PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The provost’s office is on the first floor of an unremarkable brick building. The shades are drawn, but just outside lies Brown University’s Main Green, the school’s equivalent to the University’s Diag. It’s noon and the pathways are bustling with students between classes, jackets unzipped under a tall sun.
Brown Provost Mark Schlissel — who was selected as the University’s next president in January — stands maybe 6-feet-2-inches. His suit is gray, tie maroon and glasses neither rectangle nor oval. His beard is grizzly and beginning to lose color. He gives a firm handshake and says, “Take a seat wherever.”
I took one of 10 seats at a long mahogany table and looked around. The office was grand, featuring a large U-shaped desk, used but tidy, filled bookcases across one wall, a grandfather clock, a fireplace with no wood, four armchairs for intimate meetings and bamboo shoots for a natural touch. This has been Schlissel’s situation room for almost three years now.
He must have noticed my eyes widening because he said, “You should check this out,” and walked over to a wall and punched what must have been a button. A 60-inch television rose from a hidden compartment, but before it rose two inches he clicked again and the TV disappeared.
“Pretty neat, eh, if anyone needs to give a presentation.” I mentioned the computer speakers on a nearby secondary desk, and he said, “Yeah, I joke I should have a Super Bowl party in here.”
He had missed his last opportunity, though. On Jan. 24, about a week before Seattle blew Denver out 48-7 in Super Bowl XLVIII, Schlissel was in Ann Arbor accepting the title of 14th president of University of Michigan.
I asked if he knew he’d be getting an office downgrade when he arrives at the University.
“Yeah, I’ve seen President Coleman’s office. I’m not too worried,” he said. “Certain things are worth sacrificing.”
He took the seat at the head of the table.
The theory of his evolution
Schlissel spoke with a frank confidence that wasn’t intimidating.
“I never set out when I was a young faculty member to grow up to be a president,” Schlissel said. “It just sort of happened.”
His professional life traces a neat climb up the academic ladder.
He graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1979 with a degree in biochemical sciences and earned a Ph.D. and M.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1986. (He loves research more but was “too chicken to completely abandon the idea of becoming a medical doctor.”)
His residency was at Johns Hopkins Hospital and postdoctoral research was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, though he hasn’t practiced medicine since he was 30 years old, back in 1988.
“My heart was really always in the lab,” he said. “That was always more exciting to me.”
At MIT, Schlissel worked as an on-call doctor once a week at the school’s health service.
“I would walk from my laboratory at 6 p.m. over to this clinic, see whoever was sick and they had a small inpatient infirmary so I would sleep in an empty hospital bed upstairs and the nurses would wake me up if someone came in at three in the morning and I would go down and take care of them,” he said. “Then in the morning I would brush my teeth, they would feed me breakfast and I would walk back to the lab.”
Clearly, he has a science mind at his core.
“I just became intoxicated with this idea that you can do stuff with your hands that generated data that you could argue about and then try to understand something as complicated as a cell or a gene,” he said. “It was mind-blowing.”
By 2002, Schlissel had earned a full professorship in the molecular and cell biology department at the University of California, Berkeley. Rising to the chair of departments and other committees, he eventually found himself as dean of biological sciences in 2008. He called it the “citizen-soldier” model of leadership.
“The idea is you step up, do a job and then you go back to being a professor again. That’s the way the academy works.”
The major fork in the road came before his third year as dean in: Return to his comfortable research and professorship, or pursue higher administrative positions?
“I really faced a decision because I was in a situation where I felt stuck almost as a dean in middle management,” he said. “The work of the academy was being done at the department level — the teaching and research. And the real big decisions about what to invest in — the strategic decisions — were being done by the provost and the chancellor. And every time I had a good idea and wanted to do something, I needed to go to the provost to try and convince him or her to give me money and then to the department to convince them to do it. I really felt stuck in the middle.”
Around this time, Schlissel also realized he enjoyed leadership work in addition to research and teaching.
“I enjoyed looking at a complicated situation that involved people, resources, and opportunities and finding the right way to make the puzzle fit so that good things happen,” he said.
In late 2010, Schlissel sat in a coffee shop at Boston’s Logan Airport. The location was ideal for a clandestine job interview, and Brown University had narrowed the hunt for a new provost down to two finalists. Across the table sat Elizabeth Huidekoper, Brown’s vice president for finance and administration, who had been sent to vet him as a candidate. She was quickly sold.
