Vote of no confidence in U-M President Mark Schlissel passes, official ruling says

Friday, September 18, 2020 - 5:43pm

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File Photo/Daily

The University of Michigan’s Faculty Senate leadership confirmed Friday that the faculty’s vote of no confidence in University President Mark Schlissel passed, reversing course after an earlier ruling determined it had failed. 

The passage of the vote — which is symbolic and will not impact Schlissel’s employment status — means that the Faculty Senate does not have faith in the president to execute his role as the head of the University. Faculty Senate members voted on the motion of no confidence during a virtual meeting Wednesday afternoon.

In an email to faculty members, Colleen Conway, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, announced the vote of no confidence in Schlissel had actually passed, despite the previous announcement that it had failed to receive a majority of votes. 

“I as Senate Chair, along with the Senate Secretary, and SACUA have conclusively and unanimously determined that the University Senate Rules on voting using Robert’s Rules of Order for interpretation leads all of us to the same conclusion. Abstentions should not have been counted as votes, and Motion 6 should have passed,” Conway wrote. “We ask for your patience and understanding while we not only discussed how abstentions should be handled, but we also discussed in depth our concerns about the lack of accessibility to voting experienced by some of our colleagues.”

David Potter, interim secretary of the Faculty Senate and professor in LSA, confirmed the motion passed in an email to The Daily.

Conway said the vote of no confidence was the first in the University’s history.

When asked about the result of the vote, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald told The Daily Schlissel had no further comment.

At the Wednesday meeting, 957 members voted in support of the motion with 953 voting against and 184 abstentions. While more people in the Faculty Senate said they did not trust Schlissel’s leadership than those who said they did, Potter initially announced that the motion had failed because it did not receive a majority of all votes cast, including abstentions. 

More than 2,200 Faculty Senate members participated in the meeting. The body, which is part of the University’s central faculty governance system, has approximately 4,300 members and is made up of professors, executive officers and deans, among others. 

Potter’s ruling sparked confusion among the faculty members. Conway declined to announce a decisive result.

Faculty Senate leaders later clarified they would need a few days to review the matter. In an email to The Daily after the vote Wednesday, Potter said the Faculty Senate Office would “speak to the issue” of abstentions in a few days.

“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 the Wednesday email about the vote of no confidence in Schlissel. “It is possible that, after further exploration of the issue we will reach a different understanding.”

The Faculty Senate’s rules do not explicitly answer whether abstentions count as votes. In this case, the Faculty Senate defers to Robert’s Rules of Order, a set of guidelines for parliamentary procedure that date back to the 1800s. According to Robert’s Rules, the vote of no confidence should have passed because abstentions do not count as votes. 

Among other claims, the vote of no confidence accuses Schlissel of ignoring scientific evidence regarding the risks associated with the University’s reopening plans for the fall semester. According to the resolution, Schlissel did not take into account a report by the Ethics and Privacy Committee when crafting the school’s reopening protocol and did not respond to the committee’s concerns. 

In a rare move, Schlissel addressed members of the Faculty Senate at the start of the meeting, emphasizing his dedication to the University. He elaborated on his reasoning for allowing some classes to be held in person despite most being offered online or in hybrid formats and discussed efforts to expand surveillance testing of asymptomatic individuals. 

He also acknowledged concerns about the administration’s shortage of engagement with the community and lack of transparency.

“Criticisms and challenges are qualities that make universities great,” Schlissel said. “They also provide an opportunity to create solutions that benefit from multiple perspectives. We can and must work together as a university to solve problems.”

The motion also states that Schlissel fell short in his response to allegations of sexual misconduct against former Provost Martin Philbert.

At the virtual meeting Wednesday, Information Professor Kentaro Toyama pointed to the multiple high-profile sexual misconduct charges uncovered during Schlissel’s tenure, including the accusations against Philbert and former Music, Theatre & Dance professor David Daniels. Both men were removed from their positions as a result of the allegations. 

Toyama blamed Schlissel’s leadership in part for the University’s failure to address systemic problems and prevent institutional failures. 

“Schlissel was the president of the University during all of these issues,” Toyama said. “The buck stops with him, and that’s why I’m voting no confidence.”

Stephen Ward, an associate professor in LSA, submitted the no-confidence motion. He also criticized the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Schlissel’s handling of the allegations against Philbert.

“The president's actions and inactions, particularly over the last six months, but perhaps over the last six years, are setting a precedent that we cannot and should abide,” Ward said at the meeting Wednesday. 

Engineering professor Peter Washabaugh spoke in support of Schlissel at the meeting.

“I’ve seen this president take the correct path, even though it might be difficult or uncomfortable,” Washabaugh said, adding that he believed Schlissel had “demonstrated thoughtfulness and caring actions.”

At a University Board of Regents meeting Thursday, Regent Denise Ilitch (D) read a unanimous statement of support for the administration and the University’s reopening plans. She said the board, which acts as the University’s governing body, knows the administration needs to communicate better with the broader community.

“Our Board supports President Schlissel and the administration as they continue to lead our University through these tremendous challenges,” the statement reads. “We know that the president and the administration will continue to listen and adapt through these challenges, honor our common values and advance the mission of the University.”

In his statement to The Daily, Fitzgerald noted the results of a sentiment ballot — a vote made available to faculty members who were unable to attend the meeting Wednesday. 

The majority of voters who participated in the sentiment ballot said they did have confidence in Schlissel. A total of 1,092 faculty voted against the measure, while 942 supported the vote of no confidence and 109 abstained.

Before the official vote at the meeting Wednesday, Ward highlighted what he described as a failure of leadership at the highest levels of the University, particularly the president’s office. 

“He has engaged in evasion, misdirection, distortion and falsehoods,” Ward said.

Managing News Editor Leah Graham and Daily News Editor Alex Harring can be reached at leahgra@umich.edu and harring@umich.edu.


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