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Opinion | Don’t let jokes about Mark Schlissel’s firing distract from U-M’s problems

Bridge Michigan
Guest Commentary
Opinion | Don’t let jokes about Mark Schlissel’s firing distract from U-M’s problems

(This column originally appeared in Medium.com, an open-source blog site)

#BREAKING: Mark Schlissel is down horrendous. To quote one of the best jokes I’ve seen floating around, “it started out with a knish, how did it end up like this?”

There’s much to unpack, so let’s get started.

Claire Hao
Claire Hao was the 2021 editor in chief at The Michigan Daily and is currently a senior at the University of Michigan.

The former University of Michigan president was terminated effective immediately on Jan. 15 by the Board of Regents for “an inappropriate relationship with a University employee,” in turn breaking the University of Michigan internet on an otherwise-unnotable Saturday night. According to the announcement, the regents received an anonymous complaint of Schlissel’s inappropriate behavior on Dec. 8, and after investigation, found that Schlissel “used his University email account to communicate with that subordinate in a manner inconsistent with the dignity and reputation of the University.”

The news alone, though big, unfortunately wouldn’t have been too far out of the ordinary at the misconduct-riven school if not for the attached 118-page document of said emails and texts between Schlissel and the subordinate involved, referred to in redacted documents as “Individual 1.” Suddenly, many Saturday night plans included the lurid fascination of watching your 64-year-old married university president try to flirt over work email, complete with comically large black-and-red redactions of the name and face of his mystery mistress.

Schlissel was originally set to resign from his position in 2023, one year earlier than his original contract, pushed out by the regents with a heavily-criticized, hefty golden parachute to cushion the blow.

Then, one wholly unexpected email later, he was gone forever, and the University of Michigan community responded as Leaders and Best do best: with memes.

First, to state the obvious: this is undeniably entertaining. Absurd, cringe, a peek into something you and I should’ve never seen. One of those rare moments when real life is stranger than fiction, funnier than satire. Proof that even after Donald Trump’s scandal-filled presidency, powerful public figures in the United States can still be shamed into termination.

Saturday night, the large University of Michigan community came together like they rarely do. Students gathered outside the president’s house, playing instruments and shouting the lyrics of “Mr. Brightside” and “Pump It Up” to celebrate his firing, akin to how they celebrated Michigan football’s historic victory against Ohio State and its first Big 10 Championship win earlier in the year. 

At a school known for its spirit, I can honestly say Schlissel’s sacking was the most camaraderie I’ve felt among my peers in my four years here.

Really, if anything, I’ll give Schlissel this: it’s quite impressive how effectively he has managed to become hated by every segment of the University of Michigan community in his last few years. 

And this community, particularly its Gen Z clientele, has not held back. Since the news broke, student meme pages have exploded, Ann Arbor YikYak reached its peak, University of Michigan Twitter went wild, Schlissel and Individual 1 fan fiction was written, diss tracks made, Redbubble merchandise created. You can find out which Schlissel email you are with this Buzzfeed quiz. People made fun of Schlissel’s Pizza House order, asking the restaurant to make a “Schlissel special”; called out the egregious fact that this millionaire only tips 10 percent; joked about missing their connection in Paris with the baby boo. Google searches for “knish” spiked, setting off a bizarre SEO field day.

As someone who slowly labors through anything more than 20 pages when reading for class, never have I ever absorbed 118 pages so fast in my entire life.  

For a man whose previous public image was mostly professional, presidential, private, these emails humanize poor Mark. “Love can come at any time in life, and it’s beautiful and joyous whenever it does.” I hate to admit it, but that’s unfortunately too similar to some of the poetry I write when I melodramatize my life late at night. Plus, I’m also going through a somewhat-recent breakup, so I just want Schlissel to know, TOY, let me know if you need any sad song recommendations.

And as much as we’ve made fun of him for flirting like a middle schooler, who among us hasn’t flopped on pickup lines and isn’t just a little bit cringey when bitten by the love bug? Unless it’s just me and Schlissel, which in that case, embarrassing for me, but luckily never as embarrassing as it is for him.

I do feel some pause on the ethics of mass delighting in and mocking another’s demise. This is a man who himself wrote in an email that he was lonely. In what must be an incredibly stressful role, always on call, subjected to a significant amount of vitriol and scrutiny. And listen, I’m the girl who told everyone she was burnt out, so I feel for you Schlissel. Amid the pandemic, which has greatly divided and polarized all of American society, he could make no decision that wouldn’t anger many. With one email, in one night, he lost his job in one of the most publicly humiliating ways possible and must move out of his University-owned house in a few weeks.