“The body language,” Huidekoper said in an interview with The Daily. “He wanted it. You could tell he was hungry for this opportunity.”
Too private a Providence
Brown sits atop College Hill with its 8,619 students sequestered before downtown Providence below.
Like the town of Providence — which was founded in 1636 — Brown’s administration has undergone drastic change in recent years. Schlissel’s departure follows a trend of recent turnovers in top administration posts.
Since Schlissel arrived in 2011, 12 of 19 senior administrators have left their posts, according to the school’s student newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald. Among these administrators was popular president Ruth Simmons, who retired in 2012 after 12 years of service — the same number of years performed by University President Mary Sue Coleman.
Schlissel spoke highly of Simmons as a mentor, and emphasized her talented communication skills.
“Whether she was talking to a group of CEOs or talking to a group of middle school students, she could pitch the talk at the level they were without talking down to them,” Schlissel said. “She reached them where they are.”
As provost, Schlissel is a step below current Brown President Christina Paxson — the former Princeton University dean of International and Public Affairs who jumped ship to lead Brown — and has been one of the few constants throughout all this administrative change.
His titles include chief academic officer and budget officer — the vital bridge between the two aforementioned offices — and speak to the major role he’s played in the administration’s achievements over the past three years. These achievements serve as a lens into the sort of work Schlissel may emphasize when he assumes the University presidency in July.
In October, the Corporation of Brown University, equivalent to the University’s Board of Regents, approved the administration’s signature policy, a strategic blueprint for the Brown’s next decade of action — Building on Distinction: A New Plan for Brown.
The 11-page document details a new post-tenure sabbatical policy, new sophomore seminars that emphasize diversity and seemingly contradictory decisions to emphasize environmentalism and sustainability and the construction of new buildings to house many disciplines, including engineering.
Huidekoper, the vice president for finance and administration, has an office down the hall from the provost’s.
She said Schlissel’s opinions in molding the plan were strong, but malleable when presented a persuasive argument. For example, Huidekoper said, he wanted to move the engineering building down to a part of town called the Jewelry District.
Walking over to a large campus map above her desk, Huidekoper pointed to an area far away from the main campus.
“I think there was resistance to that and what we did was brought in a campus master plan group and they went through some very deep data analysis about how our faculty and students interact,” she said. “And what came out of that was if you move engineering down there it’s going to break the fabric of the university. That’s when he said ‘I’ve been convinced’ and changed his mind. That was really his decision.”
She cited Schlissel’s decision to detach the public health program from the medical as an example of his sometimes-bold decisiveness.
“He made the call. It was absolutely his call and he decided to separate the two and had to work through the intense resistance from the medical school,” she said. “He’s been bold and made some calls that weren’t necessarily controversial but they were just brave and they’ve gone down fine because he can explain them well.
However, the plan’s perceived priority for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — focuses that speak to Schlissel’s science and research background — has taken heat, according to articles in the Brown Daily Herald, the student newspaper on campus.
Brown senior Todd Harris, president of the Undergraduate Council of Students, spoke to the tensions stirred among the student body.
“There has been concern among the undergraduate students about the trajectory of the university’s investment in undergraduates,” he said. “And I think this symbol of the ‘university-college’ was something a lot of students really grasp on to so we pushed back on that and one of things the president and provost did was include the mission statement back into the Strategic Plan.”
Harris also noted Schlissel’s involvement with UCS initiatives such as increasing student representation on the University Resources Committee, the entity that determines tuition and the university’s budget.
“It had two undergraduate students and we wanted four. And yeah he helped — he’s the chair of that committee and helped us get those four students.”
Yet, for all the work he’s put in, Schlissel will leave without seeing the strategic plan’ materialization. Huidekoper dropped a few hints as to his motives for departing Brown.
“I think Brown is a little… parochial for his long term ambitions,” she said. “It’s been a good place for him to be but I think he’s really excited to have a bigger platform.”
She hesitated on the word ‘parochial,’ adding: “I think working on the future of a university in the context of the health of the state is something really intriguing to him. We don’t talk that way at Brown. We are not the University of Rhode Island.”
To the top and back
When Schlissel assumes office in July, he will be at the climax of his career and at the reigns of one of the largest and most influential public universities in the world. The slipper fit, both ways.
