The Michigan Daily spoke with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel Friday to discuss his plans to step down as president in June 2023 as well as his exit package. Read part two of the interview to hear Schlissel’s thoughts on COVID-19 on campus one month into the semester, in addition to new sexual misconduct policies.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
The Michigan Daily: On Tuesday you announced that you will be stepping down as president of the University in June of 2023, a year earlier than previously planned. Why did you decide to step down, and why did you announce it now?
Mark Schlissel: I’m looking at the University gradually coming out of this pandemic that upended how we function and trying to define what the new normal is going to be. We’ve got people working remotely still, some people working on campus. We’ve learned how to deliver online education in ways that may alter the on-campus curriculum. It’s just a time of great change. We want to be sure that we’re planning forward-looking strategies to make sure that the excellence and the impact of our University is maintained and enhanced, even under the new world we’re going to be functioning in, and it seems like that’s operating with a time course of many, many years longer than my original time horizon.
I told myself I’d do 10 years, and I’ve reconsidered. I plan on stopping after my ninth year. The reason to announce it as soon as I did is to give the Board of Regents and the community as much time as possible to talk to one another and to get a sense of what the highest needs are, what our ambitions are as a community, and just to get enough input and be deliberative on what you know is an important decision.
I’ll have been leading the University for approaching a decade — that’s a long period of time — and the regents really need the time and space to make a really careful, thoughtful approach to a search, look very widely for my successor, settle on a great person, and then we need time for a transition. I benefited greatly from having my appointment announced six months before I actually started. I was still provost at Brown, but I was able to come here to Ann Arbor at least once a month or once every three weeks or so and meet with people and climb the learning curve to help understand this big, complicated place. So, just to provide plenty of time for a thoughtful transition is the main thing.
TMD: The Detroit Free Press has characterized your stepping down early as a deal between yourself and members of the Board of Regents who were divided over your performance. Is this reporting accurate in your view, and what role did the board play in your decision to step down early?
MS: I’m always working with the board, and I work incredibly closely with them. I’d say there isn’t a week that goes by that I’m not speaking with several board members individually. I think the board is as responsible as I am for any of the successes that the University’s had since I’ve been here. We deal with the same challenges together, the challenges are very intense — we’re living in a very critical era — and just like any personal set of relationships that are intense, they go up and down.
I don’t talk in the media about private conversations with the board — it’s just not appropriate — but I’d say there’s great alignment between the board and myself of what we’re trying to accomplish for the University: to continue to make it an outstanding educational institution where folks can come and study regardless of their wealth or their background, and a diverse community that’s doing research that makes a difference in the world, and we’re completely aligned on that. There are always ups and downs.
I wouldn’t give credence to individual news articles, certainly ones that don’t cite name sources. It’s always easier that way, and what can I say?
TMD: Many have criticized the amount of money offered in your exit package and the fact that it was negotiated in secret. What do you say to these criticisms, and do you believe that your package is too generous?
MS: I’d say that the package is really the contract that I signed three or so years ago when I was renewed for a second five-year term, and what the agreement does is it changes the term from 10 years to nine years, and keeps me on as a consultant for that 10th year. It seems like a fair way forward to the board and to me. That’s basically it. It’s not new. The agreement itself that you’re referring to is new, but the terms are really basically the terms of my renewal back in 2018.
TMD: A Free Press report also details changes in funding the Detroit Center for Innovation that were not shared with the regents. The report states that the original plan for the center ended and you and Stephen Ross negotiated with Ilitch Holdings to gain the firm’s support of the center. What is the current status of plans for the center, and why was the board not informed of the negotiations?
Schlissel: The work of developing the Detroit Center for Innovation had really taken place between Stephen Ross and his company Related, and initially with Bedrock, Dan Gilbert’s company. We were a partner to the extent that once the whole complex was built, we were going to run the educational programs we spoke about. I was not present for the detailed discussions between Ross and Gilbert that broke down, and then Ross began looking for other partners, as has been reported in the media. Again, that wasn’t part of our part of the deal — we were interested to see how that turned out.
And at the time that the news broke about the DCI, I wasn’t aware of any signed agreement for a different partnership. I knew Mr. Ross was in conversation. The board asked me to hold off while the dust settles, and now that the pandemic is on the wane, but will have changed the world, we need to take a deep breath and consider whether the DCI project is the right thing for the University to do. I think that was a really fair request for the board that we reconsider it in a post-pandemic world. I’m hopeful that we still get to do the project, but again, that’ll be a matter of discussion with the board.
TMD: Will you have any role in the search or appointment of your successor, and does the Board of Regents have any kind of timeline for when that decision will be made or when the University community will be receiving any updates?
MS: I can’t speak for the board in terms of any timing or any details of the search. Traditionally, sitting presidents don’t play a role in the actual search but do play a role at the stage of helping with the transition, and that’s what I promised the board. But I told the board I’m happy to do whatever they’d like me to do to help, because I’m invested in the future success of the University for the next two years where I remain the president and then thereafter.
TMD: It was announced that you recently signed a contract, as we discussed earlier, agreeing to a role as president emeritus following the expiration of your presidency in June 2023. Can you elaborate on what role you’ll have at the University following your resignation?
Schlissel: President Emeriti help raise money and help represent the university, but not in the capacity that would create any confusion with the true president. For example, President Coleman, she’s president emerita, but nobody thinks she’s still in charge. That would be my role.
But after I’m done as president, I’ll still be a tenured member of the Michigan faculty. I’m a professor of medicine, I’m a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, and I’m in a number of divisions in the Medical School. So most likely I’d end up starting to teach again and resuming a small research lab studying the immune system, which is what I did for 25 years before I started doing this administrative work.