And given that the regents received their anonymous tip in early December, it’s perhaps unlikely Schlissel had a good holiday season at home with family. 

But empathy has its limits, and there’s no shortage of reasons the University of Michigan community is mercilessly ridiculing Schlissel and cheering at his departure. And once the initial amusement dies down — I’m sorry to kill the mood — what remains is disturbing, concerning and sad.

It’s no secret that sexual misconduct is rife throughout the University of Michigan. Survivors of the late University of Michigan doctor Robert Anderson, who sexually abused hundreds of students and others while working at the school for decades while administrators turned the other way, have been camped outside Schlissel’s house in freezing temperatures asking, at least at first, just for a conversation with Schlissel and the Board of Regents. Schlissel has ignored them now for over 100 days. 

This is the part where I do what always made me sick to my stomach when I worked at the student newspaper, list all the other high-profile cases of alleged sexual misconduct that have broke out of the University of Michigan since I started as a student here in Sept. 2018: former provost Martin Philbert, the second-highest ranking official at the university; former violin professor Stephen Shipps; former opera professor David Daniels; former Computer Science and Engineering department chair Peter Chen; former computer science professor Walter Lasecki; current computer science professor Jason Mars; former American culture professor Bruce Conforth; current English professor Douglas Trevor. And for all the alleged cases that have become public knowledge, I am confident in saying there are hundreds, if not thousands, of misconduct incidents on campus that never will. 

That’s because the Office of Institutional Equity, now-rebranded as the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office, is notorious for mishandling reports of misconduct as well as conducting investigations into only a small fraction of complaints made. ECRT — currently led by Tamiko Strickman, who is facing two lawsuits claiming she mishandled sexual assault and racial discrimination cases while working at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — was created in an effort by University of Michigan administrators to rehaul the institution’s sexual misconduct processes, along with numerous revisions of the official sexual misconduct policy. And the irony is this: Schlissel’s administration created the policy that forbade “intimate relationships” between supervisors and their employees in July 2021. This is presumably the reason for the July 1 emails in which Schlissel agreed with his subordinate that his “heart hurts,” telling her “this is my fault” and that he wishes he “were strong enough to find a way.” 

And apparently find a way he does, as he gives her his Hulu account credentials and calls her “classier /sexier” than him in September, tells her “the only reason I agreed to go was to go with you” to a basketball game in November, and writes “you can give me a private briefing” in December — as he says in October, “there are always possibilities.” Schlissel’s hypocrisy has striking parallels to Philbert (one of the many names listed in the above paragraph), who instituted the policy prohibiting faculty-student relationships in February 2019 at the same time we now know he was preying on his subordinates too. 

Essentially, the sense that the public virtue signaling of University of Michigan administrators is not in line with their private beliefs and actions is now backed up by proof at the highest level. So, this moment may resonate painfully with survivors and survivor advocates on campus, even as they may also find the situation funny.

After all, it’s the pinnacle of how hollow our leaders’ statements really are.

And for survivors, a group of people who know exactly what it’s like to be gaslit and in many cases are still healing from it, here’s evidence they were being gaslit by the president of the university himself.

This is getting a little long, and I haven’t even scratched the iceberg of the Schlissel administration’s COVID-19 policies. Here, we only have space for Schlissel’s greatest hits: suing the graduate student instructors’ union soon after Labor Day for going on strike in protest of the University of Michigan’s pandemic approach, scores of at-risk faculty being denied accommodations to teach remotely, becoming the only University of Michigan president in history to have a faculty vote of no confidence passed against him, refusing to provide accessible testing in Fall 2020, kicking freshmen and other students out of the dorms in Winter 2021. Some of his other deeply unpopular decisions and actions include: raising tuition for the 2020-2021 school year even as less wealthy peer institutions did not, not moving class online on the day of a mitigated active shooter threat to women on campus, arresting climate activists for camping outside his office in the administration building, making an insensitive comment comparing HIV testing to coronavirus testing and setting himself up with the largest higher education exit package in the nation as he announced his early resignation. 

Many in the University of Michigan community cheered the first time Schlissel revealed he was ending his term early; this is the sequel that’s wildly better. If I missed something, please forgive me; there’s really just too much.

A touch of poetic justice in Schlissel’s downfall is a continued lack of understanding of how to properly use his work email. As Schlissel and other Big Ten presidents tried to keep back-to-school and football discussions out of the public domain in summer 2020, Schlissel asked: “if you simply delete emails after sending, does that relieve you of FOIA obligations?” FOIA stands for the Freedom of Information Act, a law that allows anyone to file requests for public records, such as the email communications of the president of a public university, deleted or not. Given one other faux pas with his work email, in talking to Individual 1, was Schlissel so arrogant to flout his own rules thinking he’d never get caught, thrilled by the threat of danger, or was he just stupid? That one’s unclear, but I predict it’s a bit of both. 

