Flirty emails got Mark Schlissel fired. A deeper history weighs on Michigan’s flagship

This is a rather sad case.  To be a bit corny about it, Cupid's arrow strikes unpredictably.  Sometimes you just know that a person you meet is one whom you can communicate with in a totally easy and enjoyable way.  It happens to me on rare occasions.  Though I am perhaps lucky to have autistic tendencies and so have always had no difficulty staying on the strait and narrow with my partner at the time.  I think Prof. Schlissel was punished for being simply human.  There appears after all to have been no affair, just lovelorn emails.  I feel sorry for him

He is a lonely, bearded scientist who has an important job in the Midwest. A Brooklyn native, raised in a traditional Jewish household, he is amused by a satirization of the sexual fantasies of New Yorkers.

He is married with children. But he dreams at work about a sojourn in Paris with a woman other than his wife — someone who enjoys a good bistro; someone who makes his heart hurt.
He asks saucily if he might “lure” her with a knish.

This is the portrait of Mark S. Schlissel that emerges from 118 pages of documents that the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents made public on a Saturday evening in January, shortly after they had removed him as president. 

In this collection of cringey communications between Schlissel and a subordinate, the university’s former top executive is stripped of his veneer of esteem, reduced instead to a lovestruck buffoon. All of it was so unbecoming of a man in Schlissel’s position, the regents agreed, that he should be summarily fired with cause.

Schlissel’s termination ranks among one of the more profoundly embarrassing firings of a major university leader in modern memory. Instantly memeable, excerpts from the emails quickly wound up on T-shirts and stickers. Before the Sunday sun had risen, some prankster had chalked the word “Lonely” on a campus sidewalk above a Michigan “M,” referencing one of the messages Schlissel had signed with the first letter of his name.

Turbulence around Schlissel was nothing new. He had, since 2020, worn the scarlet letter of a Faculty Senate vote of no-confidence, drawing the ire of professors for his handling of the pandemic, among other things. His tensions with the board, whose members are elected by statewide vote, had begun to bleed into public view. Even so, most expected this to end just as it often does for people in Schlissel’s rarified air: The president walks away with warm regards from the board and giant fistfuls of money. Schlissel’s transgressions upset this timeworn choreography.

But his story is about more than a president getting crosswise with his board, or what appears to have been a workplace romance. The university’s recent history imbues his downfall with a complicated resonance that people in Ann Arbor are still sorting through. His firing came less than two years after Schlissel dismissed the university’s [black] provost, Martin A. Philbert, who was accused of sexually harassing multiple women over the course of 15 years at Michigan.

Taken together, the two cases sent a message that the the university’s problems with sexual misconduct go all the way to the top. It isn’t that simple. There is nothing in the public evidence that would definitively establish that Schlissel engaged in sexual harassment. Even so, he gave fodder to a more systematic criticism that Michigan’s leaders still don’t get it. After all of the apologies, the legal settlements, the training sessions, the promises, and the shame, something has yet to sink in at the highest levels. Something is left to understand.

Since Philbert’s firing, in 2020, the university has signaled its willingness to turn over every rock, hiring an outside law firm to investigate how the system failed. As president, Schlissel was a visible champion of this work. But new reporting from The Chronicle suggests that the job remains unfinished. 

A retired professor, who has not previously discussed with the news media her role in the Philbert case, told The Chronicle that she was met with intimidation and indifference more than 15 years ago, when she first reported allegations against the future provost. Another faculty member, who has not spoken with news reporters about the case before, said she was twice told that decision makers at the university believed in Philbert’s capacity for “rehabilitation.”

The University of Michigan’s administration considers the matter of Martin A. Philbert settled. But Schlissel’s firing cracks open history, inviting still unanswered questions. When powerful people cross the lines of propriety, who renders the final verdict on what really happened? Whose memory counts? Who is burdened by history, and who is allowed to forget it?

Why exactly was Schlissel fired? On a recent afternoon at Zingerman’s Delicatessen, a storied sandwich shop in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown District, Jordan B. Acker confronts that question over a chicken-pesto sandwich. Acker, a 37-year-old lawyer from the Detroit suburbs, is chairman of the Board of Regents. On the subject of Schlissel’s termination, Acker stays mostly on script. He circles back continually to a letter that the board sent to Schlissel in January, stating the regents’ rationale for firing the president with cause.
“I think the letter kind of speaks for itself,” Acker says. ”It’s a judgment question at the end of the day. And I think it’s clear from the letter, what was lacking here was judgment.”

Strictly speaking, Schlissel was fired for violating a morals clause in his contract, which stipulated that he must at all times comport himself in a manner that promotes the “dignity, reputation, and academic excellence of the university.” Nevertheless, the board saw fit to invoke the past, calling Schlissel’s conduct “particularly egregious” in light of his commitment to stamp out sexual misconduct at the university. The letter lets the reader decide exactly what’s being charged here. Is the board calling Schlissel a hypocrite or accusing him of harassment?

“Mark Schlissel is not a monster,” Acker says. “He’s not an evil, evil guy. Mark Schlissel was guilty of extraordinarily poor judgment. But I put him and Martin Philbert in very different categories. Martin Philbert was engaged in sexual harassment. I can’t say the same about Mark Schlissel.”

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