University of Michigan Fires Its President Over Inappropriate Relationship

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The president of the University of Michigan, Mark S. Schlissel, has been fired for having a relationship with a subordinate that the university’s Board of Regents said violated university policy and was carried out “in a manner inconsistent with the dignity and reputation of the university.”

The board terminated Dr. Schlissel’s employment effective immediately after a special meeting on Saturday, ordering him to return all university property and canceling an agreement that would have continued to pay him his base salary of $927,000 for two years after his contract was supposed to end in 2023.

The board named a former president, Mary Sue Coleman, as interim president.

In a letter to Dr. Schlissel on Saturday informing him that he was being fired, the board said that it had received an anonymous complaint on Dec. 8 that Dr. Schlissel had been involved in an inappropriate sexual affair with a subordinate.

“There can be no question that you were acutely aware that any inappropriate conduct or communication between you and a subordinate would cause substantial harm to the dignity and reputation of the University of Michigan,” the letter said.

Allegations of sexual misconduct in academia are not rare, but they more commonly involve students and professors, not university presidents. Dr. Schlissel’s firing is notable because it involved the leader of one of the country’s most prestigious universities.

Dr. Schlissel, who is married and has four grown children, according to his university biography as of Jan. 1, could not be reached for comment.

The investigation found that Dr. Schlissel had sent dozens of emails to the employee from his university account over several years. The board posted 118 pages of those messages on the university website in the interest, it said, of full disclosure.

In one email exchange on July 1 that was cited by the board, the employee said that her “heart hurts,” and Dr. Schlissel replied, “i know. mine too.”

The email finished with Dr. Schlissel saying, “I still wish I were strong enough to find a way.”

The emails continued, and in November, Dr. Schlissel wrote to the subordinate that he was disappointed that he might not be sitting next to her at a University of Michigan basketball game. He wrote, “the only reason I agreed to go was to go with you.”

The emails used “inappropriate tone and inappropriate language,” the letter from the Board of Regents said, and showed that Dr. Schlissel had used official business to carry out the relationship. Dr. Schlissel’s conduct was “particularly egregious” because he had taken a public position against sexual harassment, the board said.

After a provost, Martin Philbert, was accused of sexual misconduct, Dr. Schlissel had sent a letter in August 2020 to the university saying that “the highest priority” was to make the university “safe for all,” the Board of Regents’ letter noted. Mr. Philbert left the school.

Rebekah Modrak, a professor of art and design, sponsored a successful faculty no-confidence vote against Dr. Schlissel in September 2020, primarily because of concerns about pandemic policies. She said that she and other faculty members also believed the administration had not been sufficiently attuned to complaints about sexual assault and harassment on campus.

“For many of us and for me, the reaction was huge relief,” she said of the firing. “Because he has been such an arrogant leader and so dismissing of faculty concerns.”

Dr. Schlissel announced in October that he would resign in June 2023, a year earlier than originally planned but that he would continue working as a special adviser and president emeritus. That contract has been terminated.

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