President Mark Schlissel on Provost Martin Philbert: 'This sort of thing should never happen'
Each month, The Michigan Daily’s Administration Beat sits down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel to discuss important questions about University policy, commitments and challenges. Topics discussed in this month’s interview included Provost Martin Philbert, divestment from fossil fuels, the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, the discrimination lawsuit filed against the University and more.
This month, we used input from the campus community to guide our questions for Schlissel. Stay tuned for next month’s interview to submit your questions. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Michigan Daily: On Jan. 22, you sent an email to the entire student body informing them about several allegations of sexual misconduct by Provost Philbert. Public Affairs confirmed on Thursday that Philbert was on medical leave for part of the fall semester. I’m aware that his health is his personal business. I’m more curious as to why this administrative leave was not widely communicated to the campus community given the high-profile nature of Philbert’s position?
Mark Schlissel: Health is a very private matter. It affects the Provost. It affects his family. It doesn’t affect you and me; it’s his health. So, we have great respect for the privacy involved. It was in the meeting materials for the Dec. 15 or so Regents meeting, so it’s in the public domain. But because it was about a personal health matter, I didn’t think it rose to the level of informing the community. An acting provost was in place, and I was in place and the business of the University continued.
TMD: The email you sent to students said the University received “several allegations of sexual misconduct by Dr. Philbert” on Jan. 16-17 of 2020. I’m curious about what exactly this means. Was Jan. 16 the first time the University was made aware of Philbert’s alleged sexual misconduct, or is it a technical way of describing a step in a reporting process that actually began earlier than Jan. 16?
MS: We take allegations of sexual misconduct with the utmost seriousness, the 16th and the 17th was the first I became aware of any allegation whatsoever. We, because of the high rank of the person and the fact that we all know each other very well and work together very closely, the general counsel decided it was wisest to immediately bring in an outside law firm to help us investigate. And over the course of the first several days of that investigation, we learned enough that the allegations were credible, and as a result, to allow the investigation to proceed completely, and to assure the ongoing safety in the comfort of the community the Provost was put on leave. And then we announced what we had done. That’s basically what I said in the statement, and that's basically all I can say because there's always a presumption of innocence. Everyone deserves due process and a full investigation. I want to give tremendous thanks and credit to the people who have stepped up and told us about their experiences. That takes a lot of bravery to do that. It’s an act of giving, because it helps others in the community either feel comfortable to step up themselves or feel like they're being safer. We provided access to all the different modalities of support for the folks that made these reports. And we're trying to deal with it as sensitively as possible while keeping the business of the University moving forward.
TMD: How is it that the University received several allegations on the same day without any prior knowledge of the situation?
MS: It’s interesting. I don't know the answer. And so, perhaps during the course of the investigation, we’ll figure that out. But I don’t know why we received several over the space of a couple of days.
TMD: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about what exactly he did, given he oversaw the Office of Institutional Equity?
MS: The Provost oversees a huge swath of the entire institution. He is the Chief Budget Officer and the Chief Academic Officer for the whole University. OIE, because of its importance, we changed its reporting line a year ago, to report directly to the Provost’s Office. We did that to make sure that it receives the resources that it needs and the attention that it needs. The provost’s role though, is as a supervisor of the employees in the office. The provost does not sign off on cases, he doesn’t play a role in investigations, doesn’t play a role in assigning punishment in cases. He, in this case, was simply the supervisor of this function for the University. So, none of the cases that have come up during the months that the Provost was supervising, did he weigh in on the details of the case, but rather he was the supervisor for the office and responsible for its management and its budget.
TMD: Given Provost Philbert oversaw OIE and was such an important figure at the University and now has accusations of sexual misconduct against him, how will the University ensure that this does not happen again? What steps will you take in hiring an interim provost – and all future administrators – to make sure they have no history of sexual misconduct?
