Questions loom over Faculty Senate's vote of no confidence in President Mark Schlissel. Here's what we know so far

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 - 7:42pm

.

Alec Cohen/Daily

A vote of no confidence in University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel split the Faculty Senate Wednesday afternoon, but a set of rules dating back to the 1800s may offer some insight.

The Faculty Senate’s vote of no confidence in Schlissel would pass according to the parliamentary guidelines specified in both the body’s own rulebook and those designated by the University’s Board of Regents.

The final tally for the motion of no confidence at the meeting was 957 voting in support of the motion, 953 against with 184 abstentions. Faculty Senate leadership said the motion did not pass, despite having more votes for it than against because it did not receive a majority of all those who cast votes, including abstentions. The requirement that a vote must receive a majority of those present at a meeting does not appear in the Faculty Senate’s rules. 

David Potter, interim secretary of the Faculty Senate and professor in LSA, used the total number of votes cast — including abstentions — to determine that there was not a majority vote of no confidence. However, Colleen Conway, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, declined to rule on the vote and did not say whether it had passed or not.

The vote of no confidence was largely symbolic, meaning Schlissel will not be removed from his position because of it.

The question before the Faculty Senate is now whether the rule requiring a majority vote was misinterpreted, which could impact the outcome of the vote.

While Potter said the motion failed at the meeting, according to the 10th edition of “Robert’s Rules of Order” — a set of rules governing parliamentary procedure that goes back to the late 19th century — the vote should have passed.

A motion must receive a majority of votes that are cast, according to the Faculty Senate’s rules.

“Unless otherwise specifically provided for in these rules or in the Regental Bylaws, all questions put to the University Senate shall be decided by majority vote of those voting,” the rules read. 

But the Faculty Senate’s rules do not directly address the question of whether those who abstain count as “those voting.” For topics not addressed, the Faculty Senate rules state that guidance should come from “Robert’s Rules of Order.”

“In all cases not covered by rules adopted by the Senate, the procedure in Robert's Rules of Order shall be followed,” the Faculty Senate rules state.

However, the Faculty Senate rules do not designate a specific edition of the rules, which have been updated and expanded numerous times over the course of their existence. According to the Regents’ bylaws, the designated text is the revised 10th edition, issued by Perseus Publishing in Cambridge, Mass. in 2000, or any later versions of the document.

Following the guidance described in that exact version of Robert’s Rules, the vote of no confidence against Schlissel should have passed.

“The word majority means ‘more than half’; and when the term majority vote is used without qualification — as in the case of the basic requirement — it means more than half of the votes cast by persons legally entitled to vote, excluding blank or abstentions, at a regular or properly called meeting at which quorum (40) is present,” the 10th edition of Robert’s Rules reads.

The document indicates that those who abstain from voting are not voting: “To abstain means not to vote at all, and a member who makes no response if ‘abstentions’ are called for abstains just as much as one who responds to that effect.”

 

Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 10th ed. (Cambridge, Mass: Perseus Publishing, 2000)

Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 10th ed. (Cambridge, Mass: Perseus Publishing, 2000) Buy this photo
.

In an email to The Daily Wednesday night, Potter said the Faculty Senate leadership was trying to make sense of the issue, adding that the Faculty Senate Office “will speak to the issue of abstensions (sic) in a few days as we are continuing to look at the issue.”

“As I was counting the votes I was seeing four categories, three that registered (yes, no and abstain) and then that there were people present in the meeting who elected not to participate in the vote, hence my statement that motion 6 was not successful,” Potter wrote in reference to the vote of no confidence in Schlissel. “It is possible that, after further exploration of the issue we will reach a different understanding.”

Rackham student Austin Glass, who serves as Student General Counsel to Central Student Government, said following a strict interpretation of Robert’s Rules, it’s clear that abstentions are not votes.

“Under Robert’s Rules, when you're calculating whether a majority of people have voted in favor of something, you're counting up the number of people who have voted, and abstentions are not votes, so the people who abstained do not count toward the number of people who voted,” Glass said.

When asked about the vote, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerld deferred to Faculty Senate leadership, who could not be reached after multiple requests for comment.

On Wednesday, LSA associate professor Stephen Ward brought the motion of no confidence in Schlissel’s leadership. The motion cites lack of data and evidence supporting the University's reopening, along with the lack of policy change in response to “grave concerns” students, staff and faculty have brought through official channels. 

The motion states Schlissel failed to effectively address reports of Philbert’s misconduct despite the former provost’s continuous promotions. 

It also notes Schlissel’s refusal to “accept personal responsibility for the consequences of his administration's decisions,” citing an interview with The Daily in which Schlissel placed responsibility “squarely on the virus” if there are large outbreaks on campus. 

Ward said Schlissel’s “actions and inactions” have set a precedent the University cannot abide by, criticizing the president’s handling of the Graduate Employees' Organization’s strike.

“He and his administration are presently taking action, designed to not only break the strike (but) very possibly to break the union,” Ward said.

Art & Design professor Rebekah Modrak spoke in favor of the motion, saying Schlissel’s “willful disregard of information” puts the University community in danger. She pointed to the WilmerHale report, which described Schlissel receiving an allegation of sexual misconduct against Philbert in his performance evaluation in 2019. 

“Did President Schlissel not read the reports?” Modrak said. “If so, he failed to perform due diligence. Did he read and ignore them, knowingly putting more of them at risk?” 

When asked how he missed the allegations, Schlissel told The Daily in an interview last month: “That’s, you know, on me. That’s bad.”

Engineering professor Peter Washabaugh said Schlissel inherited the bureaucracy in its current state and has taken steps to evaluate and remedy its failures.

“The president’s vision has been extremely valuable, and I feel that I have an ally at the top,” Washabaugh said. “I have complete confidence that this president can help our institutions weather this crisis and help us improve our capabilities.” 

Schlissel addressed the Faculty Senate in a rare appearance before the body at the beginning of the meeting. He discussed his commitment to the University. He also touched on his rationale for bringing students back to campus, noting the University’s plans to ramp up surveillance testing and said he heard the “important and valid” calls for greater engagement and transparency.

“What I haven't heard is a lack of commitment to this university that we all love,” Schlissel said. “The pandemic will be with us for a long time — let's join together to focus on how we'll beat it.

Glass declined to offer judgment on whether Potter was mistaken when he announced the vote of no confidence had failed at the meeting. However, Glass noted that despite the status of the vote and questions regarding whether the Faculty Senate reached an official decision, the number of faculty members who said they did not trust Schlissel represented a massive lack of faith in the administration.

“I would not be comfortable saying the vote of no confidence in President Schlissel failed, for sure, just from a parliamentary perspective,” Glass said. “... I think it is generally correct to conclude that in this particular vote, the faculty at the meeting expressed no confidence in President Schlissel. There can be questions of technicality, but I don't think they affect that outcome. The faculty at the meeting expressed no confidence in the president. It's as simple as that to me.”

This is a developing story. Check back at michigandaily.com for updates.

Daily Staff Reporters Alec Cohen and Parnia Mazhar contributed reporting.

Daily Staff Reporters Calder Lewis and John Grieve can be reached at caldwell@umich.edu and jgrieve@umich.edu. Daily News Editor Alex Harring can be reached at harring@umich.edu. Managing News Editor Leah Graham can be reached at leahgra@umich.edu.