U. of Michigan Ousts Its President for ‘Alleged Sexual Affair’ With Subordinate

Mark S. Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan, was fired for cause on Saturday by a unanimous vote of the university’s Board of Regents. The closed-door vote followed an investigation into Schlissel’s interactions with a subordinate.

The board received an anonymous complaint on December 8 that Schlissel had engaged in an “alleged sexual affair” with an unnamed female subordinate. A subsequent third-party investigation, the board wrote to Schlissel, “revealed that your interactions with the subordinate were inconsistent with promoting the dignity and reputation of the University of Michigan.”

According to a policy governing supervisor-employee relationships that was adopted by the university in July, a supervisor “may not, implicitly or explicitly, initiate or attempt to initiate” an intimate relationship with a subordinate. Failure to disclose such a relationship is also cause for discipline. Various news outlets reported that the violation of that policy was the stated reason for Schlissel’s dismissal, but the university declined to confirm it.

Efforts to reach Schlissel through his university email address and LinkedIn account were unsuccessful. A Michigan spokesman referred The Chronicle on Saturday night to materials posted on the university’s website about Schlissel’s departure.

In an unusual move, Michigan released more than a hundred pages of email communications between Schlissel and the female subordinate, dating from September 2019 to December 2021. Many of the communications used Schlissel’s official university email address. The regents wrote in a letter to Schlissel that he had been “communicating with the subordinate through the University of Michigan email system using an inappropriate tone and inappropriate language,” and that he was “using official University of Michigan business as a means to pursue and carry out a personal relationship with the subordinate.”

Among the messages the regents cited in their letter to Schlissel is an exchange on July 1, 2021, when the subordinate wrote to Schlissel, “My heart hurts.” Schlissel responded, “i know. mine too.” Hours later, Schlissel added, “this is my fault and although I am in pain as well, it’s not the same at all. I still wish I were strong enough to find a way.”

Schlissel and the employee emailed months later about a Michigan basketball game that he’d been scheduled to attend as part of his presidential duties. Upon learning that he wasn’t slated to sit with the woman, Schlissel wrote, “the only reason I agreed to go was to go with you. there is a conspiracy against me.”

In another exchange, Schlissel forwarded the employee a New Yorker article titled “Sexual Fantasies of Everyday New Yorkers,” with the comment, “just for fun.” Alongside a flight itinerary for a trip to Europe, Schlissel wrote, “what if we miss our connection and get stuck in Paris ……” The subordinate replied, “I know a bistro,” to which Schlissel said, “I’m so there.”

The emails also included restaurant receipts, travel itineraries, and a promotional email from a hotel chain that Schlissel forwarded to the subordinate with the comment, “nice memories.”

On Saturday night, protesters arrived at Schlissel’s house with signs that referenced lines in his emails.

Past Problems

Schlissel’s behavior was “particularly egregious,” the regents wrote, “considering your knowledge of and involvement in addressing incidents of harassment by University of Michigan personnel,” referring to an email he’d sent to the university community about sexual-abuse allegations against a former provost, Martin Philbert.

Several regents had taken issue with how Schlissel responded to the Philbert case. Schlissel removed Philbert in March 2020, two months after an anonymous letter informed him of Philbert’s alleged behavior. (At that time, Schlissel was already involved with the subordinate, according to the regents.) An external investigation later found that Philbert had had multiple sexual relationships during his time at Michigan and had drawn numerous sexual-harassment complaints. Michigan settled with eight of Philbert’s accusers for $9.25 million in November 2020.

Schlissel was hired by Michigan in 2014, and his contract was renewed in 2018 for an additional five years. But in the fall of 2021, Schlissel said he’d step down in 2023, a year early. That was the result of an agreement, under which he’d be paid $927,000 in base salary, that he’d brokered in September with Michigan’s board, which the Detroit Free Press reported was “deeply divided” over Schlissel’s performance. That “golden parachute” contract is now void because Schlissel was fired for cause.

Along with the Philbert case, some regents were displeased with Schlissel’s handling of Covid-19, over which faculty members narrowly passed a vote of no confidence in Schlissel as president and graduate students and resident assistants went on strike. Schlissel had also communicated for months with a donor about a planned expansion in Detroit without the board’s knowledge. (The project was later scrapped.)

Schlissel has also been criticized for his handling of the Robert Anderson scandal. The late sports doctor worked at the university from the late 1960s to the early 2000s, and was accused of sexually abusing students and athletes during physical exams. The first sex-abuse survivors went public in February 2020. An independent report by a law firm commissioned by the university revealed failures of the institution’s officials to stop Anderson.

In September, survivors and students protested at a Board of Regents meeting, criticizing Schlissel and the regents’ handling of federal-court mediation in one of the Anderson-related lawsuits against the university. One survivor, Jon Vaughn, has protested directly outside Schlissel’s house for months. Schlissel’s termination, Vaughn tweeted on Saturday, “is fuel for my mission: the safety & protection of the students of this university.” Vaughn wrote that “the regents finally made 1 good choice. But there must be many more if U-M is to be fully accountable.”

Taking the helm as interim president will be Mary Sue Coleman, who led the Ann Arbor campus from 2002 to 2014. “While saddened by the circumstances, I am honored to be asked to again serve the University of Michigan,” Coleman said in a written statement. The regents wrote that Coleman is expected to stay in the post “until a new president is named, perhaps as soon as this summer.” The board will affirm Coleman’s appointment and Schlissel’s termination at its February 17 meeting.

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