The Man With No Friends
Mark Schlissel was never fit to be president of the University of Michigan, even before revelations of his affair with an employee.
The problem with Mark Schlissel’s tenure as University of Michigan president was two-fold. For one, he had obvious shortcomings in doing the job itself. For another, he carried himself like a Grade-A asshole.
Ann Arbor functions as a small college town. Central campus and downtown are physically intertwined. A huge portion of the residents have some connection to the university, whether they’re faculty, students, staff, alumni, healthcare workers in the massive Michigan Medicine system, or football season ticket holders.
Word gets around. In the fall of 2020, word got around to me that Schlissel had a tiff with the university grounds crew. According to the tip, not only did Schlissel send an email complaining about brown spots in the yard of the house he lived in courtesy of the university, he said it made him embarrassed to host guests.
You may recall that the country was deep in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic at this time. School resources had, quite understandably, been cut back. Meanwhile, Schlissel made repeated pushes for in-person classes. Coronavirus cases spiked in Washtenaw county each time he succeeded.
By now you know that Schlissel, who’d announced an early resignation last October that came with an obscene golden parachute, has been fired with cause for an inappropriate relationship with an employee. (He’s now being investigated for possible misuse of university funds.)
The way the news arrived is emblematic of the distaste seemingly everyone at the school has for the now-former president. The school didn’t just announce the findings of their investigation. They released — and emailed to every umich.edu account — a 118-page PDF of brutally embarrassing emails between Schlissel and the employee.
He’s now the subject of a university-wide roast for his pastry-related pickup lines, and he’s lost contain:
(“Unsavory affair”! The Times of Israel has zingers!)
It’s cathartic to punch up at this man because he spent most of his tenure punching down on seemingly anyone he could.
Here’s a very incomplete list of Schlissel’s failures and general shittiness:
Had the school file an injunction to get striking graduate student instructors back to teaching.
Belittled the Dearborn and Flint campuses in a survey question while also treating another union (this time the Lecturers’ Employee Organization) with utter disdain.
Suggested intentionally circumnavigating public records requests during the discussions among school presidents leading up to the 2020 Big Ten football seasons — in an email chain that could be FOIA’d. (This is called foreshadowing, folks.)
Delayed investigation of sexual misconduct by Martin Philbert, who rose to provost before his removal for a litany of violations of university policy and basic decency.
Oversaw at least six other sex scandals at the university during his tenure, not including his own.
Became the first U-M president to receive a vote of no confidence from the school’s faculty.
Spent most of the pandemic under heavy criticism from students and staff alike for prioritizing the school’s (and certain regents’) coffers over their safety. Dr. Schlissel’s areas of expertise are immunology and microbiology.
In the end, it appears Schlissel has no friends at Michigan. Even the regents he enriched — looking at you, Ron Weiser — signed on to the announcement of his removal.
This asshole got the ending he deserved. But he’ll live, and live well, because that’s how this works; he acted like a man above consequences because, ultimately, he knew it’d work out for him, even if he didn’t imagine getting flung into the private sector (I imagine) by force.
The school he leaves behind, the one he never understood from the start, has to clean up the mess. They removed the man in a relationship with inappropriate workplace power dynamics from the presidency of a university with a disturbing pattern of such behavior. That can only be the beginning.
The fracturing of trust between the administration and the rest of campus is going to take a long time to repair. Schlissel was propped up until he became impossible, and very expensive, to support.
If this timing feels convenient, we share the same cynicism, one justified by the previous actions of the university. It’s up to the Board of Regents and the next full-time president to regain the support of the campus and the community.
What they fired him for was a firing offense. No question.
From where I sit, they should have let him go for mishandling the COVID pandemic, for playing hardball with the graduate instructors, and, most engagingly, the damage he did to people who suffered sexual abuse at Michigan.
To let him go over any of those three would have required them to admit that the entire university was complicit, including the regents. So, while I'm happy that a university president was held accountable for creating a sexualized and abusive workplace, I mostly see this as a way of avoiding responsibility for other, more widespread problems, which are likely to continue.
Above all else I'm in gobsmacked by the idea of conducting your affair over A UNIVERSITY EMAIL