For the University, the choice was not a risky one.
His history matches many presidential characteristics outlined in a 2012 study on “The American College President,” by the American Council on Education.
Today, a majority of presidents are white, Protestant and have a wife and kids. Schlissel is Jewish, from Brooklyn and has four kids with wife, Monica Schwebs. Today, the average age of college and university presidents is 61 — Schlissel’s almost 57.
Like Schlissel, about 70 percent of presidents were full-time faculty earlier in their careers and a majority of presidents spent their entire professional life in higher education.
The University’s selection of Schlissel mirrors Coleman, a biochemist who ascended to the presidency at about the same age.
However, Schlissel most recently hails from a private institution, whereas Coleman was formerly the president of the University of Iowa.
“One of the reasons I’m particularly excited about coming to lead a public institution is I think society doesn’t adequately appreciate the importance of public higher education, and the evidence is the continuous disinvestment in public higher education,” Schlissel said. “So I think part of my role in leadership is also outwardly facing and I want to be a strong and persuasive spokesman for the importance of what Michigan and other research universities do for our current society here in the United States and globally.”
Money could have also been a factor. His contract runs five years and for each, his stacks will stand at a base of $750,000, plus a $500,000 retention incentive payable after five years, complimentary health care and the President’s House. Coleman currently earns $603,000 a year, but has historically donated her salary increases back to the University.
But the package comes with high stakes and higher expectations.
He will be the face of the University and the most influential mind charting its path. And through Ann Arbor’s bitter and snowiest winter, the campus climate has grown heated.
Take two developing stories that have landed national headlines: the Being Black at University of Michigan Twitter campaign — #BBUM — and the impending federal investigation of former football kicker Brendan Gibbons’ permanent separation from the University.
Schlissel knows he’s stepping into big shoes and with almost 40 years in academia, he’s a seasoned veteran coming in with both ears perked and ideology defined.
“I’m not the kind of person that can sit in an office with the door closed and figure out what other people should do,” he said. “I’m much better at cultivating a bottoms-up approach to leadership where I try to develop a sense of what it is the faculty and students are already interested in and help build and support that.”
He offered pragmatism on the contentious topic of diversity and minority enrollment.
“I’m confident we can make progress,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake though to think universities can solve society’s problems in this regard. It’s a broader problem. The equality of opportunity isn’t just a university issue; it’s across our whole society. But in our own house I think we can be held responsible to work as hard and as diligently towards this as we can for reasons of both fairness and to achieve excellence.”
His eyes narrowed almost to slits as he spoke, like he was focusing in on some distant goal.
I asked him if he knew University administrators had been meeting with BSU organizers.
“Frankly I think student protest is fantastic,” he said. “Sometimes it’s annoying and it disrupts the other things leadership is trying to accomplish, but it also serves a tremendously positive purpose of helping us not forget things that are important. Everyone needs to have their feet held to the fire once in a while. Although it’s uncomfortable, it actually results in progress.”
Schlissel will also have to navigate the prominent and delicate relationship between athletics and academics, and his roots in academia place him more clearly on one side.
“Certainly we’re fortunate that the athletic program covers all its own costs. But there are 900 athletes and 42,000 non-athletes and I want to be sure they all have similar high quality experiences. I want to keep a bit of proportionality between how we invest in athletics and how we invest in academics so all our students have that same high level outstanding experience.”
Schlissel’s excitement was muted, but his eyes look far into the future.
“The average college president around the United States lasts about five years before they wear out their welcome. I would think if I’m successful and I can accomplish good things on behalf of the university and the regents remain interested, I could see myself doing this for a decade but I think that’s presumptuous right now.”
After that, all that’s left is down. No matter what, expect to see Schlissel around Ann Arbor for long time.
“When I’m done being president I want to go back and be a faculty member,” Schlissel said.
A presidential tradition
Outside University Hall, the building that houses the provost’s office, Mark Nickel, Brown’s acting director of news and communications, pointed out a piece of the building’s history.
In 1790, after Rhode Island ratified the Constitution, George Washington visited Brown and was honored with a special illumination — students had lit a candle in every window of University Hall. From then on, a tradition was born, and every commencement, the building’s red brick has glowed in tribute to a remarkable president.
When the candles are lighted this May though, the tribute will be for two presidents, one of the past and another of the future.