In Defense of Schlissel

Mark Schlissel, President of the University of Michigan since 2014, was recently terminated by the Board of Regents for being “involved in an inappropriate relationship with a University employee.”  Schlissel, who was deeply unpopular among a large segment of Michigan students, was removed with immediate effect.

The Board released a veritable treasure trove of email and text communications between Schlissel and the unnamed subordinate for the sake of “transparency.”  The documents are exceedingly tame, given the nature of Schlissel’s dismissal, and also double as a Pizza House advertisement – who knew Schlissel’s secret lover had such a fondness for calzones and Michigan cherry salads?  Nevertheless, they do reveal that Schlissel broke protocol, was in the wrong, and that the Board was justified in terminating him.  Nonetheless, there was no evidence of any illegal or coercive activity, and the incident marks an ignominious end to an otherwise impressive academic and professional career at U-M.  While Schlissel made mistakes just like any other president of an elite American university, it is still worth recognizing some of the many positive aspects of his administration.

While Schlissel made mistakes just like any other president of an elite American university, it is still worth recognizing some of the many positive aspects of his administration.

I was converted into a supporter of Schlissel early on by virtue of the fact that I have physically been on campus for the entirety of my collegiate career.  This may seem like a low bar, but many tens of thousands of students were not given that opportunity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Michigan State University, God bless them, decided at the last minute to have the vast majority of students remain at home. Countless other colleges and universities did the same.  Schlissel, on the other hand, announced, fairly early that the University of Michigan would “offer a public health-informed in-residence semester” for the fall of 2020. 

I was converted into a supporter of Schlissel early on by virtue of the fact that I have physically been on campus for the entirety of my collegiate career.

That summer, I felt the added anxiety of being an incoming freshman.  I was trepidatious enough at the prospect of moving into college and all the new experiences that would entail, so the uncertainty of COVID-19 did not help.  I will always be grateful that my experience had at least some semblance of normality.  Even though I have still had some personal challenges, and even though Schlissel was not unilaterally responsible for the decision to open campus, he led the University in its efforts to open the doors and welcome students to Ann Arbor.  I owe him thanks for that.  

As a conservative, I was also pleasantly surprised by Schlissel’s moderation, at least relative to the administrations of other top universities. 

As a conservative, I was also pleasantly surprised by Schlissel’s moderation, at least relative to the administrations of other top universities.  Schlissel has clashed in the past with environmental radicals who clamored for the university to immediately end investment in oil and gas industries.  Schlissel was at least realistic, explaining that, even if Michigan took such drastic action it would make only a “symbolic difference.”  He also allegedly called the police on students who organized a sit-in in his office regarding the Global Climate Strike in 2018, some of whom were charged with trespassing.  For the past several months, protesters have camped outside the president’s house on campus, demanding recompense on behalf of victims of sexual assault perpetrated by a man who died before Schlissel was even employed by the University.  Their pain is plainly real, and their demand for justice is noble – as reflected by the university’s recent decision to resolve those claims by payment of a nearly $500 million settlement.  But Schlissel rightly declared that they should be listened to – and their grievances addressed and resolved – in the proper forum and without the distraction of a confrontation in his front yard.  He turned down the heat and declined the media spectacle that would have attended his  “stopping by the front of the house and listening to a group of folks in tents” – thereby allowing the process to quietly progress to the point that the parties were able to amicably resolve their dispute to the mutual satisfaction of all involved.  Other university presidents might benefit from emulating this quiet, disciplined approach to administering conflicts.

There is no question that Schlissel’s tenure as president had its drawbacks.  I am thinking in particular of how, under his administration, our tuition has risen higher than that of any other American public university – despite recent, meteoric growth in our endowment (which admittedly needs to be nurtured and not spent down).  Even so, his tenure, and its ending, were not as condemnable as many students claim, and they may come to miss him once a permanent president is selected.  I might just have a knish or two in his honor.  Hold the mushrooms on that calzone, though.

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About Chris Coffey

Chris Coffey is a sophomore studying history in the Honors Program. He is also involved with the Michigan Journal of International Affairs and the Michigan Foreign Policy Council. In his free time, Chris enjoys tennis, chess, and investing.