The University announced on Jan. 15 that President Mark Schlissel had been fired, effective immediately, for an “inappropriate relationship” with a subordinate employee. It should be noted, given the present social climate around issues of sexual and workplace misconduct, that there is no evidence that Schlissel engaged in any form of predation or coercion; he was removed solely for the inappropriate relationship he maintained with a subordinate. While many in the University community were blindsided by the news, either because of the timing or the nature of the allegations which finally did him in, a outpouring of student support for Schlissel’s removal took shape as the news broke. Schlissel had long been a divisive figure in Ann Arbor — his alleged affair was only his latest in a long line of blunders and humiliations throughout his otherwise-forgettable term as president.
Whether Schlissel should have been fired isn’t really the issue here — he violated the University’s supervisor relationship policy. The bigger problem at hand is how he could possibly have been allowed to continue in his position up to this point, sex scandals notwithstanding. Schlissel has consistently been under fire for his handling of a variety of issues throughout his seven-plus years leading the University, but his most notable failure came with his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a common sentiment around campus that Schlissel has brazenly placed the University’s economic interests ahead of the safety and security of U-M students.
While in retrospect it’s obvious that every university would face significant challenges in mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on campus, Schlissel’s failures were glaring. It wasn’t enough for him to bring nearly 30,000 students back to campus for the fall 2020 semester, despite keeping all instruction online. It also was not enough to eschew routine mandatory testing for all students — clearly in the interest of limiting documented cases and keeping students on campus. It wasn’t enough to brazenly ignore a vote of no-confidence by the Faculty Senate in response to his COVID-19 protocols. It was raising student tuition — with approval from the Board of Regents — amid a crippling economic crisis and public health emergency that made it abundantly clear Schlissel had one singular motive for his administrative policies: the University’s bottom line. It was not student safety, nor was it providing the most fruitful academic experience in spite of the circumstances. It was money.
It should outrage the U-M community that this man has retained his employment by the school in a more limited capacity: as a tenured professor. At a time when University accountability is at the forefront, Schlissel is going to keep a cushy title and an on-campus office? The University is sending this man into the classroom as a role model to the next generation of doctors and educators? It’s offensive. It’s a slap in the face to a community that was clearly happy to have seen the last of Mark Schlissel.
This is someone with plenty to be ashamed of, but what should embarrass him most is his betrayal of his obligations as a trained medical professional; Schlissel is both a medical doctor and a professor of immunology and molecular biology. He spent years of his life studying the human immune system, but was willfully negligent as a highly infectious disease ran rampant through an institution he claimed to oversee. He knew opening the dorms at full capacity would render the University an industrial-sized petri dish. He also knew one of his bosses, the widely-loathed U-M Regent Ron Weiser (R), stood to benefit economically from the hastily-implemented return to campus. It doesn’t take an M.D. to come to those conclusions, only common sense and basic human decency. What is clear is that optics did not matter to Schlissel. In less than two years, that amounts to no less than five fireable offenses, but only when he became a social pariah was he removed.
That’s what makes this so hard to understand. At one of the largest and most prestigious institutions of higher education in the country, the President placing students and the city at risk with his apathy was not cause for termination, but a relationship with a staffer was a bridge too far. The Board of Regents have a lot to answer for here, too. Schlissel was derelict in his duty to U-M students as a result of his actions, but the Board was derelict in its inaction. They are not blameless bystanders – they are constituent parties to a years-long, humiliating institutional scandal.
Jack Roshco is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org