Courtesy of Irena Li.

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The Senate Assembly met virtually on Monday to discuss the search for a new provost. The meeting featured a listening session hosted by University President Mark Schlissel and the Provost Selection and Appointment Advisory Group to discuss the search and appointment procedure.

The University is currently in the process of selecting and appointing a new provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs to serve a three-year term, after current provost Dr. Susan M. Collins’ term ends in June 2022. Schlissel asked the assembly members for input into the provost search process as the application deadline for consideration approaches.

“I would love your advice on what is the type of experience and qualifications that we should be looking for in our next provost,” Schlissel said. “What kind of values and temperament should we be looking for? … And then secondly, what are the set of issues and challenges and opportunities that we see on the horizon that the new provost should … be ready to take on?”

In addition to other members’ discussions about the future provost’s commitment to DEI, transparency and excellence, Art & Design professor Rebekah Modrak said that her ideal candidate for provost would be someone who is not a sexual predator. Her remarks reference ex-Provost Martin Philbert, who was accused of sexual harrassment from over 20 University students and staff members. Philbert was approved as provost in 2017 and was removed from the role in 2020.

“I’m pretty sure that the committee in 2017, the majority of that committee also did not want a sexual predator,” Modrak said. “And yet, they still managed to hire one. So I’d like to know what the committee is doing in order to take more precautions this time.”

In January 2020, the law firm WilmerHale conducted an independent investigation into the allegations against Philbert and found “significant evidence” that Philbert engaged in sexual harassment for at least 15 years while employed by the University. The report also revealed numerous instances where University personnel and administration received information about Philbert’s misconduct, though they did not understand “the seriousness or the pervasiveness” of Philbert’s violation.  

In response to the concern raised by Modrak, Schlissel stated that each member of the search committee had been carefully selected and vetted, a requirement that would apply to all provost candidates as well.

“All the candidates will be (rigorously) vetted by looking at records,“ Schlissel said. “Looking at DPSS records, and then the usual external background check … We’ve already begun doing that with all leadership appointments across the campus.”

Schlissel concluded his time with the assembly by providing a COVID-19 briefing, crediting the University’s high vaccination records for helping to maintain a manageable level of infections among the campus community. He also discussed the possibility of requiring booster shots in the future.

“If the CDC changes its definition of fully vaccinated (to people with booster shots), as I suspect they will, we’ll end up requiring boosters,” Schlissel said.

Following Schlissel’s departure from the meeting, several assembly members expressed concerns about Schlissel’s role as the Chair of the provost Search Committee. Members were particularly worried with regard to his role in hiring Philbert in 2017.

LSA professor Derek Peterson suggested that the Senate Assembly release a statement expressing its view on Schlissel’s position as chair.

“My own feeling is that running a search with the president as chair compromises the new provost’s independence from the get go,” Peterson said. “(That) makes it difficult, therefore, for the new person to earn the trust of students, faculty and staff in the wake of what has turned out to be quite a disastrous search process, very recently.”

Information professor Kentaro Toyama echoed Peterson’s sentiment, adding that prior to Schlissel, previous provost search committees at the University had not been chaired by University presidents.

“I do think it makes a difference,” Toyama said. “(The committee) has quite a bit of power in deciding what the realm of possibility is … I’m wondering whether (Schlissel) should be on the committee at all … I haven’t yet found a situation where the presiding president chairs (a provost search committee).” 

Other committee members questioned the need for a statement from the Senate Assembly. LSA professor Luke Williamson Hyde asked if Schlissel’s leadership on the committee made a difference in the integrity of the provost appointment, as the provost would still have to be approved by the president and would ultimately work under the president’s authority.

“If this is ultimately the president’s decision anyways (and) if that’s the way the structure of the University works, does it actually matter?” Hyde said. 

Hyde later withdrew this comment via Zoom chat message to the assembly upon hearing Toyama’s reasoning for why the president’s presence on the committee was an issue.

Peterson drafted a resolution regarding the Senate Assembly’s stance on the matter. The resolution respectfully suggests that the provost search committee be chaired by a faculty member or administrator not currently employed by the Office of the President.

The resolution ultimately passed with 25 yeas and 12 nays. 

The Senate Assembly also passed two charges for Special Senate Assembly Committees, one regarding the Rules, Practices and Policies Committee (RCC) and the other regarding the Davis, Markert and Nickerson Academic Freedom Lecture Committee (DMNC).

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the Senate Assembly as the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs. The meeting that took place on Monday was with the Senate Assembly. The article has been updated to reflect that change.

Daily Staff Reporter Irena Li can be reached at irenayli@umich.edu.