ANN ARBOR, MI — University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel has been fired for violating the same rule he announced and implemented this summer.
At the July meeting of the Board of Regents, he announced an overhaul of policy changes on sexual misconduct, in particular the prohibition of relationships between subordinates and supervisors. There would be zero tolerance for someone in a leadership position to “solicit a personal or romantic relationship with someone over whom they have supervisory authority or professional influence”, he said at the time.
“It’s extremely important because of the power dynamics,” he said on July 15. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to say no effectively, and then you put an employee in a really tough spot.”
On Saturday, January 15, the Regents fired Schlissel for cause as president after investigating an inappropriate relationship he had with a university employee. The irony has not escaped members of the UM community, especially survivors of sexual abuse, lawyers litigating against UM, and student leaders.
Read more: University of Michigan fires its president for inappropriate relationship with an employee
“When you’re covering something up, it’s hard to clean up the past,” said Jon Vaughn, a former UM football player who is part of the trial of survivors of the late Dr. Robert Anderson against UM.
The regents have taken appropriate action, UM Central Student Government President Nithya Arun said. She also recalls when Schlissel announced the policy change and found the development “shocking,” but ultimately the right move.
“It’s come full circle,” she said.
Meanwhile, Vaughn found Schlissel to be “inconsistent” as a leader.
“Attitude reflects leadership,” he said.
Legal and political ramifications
Vaughn and hundreds of survivors, many identified as John Doe, filed a federal lawsuit in June 2020 for UM’s alleged role in Anderson’s abuse. Nearly 1,200 reported rapes at UM last year were linked to Anderson’s abuse, according to a campus safety report.
The case has been in “court-guided mediation” since October 2020. Some attorneys have said Schlissel’s dismissal is a step in the right direction.
Timeline of the Dr. Robert Anderson abuse scandal at the University of Michigan
Her inappropriate relationship exposed UM’s “deception” in “thinking they are decades beyond the Anderson era of sexual abuse,” said Parker Stinar, an attorney representing 200 Anderson survivors.
“In 2021, in the heat of Schlissel’s sexual misconduct, of which the Regents were made aware, they tried to manipulate the public into believing that the culture of UM had changed by implementing new sexual abuse policies,” he said, adding that UM “hasn’t changed that.
The Regents announced Schlissel’s removal as publish 118 pages of emails between him and the subordinate. In the board’s letter to Schlissel, they acknowledge the hypocrisy of his conduct in relation to his misconduct reform efforts.
Read more: You can give me a private briefing. Emails detail inappropriate relationship of ousted University of Michigan president
“Your conduct … is particularly egregious given your knowledge of and involvement in addressing incidents of harassment by UM personnel,” the letter indicates, “and your stated commitment to work to ‘free’ the University community from sexual harassment or other inappropriate conduct.”
The board’s response drew praise from some members of the UM community, including prominent author and UM athletics historian John Bacon.
“Congratulations on UM’s PR response so far,” Bacon wrote on Twitter. “It’s wise to release enough emails to show why the regents fired the president. Schlissel immediately. Yes, risky issues, but (probably) did him a favor. If left unspecified, the theories of the conspiracy unleashed: embezzlement, fraud, assault, etc. Real reason much more basic.
Even Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a former UM, weighed in, offering both a critique of Schlissel’s conduct, as well as his flirting methods revealed in the emails.
“Abuse of one’s position of power to engage in a romantic relationship with a subordinate is never appropriate,” she wrote on Twitter. “But also, ‘Can I entice you with the promise of a knish?’ is probably the worst pickup line ever.
This exchange refers to an October 2019 email interaction between Schlissel and the subordinate.
A class action lawsuit led by UM senior Josephine Graham seeks federal courts to compel UM to implement further sexual misconduct policy changes. Lawyers representing Graham declined to comment on how Schlissel’s development is changing negotiations, but does underscore the need for reform.
Read more: University of Michigan makes last-ditch push to reject federal court intervention on sexual misconduct policies
“This further underscores the need for institution-wide changes around these issues that involve input from all stakeholders,” said Annika Martin, co-lead attorney representing survivors and students in the class action lawsuit. .
A federal judge must decide whether this case goes to trial at a hearing in March.
Future conversations with a new leader
One method of unraveling the legal deadlock in the Anderson litigation has included Vaughn camping outside Schlissel’s home since Oct. 8, 2021 in an effort to force a personal conversation with the former president.
Read more: Legal stalemate: University of Michigan doctor sex abuse scandal nears 3rd year
Even though Schlissel won’t be living at the South University Avenue housing soon, Vaughn will continue a relay system so that at least one survivor is at the camp. Vaughn hopes that Acting President Mary Sue Coleman will speak to him at least once, which Schlissel declined due to mediation.
“Can you implode the entire structure of what are supposed to be the offices that keep the students safe?” Vaughn said he wanted to ask Coleman. “Because they all completely failed. Also, just start having a real dialogue with students and student groups, teachers and survivors in the community.
Coleman, who served as the university’s president for 12 years ending in 2014, will serve in an interim position until at least this summer. Arun acknowledged that interim status likely limits the amount of reform Coleman can make, but offered some basic priorities to consider.
“The most glaring issue is sexual misconduct reform,” Arun said. “This is illustrated by why President Schlissel was sacked. We really need to uproot our current survivor support system to better meet their needs.
Coleman should also speak with Vaughn and the survivors, Arun said, as well as remove Tamiko Strickman from her role as Director of the Office of Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX. Based on evidence given in a federal trial still under advisement, a judge ruled that Strickman showed “willful disregard” in a sexual harassment case while at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“(Strickman) hasn’t done a good job of supporting survivors,” Arun said, “and if we have proof of that, then she shouldn’t continue in her current position.”
Read more: University of Michigan Title IX director showed ‘deliberate indifference’ in sexual harassment claim in previous employment, judge says
Schlissel previously expressed complete confidence in Strickman even after the Jan. 5 court ruling. A UNL spokeswoman said the university would present its evidence to counter those claims at an upcoming hearing.
There is no scheduled media availability for Coleman at this time, UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said. The next meeting of UM’s Board of Regents will be on Feb. 17, when Schlissel’s official withdrawal will be finalized, the regents announced on Saturday.
Read more from The Ann Arbor News:
Retaliation against people who report misconduct is prohibited at the University of Michigan
University of Michigan to review how it handles sexual misconduct cases
Sexual Misconduct Policy Updates Align University of Michigan with New Title IX Guidelines