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Wednesday afternoon, the University of Michigan settled its FOIA lawsuit with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy to release University President Mark Schlissel’s personal emails from his University email account during and following the 2016 presidential election.
Prior to the election, Schlissel’s concerns about Trump were evident.
“I realize that some may interpret this as anti-Trump although there is nothing explicit in the remarks,” Schlissel wrote to Lisa Rudgers, the University’s former vice president for global communications and strategic initiatives, on Aug. 24, 2016, discussing why his freshman convocation speech was planning to be heavily focused on the election. “I would feel awful if Trump won the election and I was too afraid of appearing political to make any effort to encourage our students to thoughtfully participate.”
In one of the emails, Schissel remarked on conservative students’ feelings to Daniel Little, the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s chancellor.
“An (sic) also some compliants (sic) from our minority of Trump supporters who now feel marginalized and ostracized in our campus milleu (sic) and post election activity,” he wrote on Nov. 11. “Ironic.”
Later emails reveal Schlissel’s anxiety in the aftermath of Trump’s election, which he cites as a pivotal moment in his term as University president.
“I’m more anxious that typicals because I am processing my own thought about a Trump presidency at the same time I try to hold together a volatile community at a key moment for my own leadership,” he wrote Nov. 13 to Kallie Michels, the vice president of communications.
Though the University's FOIA office estimated the request—originally filed on Nov. 16, 2016—would take less than 3 hours, a joint statement from the University and the Mackinac Center states the first emails were not returned to the Mackinac Center until 46 work days after the request. Seven additional emails were released yesterday as a part of the settlement.
The day after U.S. President Donald Trump was elected, hundreds gathered in the Diag to protest the turn of events and an inevitable change in political climate — specifically, students said they felt unsafe, unwelcome and uncomfortable on campus. The protest also highlighted anxiety from students of color.
During the vigil, Schissel commended much of the student body for voting for Hillary Clinton.
“Ninety percent of you rejected the kind of hate and the fractiousness and the longing for some kind of idealized version of a non-existent yesterday that was expressed during the campaign,” Schlissel said in November. “So I urge you, continue your advocacy and your voices are already being heard. They are loud and clear — this is the way America changes. It’s the way it always changes. It’s the way it will change for the better.”
The comment created tension between Schlissel and conservatives on and off campus; five days following the election, hundreds of conservative students created a petition with the hashtag #NotMyCampus to condemn campus protests and vigils, including Schlissel’s comments. Conservative students, the petition alleges, did not feel welcome on campus.
“The University’s response to President-elect Trump’s victory is perpetuating a hateful climate that makes students feel ashamed for voting for Donald Trump,” the petition reads. “As the president of a public university, I find his response biased and polarizing to the campus climate while he should instead be focused on unifying the student body.”
The Mackinac Center published a news release earlier today detailing its suit gagainst the University.
“Because the University of Michigan receives over $1 billion in taxpayer funds each year, counting state and federal revenues, and its president is a public employee, the Mackinac Center’s news website, Michigan Capitol Confidential, was interested in seeing if the university was remaining nonpartisan when engaging students about the presidential election,” the news release read.
However, throughout this scandal, Schlissel responded to an article from The College Fix headlined “U. Michigan professor rails against voting Trump in lengthy classroom rant” and maintained that “(i)t is not inherently wrong for a faculty member to take a position on any issue, including an election,” in an email to Regent Andrea Fischer Newman (R) on Nov. 8, 2016.
In the lawsuit, the University denied wrongdoing and pointed to personnel and scheduling issues, as well as a record number of FOIA requests in a one-month span. In the resolution, the University also agreed to revise its FOIA practices: committing to hiring two staff members, complete 75 percent of FOIA requests without charging fees and publishing an annual report of FOIA requests and responses.
The Mackinac Center will be reimbursed $7,914 in legal fees.
“The content of the emails finally obtained through this lawsuit demonstrate that President Schlissel appears to have viewed his role concerning the presidential election from a partisan perspective and was critical and dismissive of Trump supporters,” the statement reads.
Correction appended: This story has been updated with accurate links