Schlissel again replied: May I “entice you to visit with the promise of a knish?”

The decision to fire him was taken behind closed doors on Saturday morning, without a public vote. The Free Press left messages for Schlissel asking for comment.

Protest signs outside the home of former University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel on Sunday, January 16, 2022.

Former UM president Mary Sue Coleman will return to campus as acting president, the board also announced. Coleman served as president from 2002 to 2014. During her tenure as head of UM, she was known for the growth of the campus as buildings were renovated and new ones were constructed.

Some were cautiously optimistic about this step.

“We are taking a small step,” Wang said. “We’ll see what happens.”

But some say college has a long way to go.

The Army of Survivors, a nonprofit organization that works to raise awareness, accountability and transparency in the face of sexual violence against athletes, said it fully supports Schlissel’s withdrawal.

“However, if the University of Michigan is to take a stand against sexual misconduct, it must do so fully and shamelessly realizing that it has been listening to survivors of Dr. Robert Anderson for a long time,” the group said in a statement.

Anderson abused thousands of athletes during his time at the university from 1966 to 2003, and some of those survivors have been camping outside Schlissel’s home on campus since early October demanding a formal conversation.

“Knowing that these survivors were protesting sexual abuse outside Schissel’s home as he abused his power” and had an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, “is deeply disturbing,” the survivor group said.

Schlissel was hired in 2014. In 2018, the board extended his contract for five years.

However, in the fall of 2021, Schlissel announced that he would step down as chairman a year early, in 2023. While he said he was doing so in order to make a smooth leadership transition, this happened amid deep divisions within the board. on its performance.

Contact David Jesse: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj. Subscribe to the Detroit Free Press.

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