One other element of this situation that strikes me, as so many elements of this does, is how diabolically the regents approached outing Schlissel. There are many different ways they could’ve gone about this, and they chose the most cruel and brutal  — not just for Schlissel, but also for his wife, kids and grandkids, not to mention the subordinate he was having an affair with and the numerous women in his work circle who are now getting their lives picked apart by rumor obsessives online.

And given the administration’s previous track record, this should’ve been the least likely possibility. In my three-and-a-half years working at the student newspaper, we've gotten used to the University of Michigan’s response to scandals: barebones statement, tightlipped answers, centralized control, reducing liability as the first priority. Again, this is the university with a history of covering up Anderson, who may have more sexual abuse allegations against him than any other person in U.S. history. This is the school with notoriously slow and expensive FOIA processes that any local reporter can tell you about. This is the place that threatens its student housing staff with termination if they talk to the press about their COVID-19 work safety concerns. This is the public relations office that almost never directly answers the media’s questions. This is the president that has never been as good at fluff as he tries to be.

What I’m trying to say is the Board of Regents, this Board of Regents, releasing 118 pages of email evidence of the relationship between Schlissel and Individual 1 is unprecedented and not in the slightest motivated by “our community and our state deserv(ing) as complete an understanding of this situation as possible.”

It is because they hate him and delight in being petty. If they wanted Schlissel to stay, we might’ve never known about this affair; it was merely the reason they were looking for all along to push him out faster. Now, Schlissel’s departure consolidates the power of the regents, a body most students don’t know or care a ton about. As much as the relationship between Schlissel and his subordinate is an abuse of his power, at least from the 118 pages released Saturday, there is no indication of non-consent. The same can’t be said about Anderson, Philbert and all those numerous others. If the public deserves “as complete an understanding of this situation as possible,” then I want to see the regents release evidence in all its other cases of alleged sexual misconduct, instead of letting reporters’ FOIA requests languish and charging student media hundreds of dollars for records that the public is owed access to by law. I want to see the University of Michigan cooperate with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on a full independent investigation of Anderson’s abuse, instead of commissioning a law firm to conduct its own investigation. 

Their announcement also shows that the Board of Regents can act quickly when they want to. Initiatives by community activists, such as divestment of the University of Michigan endowment from fossil fuel investments, are cans kicked down the road for years and years, until one day the administration makes a grandiose announcement adopting parts of the activists’ demands and celebrating its own progressiveness. Yet when motivated enough, the regents mobilized to fire Schlissel in just one month. I’ll let their priorities speak for themselves. 

Going forward, I’m interested in seeing how Schlissel’s termination plays out for the future of the University of Michigan. Day-to-day, most students, faculty and staff will most likely not experience a significant change in how they experience the university. This institution’s infrastructure is largely decentralized, so on-the-ground operations such as classes, research, housing and extracurriculars will go on business as usual.

But Schlissel’s firing spells trouble for the long-term goals of the university, particularly the ones that address its entrenched systemic problems around sustainability, sexual misconduct and diversity, equity and inclusion, to name a few. It’s short-term PR gold, taking the heat off of these issues as campus is distracted laughing at Schlissel. But while the regents may enjoy their political victory now, it may come back to bite them later. No matter what angle you see this mess from, the University of Michigan appears dysfunctional. That’s not great when you’re trying to attract the narrow pool of candidates qualified and interested in leading a large public research university to serve as your #1 and #2. 

Additionally, with new president Mary Sue Coleman, former president of the University of Michigan from 2002 to 2014, only serving in the uncertain interim, and current interim provost Susan Collins only serving until June 30, 2022, Schlissel’s exit exacerbates turnover in the upper echelons of university leadership, who set the overall direction of the institution. More than likely, these short-term leaders will be incentivized to keep things going rather than make things better. If the ultimate effect of Schlissel’s firing is a slowdown, pause or even regression of long-sought progress at the university, that would be a goddamn shame. And when the dust settles and the laughter subsides, come May, I’ll find it hard not to be an alumni embarrassed by the University of Michigan. 

Now, as Coleman comes back, what’s immediately next is unclear. Does the University of Michigan community trust its administration? No. But if there’s anything Coleman should take away from her successor and now-predecessor’s mortifying termination, it’s that this community is fed up with B.S. So, President Coleman, welcome back, and good luck. I think I speak for all of us when I advise you to not even try to be disingenuous or sly. And based on your first communication to the campus community on Sunday, I’m not sure you’re off to a good start.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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