MS: This sort of thing should never happen. So, if the allegations are proven true, and regardless, we have to think of how we select, and then vet our candidates for all different jobs at the University. … We have to look as carefully as we can of the people we hire to make sure that the likelihood of hiring people that have committed misconduct in the past or may commit it in the future is as low as possible. You can tell from all the reports around different parts of society, of episodes of sexual misconduct, that it’s not infrequent. And you know, our own survey data on campus have told us that it’s not infrequent. So, we’ve got to figure out how to do this better to figure out, how to set up a culture where this type of misbehavior, this category of misbehavior is not tolerated, that people feel comfortable to report it and to ask for help. That peers or other people in the environment that have suspicions that misconduct is occurring, feel comfortable and know how to report it. In terms of moving forward, the University, you know, really has to have a provost in place. So right now, I’m in the process of looking at people who have administrative experience and familiarity, because they sort of have to take over all at once, although I'll be working with them very closely … And we’ll get talented people, it’s an important job. We’re fortunate at the University to have a large number of folks with a history of high-level service and demonstrated good judgment, and we’ll select and get a good person to serve.
The endowment and divesting from fossil fuels
TMD: At their last meeting in December, the regents voted down a $50 million investment into Vendera Resources, a company with assets in oil and gas production. Does this indicate a shift in the University’s investment pursuits?
MS: I just don’t have more to say about that now. I don’t have anything to add to the observation that you made. I’d love to talk about carbon neutrality efforts more generally, because they’re extremely important.
TMD: Do you believe the endowment should be governed by political ideology?
MS: In general, the purpose of the endowment is to provide support for an area that we’ve agreed with a donor is an area that the University thinks is important and the donor wants to support. We make a commitment to the donor to be a good steward of their money. So that means trying to generate the right mix of risk and return, you know, that sort of yield to the investment so that in perpetuity, we can support the thing that we agreed upon — students’ scholarships, for example — and have the endowment grow so that its value is not eroded with inflation through the years. … So, I think that's our primary responsibility … So, I’m giving a general answer. I’m not giving it in the instance of this issue or that issue or even your question of politics. I’m saying in general, our obligation to donors when we accept their money is to do this form of stewardship and support what we agreed to support.
TMD: The Daily released a Statement piece in December about how mass student protests led up to divestment from apartheid South Africa. Just these last few days, Central Student Government passed a resolution with other Big Ten schools that demands the administrations of all the schools freeze all their fossil fuel investments. Do you see a connection between these situations?
MS: Well, the same words are used — the word divestment is used — so that’s an obvious connection. The details of the two causes that we’re talking about, I can’t make a statement, you know. It’s an interesting question. The fact that both CSG and then collectively the equivalent bodies all across the Big Ten made a statement about this, I think is important. I think we have to hear the student voice and respect it and try to understand it.
The President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality
TMD: We reported earlier this month on the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality and how, in the process of preparing recommendations for achieving carbon neutrality, members of the Student Advisory Panel felt that the perspective of stakeholders such as themselves were overlooked. The co-chairs of the Commission, Jennifer Haverkamp and Stephen Forrest, also stated that they haven’t yet met with the other three advisory panels. What role do student perspectives have in the carbon neutrality process?
MS: I think we won’t be successful unless we have student perspectives, and more than just perspectives. You know, I think often we tend to look to others and say, ‘We’ve identified a really important problem, you fix it.’ And that’s fair when it comes to me and the people that run the University, because we have a lot of influence over a lot of things. But a lot of the solutions to our challenges around sustainability in general and carbon neutrality in particular is going to require everybody in the community to make a contribution that’s tangible. You are going to have to change your lifestyle if we're going to become carbon neutral, just as I’m going to have to change my lifestyle. We’re going to have to change the way we operate the campus, the way we build buildings, the way we allocate our resources, all of which, you know, are going to involve students directly or indirectly … So that’s why I say that the overall effort won’t be successful unless the student voice is considered and then students also take responsibility for a share of the work we need to do together.
I met very early in the process with the main student advisory committee along with the heads of the neutrality commission, in the very early days. I know that Haverkamp and (Forrest) last week met with a number of these committees, so it’s an ongoing thing. There have been town halls and forums. So, during the working phase of the Commission, I think student input is important.
TMD: One of the concerns that some of the student advisers voiced in the memos they sent to the Commission was that there would be a struggle to implement recommendations from the Commission’s report to actually reduce emissions. How does the University plan to act on the recommendations it receives from the Commission?
