When the Regents of the University of Michigan decided to terminate former University President Mark Schlissel, they released 118 pages of Schlissel’s communications along with their announcement. These documents, containing emails, text messages and images, while important in the name of transparency, were promptly snapped up by a ravenous student body. One reddit comment remarked that “Never had this many undergraduates been so keen to do primary source research on a Saturday night.” The emails were memefied immediately, with merchandise coming to the market within the week, making fun of our lonely president m. This transparency is refreshing and Schlissel’s indiscretions were serious, but one naturally wonders, especially considering the predictable student reaction, whether this dump of salacious documents is anything other than an attempt to shield the Board of Regents — not necessarily the University as an institution — from blame and embarrassment.
It was no secret that Schlissel was not particularly popular on campus; discussions regarding Schlissel were frequently filled with frustration or disappointment. These grievances have led students to often question his decisions. However, many of the trademark bad decisions made by Schlissel were directed, or at least directly influenced, by the board.
Take the unpopular decision to prematurely bring students back to campus for the fall 2020 semester — prior to the development of COVID-19 vaccines. This was not a unilateral decision by Schlissel and his administration but was a subject of major frustration for students who felt they had no voice in this decision. One board member, University Regent Ron Weiser (R), who has a financial stake in off-campus housing, even donated $30 million to the University days before its announcement to reopen. No one can quantify the impact of the regents, especially those with vested interests, on these decisions conclusively, but we must reflect on their influence.
While Schlissel’s actions were both damaging to the University’s reputation and an abuse of the power he held over U-M employees, numerous faculty accused of sexual assault and harassment were allowed a far more graceful exit.
When former American Culture lecturer Bruce Conforth was reported to University officials for attempting to engage in sexual relationships with three students in 2008, he was allowed to retire otherwise unpunished in 2017 — inarguably a much more private departure than that of Schlissel.
Former Music, Theatre & Dance professor David Daniels was fired by the board for allegations of sexual misconduct in March of 2020. Not only did the board not include a similarly large disclosure report, they began the process of formally firing Daniels over a year earlier, in July of 2019, based on allegations made public in August of 2018. Schlissel was reported, investigated and terminated in under two months.
In the well-known case of former Provost Martin Philbert, the board released an 88-page report based on an investigation into his sexual misconduct. However, releasing 118 pages of memeable emails does not have the same effect that releasing a dense WilmerHale report does. Hundreds of jokes were not inspired by this in-depth report, only a fraction of which consists of Philbert’s actual communications. Secondary sources like this report tend to obscure the actual nature of the relevant content, as actual words inherently convey more than descriptions. The Regents’ decision to release a mass of personal messages deviates from its customary form of transparency about its activities, which typically consists of formal reports like the one regarding Philbert.
In their official release, the board said they were releasing Schlissel’s communications “In the interest of full public disclosure.” Was this kind of visibility not necessary in those previous cases? Was the speed with which the board investigated and removed Schlissel not necessary before?
This is not to criticize the Board’s decision to be transparent. If the board is going to adequately combat the ongoing and historic issues of sexual assault and harassment in the University, as they should, a consistent approach is necessary. This is to say that releasing important documents related to similar allegations should be the norm — not exclusive to figures with a negative public image like Schlissel.
But apart from Schlissel’s strained relationship with students and faculty, it is worth noting that he fell out with the Board of Regents in the past year too. In light of the severity with which Schlissel’s case was treated in comparison to other aforementioned cases, it is clear that the board chose to use Schlissel’s actions as a means to (rightfully) remove an adversary of theirs. While these emails were insightful and undeniably humorous, this is a politicization of the process of dealing with sexual misconduct that will serve to taint future investigations with the stench of bias. Only a consistent protocol will ensure that this does not occur.
The board and administration must release a comprehensive plan of action for any future sexual assault or misconduct reports against professors, administration officials or any employed University official. Such a comprehensive plan will ensure that every case is treated seriously and with consistency to ensure that transgressions are treated with the seriousness and transparency they deserve. A system where allegations of misconduct are treated on a case-by-case basis allows for certain individuals, like Conforth, Daniels and Philbert to get away with their behavior for years. Sexual misconduct can occur at any level of the University. Only taking strong, public action against the most recognizable figures fails to address the broader issue.
While firing Schlissel is a step in the right direction, the Board of Regent’s choice of an interim replacement, President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman, is not untainted herself. Coleman was reportedly aware of allegations against Martin Philbert during her tenure as president. Despite the allegations and Coleman’s knowledge, Philbert was allowed to continue serving as Dean of the School of Public Health for the rest of Coleman’s term and nearly six years afterward.
If Coleman’s appointment was meant by the board as a return to normalcy, to the “scandal free” era before Schlissel, it just shows how deeply tolerance of sexual misconduct is ingrained in the University’s administration. The flood of sexual assault and harassment allegations against faculty and administrators during Schlissel’s term was by no means unique. The issues of sexual misconduct within this university have been tied to Mark Schlissel; losing him means losing a figurehead to rally against and replacing him with a less controversial former president who people remember fondly. Once the jokes about these emails die down, we will still be left with an administration that turns a blind eye to sexual misconduct, but this time one that commands less scrutiny from the public. This cannot become the case. We have to remain vigilant about this issue. To avoid further negligence and complaisance, we must hold the board accountable for consistent and fair actions when faced with such situations.