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University Of Michigan Ousts President After Oafish Flirtations With Subordinate Come To Light

former University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel speaks
Joshua Lott/Getty Images

In a shock move made public on Saturday night, the University of Michigan Board of Regents announced in a statement that they had removed the president of the university since 2014, Dr. Mark Schlissel, from his position effective immediately. The move came, the board explained, following an anonymous complaint received last month that accused Schlissel of being involved in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. A subsequent investigation revealed that Schlissel used his school email account to, in the board's words, “communicate with that subordinate in a manner inconsistent with the dignity and reputation of the University.”

Though Michigan is typically infuriatingly stingy with its public records, the board released along with its statement over 100 pages of communication from 2019 to 2021 between Schlissel and the subordinate that illuminate their decision. They are, in a word, gross. They are also, unfortunately, exactly what you would expect from a horny, married, 64-year-old man who's too dumb to send these overtures through a less vulnerable medium. In their pathetic attempts at subtle eroticism and frustrating overuse of suggestive ellipses, they paint a particularly depressing portrait of the most powerful administrator at an enormously influential institution. You can see them all at this link, but here are some lowlights.

    • Schlissel sent the subordinate a PDF of a New Yorker article headlined “Sexual Fantasies of Everyday New Yorkers” with the message “just for fun.”
    • Responding to a flight itinerary, he wrote “What if we miss our connection and get stuck in Paris……”
    • After the subordinate professed a fondness for knishes, Schlissel wrote, “i can lure you to visit with the promise of a knish?”
    • After the subordinate replied “Oh yes!!” to Schlissel showing them a purchase of matching Michigan face masks on Etsy, he responded, “i like it when you say that.” Almost the exact same exchange also occurred on a thread about ice cream delivery.
    • Schlissel forwarded multiple promotional emails from a hotel chain to the subordinate. “Nice memories,” he added on one. “to the good old days.....” he wrote on another.
    • He wrote “thinking of you....” while sending along a New York Times recipe for spinach and chermoula pie.
    • On restaurant receipts he forwarded to the subordinate—presumably dinners the two shared—Schlissel appeared to consistently tip a mere 10 percent. In goddamn 2020!
    • On one such receipt, from the Ann Arbor restaurant Pizza House, Schlissel added the following message to the subordinate: “to whet your appetite / and tell you what's for dinner too.”
    • The relationship appeared to hit some kind of rough patch in Summer 2021. A couple hours after a terse exchange in which the subordinate wrote “My heart hurts,” and Schlissel responded, “i know. mine too.” The university president wrote, “Just wanted to apologize for my response to your ‘heart hurting.’ I should have left it with ‘I’m sorry,’ since 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.”
    • Eight days later, under the subject line “Great Italian market,” Schlissel sent a photo of phallic produce, along with other, seemingly random snaps from the grocery store. (I am genuinely confused about this one. The subordinate simply responded, “Nice.”)
    • Schlissel shared his Hulu password with the subordinate in September 2021. The exchange shows that the subordinate previously had it and later deleted it.
    • That same day, in a conversation about whether or not the subordinate should get the same kind of car Schlissel owns, the subordinate wrote, “I could be just like you.“ Schlissel responded, “but always a bit classier / sexier.” The subordinate responded, “Not sure I agree with you.”
    • After learning that he would not be able to sit with the subordinate at a basketball game, Schlissel wrote, “the only reason I agreed to go was to go with you. there is a conspiracy against me.”
    • On a thread discussing the President's Suite at the Big Ten Championship, Schlissel wrote to the subordinate, “You can give me a private briefing.”

There's also this:

Schlissel's poor judgement and disregard for workplace propriety are especially relevant in the context of Michigan's handling of the Robert Anderson scandal. Anderson, who died in 2008, was a doctor who worked at the school from 1966 until 2003. In an investigation that concluded last year, the law firm WilmerHale found that he had “engaged in a pervasive, decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct” while at the university. Most notable among the names alleged to have known about Anderson's abuse was legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, who has been accused by several athletes and his own son of failing to act when he should have. Head athletic trainer and associate athletic director Paul Schmidt is the only active Michigan employee accused of knowing about the abuse at the time.

Hundreds of individuals have come forward with stories about Anderson's misconduct. Many of them have condemned Schlissel for brushing them off, refusing to acknowledge or speak directly with them, and failing to fire Schmidt. Schlissel's on-campus home has consistently been the site of protests from survivors imploring him to meet with them.

“I’m not trying to resolve this case in an interaction with the President at his house. But, speak to me like a human being—that has never been done,” former Michigan running back Jonathan Vaughn said in October. “We’re always referred to as either John Does or victims. What would I like him to say? How about just ‘Hello’? Introduce yourself.”

Faculty and students also heavily criticized Schlissel and his administration for their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly focusing on a lack of transparency and regard for safety as the school prepared for its Fall 2020 semester. In September of that year, the university's faculty senate narrowly passed a symbolic vote of no-confidence in Schlissel, while the graduate union and student R.A.s each undertook brief strikes.

Additionally, Schlissel promoted Martin Philbert to the position of provost—essentially his second-in-command—in 2017. Philbert was fired in March 2020 for sexually harassing female employees. Another WilmerHale report concluded that one complaint about Philbert's misconduct came to Schlissel’s attention after he appointed Philbert but before his term as provost began. Schlissel reviewed deposition testimony and decided that Philbert did not have an improper relationship with a female lab employee and had done nothing to disqualify himself from the position. He later placed Philbert on leave after receiving an anonymous letter accusing him of abuse in January 2020.

In the Regents’ letter to Schlissel, the board specifically noted his August 2020 letter to the university community in the aftermath of the Philbert debacle as a striking example of his hypocrisy.

“The highest priority for our regents and leadership team is to make our community safe for all. The regents have been stressing with campus leadership the importance of diminishing sexual harassment and misconduct for many years,” Schlissel wrote, adding that he would work to “determine what we need to do to address the fear of retaliation in our community and build a culture that does not accept misconduct or harassment at any level.”

In October of 2021, Schlissel announced that he would be stepping down from his position in June 2023. With that timeline now drastically accelerated, his predecessor, Mary Sue Coleman, will rejoin the school as interim president.

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