MS: We’ll have to see when we receive them. Yeah, it’s a really hypothetical question, but what I anticipate is that I’ll get a report, and the report will contain an analysis and a set of prioritized recommendations. Then it becomes the job of me and the executive team to work with the regents to figure out which of the recommendations are ones that are doable and affordable and how we balance that with all the other operational costs of running a University. We’re going to hold ourselves to account. The report’s going to be made public. I can’t promise in advance that I’m going to agree with every recommendation. But Steve Forrest, one of the (PCCN) co-chairs, when we first got this all going said that his hope is to make a report and recommendations that are so compelling that we agree with every single one. And I think that’d be fantastic, so we’ll just have to see when it comes out.
TMD: Two Michigan professors filed a discrimination lawsuit in 2016 against the University under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, with claims of disparate treatment, discriminatory hiring practices and sex discrimination, among others. Over Winter Break, the jury found the University of Michigan did not discriminate against the professors. What is the University’s response to this case and the jury’s decision?
MS: We’re gratified they agreed with us. As always with juries, it was a relatively lengthy and complicated trial, so you have to thank the folks that paid attention to the arguments and listened to the materials and arrived at a decision that we actually agree with. We’re always trying to hear constructive criticism, even if we disagree with its conclusions. And you know, the leaders of the departments that are involved in this will look at their practices and try to make sure that all of the faculty that we hire are treated fairly and according to rules, that we are always endeavoring to achieve diversity and promote an inclusive environment.
TMD: We wanted to ask about not just faculty but the students of the A/PIA studies program, because after the trial, they released a long statement describing how they felt unsupported by the University. So, how can you make it a more inclusive environment for students who feel like their minor and their identity isn't supported?
MS: I would find it disappointing if any student felt as if they weren't supported for any reason, any mode of identity. Our student affairs staff and the folks that work on our multiculturalism programs are in contact with A/PIA and other groups. I’ve had A/PIA leadership to the house for breakfast, probably once a semester the last several years, and it’s an ongoing dialogue … So, we need to hear the experiences of students, the complaints of students, understand them and try to rectify the situations that lead them to complain. And it’s not different for A/PIA than it is any other group or identity on the campus that doesn't experience this place the same as everybody else.
Executive order to make Judaism a nationality
TMD: A couple of months ago, President Trump signed an executive order that defines Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion. This order means the government can consider discrimination of Jewish people a violation of article VI (6) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and therefore universities could lose federal funding for failing to successfully combat discrimination. The order has been publicly criticized for its broad definition of anti-Semitism that could be used to prohibit BDS of Israel (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) support. How will this affect the free speech of BDS groups on campus?
MS: So, you know, broadly, we think, religious freedom of all types is constitutionally guaranteed in the Bill of Rights kind of thing. We think that discrimination against any religion, no matter how the president or others define, is wrong. The University itself does not engage in that discrimination. … The challenge comes in around speech. And you know, you can’t have a university that’s going to freely exchange ideas unless you can protect folks whose ideas are unpopular. So, what we do as a University is we’re extremely respectful of the speech rights of people, while at the same time, speaking against bigotry and prejudice ... A university is a marketplace of ideas. That’s how we make discoveries, and that’s how society progresses. So, I don’t think our behaviors are inconsistent with the President's thoughts around discrimination, because we certainly will not accept discrimination and bigotry, but we must value free speech.
TMD: There was record student voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections on campus. With 2020 being the year of a general election, is there any plan to continue to follow up on the Big Ten Voting Challenge and continue to encourage student engagement and voting?
MS: We renewed the Big Ten voter challenge. So, the Big Ten presidents agreed, and we’re wrapping up and doing it again. It worked great the last time. To me, we're not done until basically everybody who can vote is voting, or at least registered.
TMD: How is the University planning to address the possibility that turnout could exceed that of 2018 in terms of polling places and voter booths?
MS: The University doesn't control polling places or voting booths. So, we don't have the power to designate a particular location, nor do we determine the number of machines or the number of poll workers. That’s done by the secretary of state of the state of Michigan … My trick to voting, I never wait in line. You know how? I get up at seven in the morning. There’s nobody there. So, if you're busy that day, and you don't want to miss class or you don't want to sit in the hallway and, you know, gripe about how long the line is, get up early one day.